by | Sep 13, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

FOXBORO, Mass. — The best play of this terrible football game was the very first play, which you have probably forgotten by now after banging your head against the wall a few hundred times watching the rest.

Let us deal with that good play first, the Lions’ opening kickoff. It landed in the arms of New England’s Troy Brown, who came running maybe four strides and whack! He was pelted by two Detroit players and the ball popped loose and a guy named Willie Clay picked it up and thought “Run! Run!” except he was already running, because he was on kickoff coverage. He scampered into the end zone for a Detroit score, the quickest opening touchdown in Lions history. Eleven seconds and they were already winning. Eleven seconds?

Willie Clay was dazed. He hadn’t even broken a sweat and he had scored his first NFL touchdown. He heard the crowd jeering. He saw his teammates celebrating. Willie is a young defensive back whose friends call him Chico because of his wavy black hair and mustache. He is on the bubble of this football franchise and usually gets to play only on special teams. He promised himself that if he ever scored in the big time, he would do a big-time dance.

Now, 11 seconds into the game, he had scored, it was party time. But he went blank. It was too quick. Like falling out of bed and having to do 100 push-ups. Don’t players always say the opening kickoff is when you make your first hit, you get your blood rushing? A touchdown? On the coverage unit?

The referee motioned for the ball, Willie tossed it to him without thinking. His teammates mobbed him and slapped his helmet joyously. One of them hollered, “WHY DIDN’T YOU DANCE?” and Willie thought, oh, oh, damn. I didn’t dance!

“Next time,” he would say.

That was the nice moment.

And then came the next 70 minutes and 53 seconds.

Excuse me, while I — thunk! thunk! — bang my head against the wall a few more times. Four quarters? There’s much too much more

You might notice that 70 minutes and 53 seconds means the game went into overtime. It did, but only, I think, because the regulation part was so bad; fans would have felt cheated if that was all they got. It reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke:

“The food here is terrible!”

“Yeah. And such small portions!”

A smaller portion would have been welcome Sunday. Between Clay’s touchdown at 1:01 p.m. and Jason Hanson’s game-winning field goal at 4:17, we had a game that, were it a salesman, would have had the door slammed on it. Repeatedly.

Interceptions. Fumbles. Penalties. Bad passes.

And I’m talking about the Lions.

That stuff is traditionally New England territory.

Gone was Detroit’s blinding pass rush from last week against Atlanta. Although the Patriots have a rookie quarterback and a less-than-world-famous offensive line, the Lions could earn only two sacks, and one of them was pretty cheap. Drew Bledsoe, the new Patriot Passer, had many plays in which he stood there, flat-footed, checking the receivers, no doubt saying to himself,
“Hmm. This NFL rush ain’t so bad.”

Rodney Peete, meanwhile, made several bad passes and threw three into New England hands. He fumbled twice. And even with all that, the Lions had a seven-point lead with 3:24 left. They then allowed New England to march 77 yards — New England! — to tie the score.

Did I say “allow”? Maybe “help” is a better word. Twice during that drive, the Lions committed major dumb penalties, the first a defensive pass-interference call on Ryan McNeil that gave the Pats the ball on the Lions’ 3. The second a holding penalty on Bennie Blades that negated a fumble recovery which would have won the game.

Chris Spielman came in to block at fullback again. He missed his block. The play went for a loss.

It ain’t cute if it doesn’t work.

Which pretty much summed the Lions.

Until the last play. It worked one day, but don’t push your luck

The kicking. The kicking was great. Baby-faced Jason Hanson, whom, I swear, I saw on TV about 20 years ago, in the front row of the King Family, has been a godsend for the Lions, and Sunday he delivered victory with a 38-yarder in overtime, his fourth field goal of the day. He kicked three last week.

It says something when your kicker is good.

It also says something when he’s the top player on your team.

“The whole time we were out there, we kept saying we’re better than these guys,” Brett Perriman admitted. “We got lucky today. We won’t beat San Francisco or any of the good teams playing like this.”

Which I guess doesn’t paint too rosy a picture for New England, huh?

But that’s their problem. Detroit is 2-0 and, strange as it sounds, has reason to worry. Nice moments for kickers and special-teams players make for good stories, but not whole seasons.

In the locker room after the game, Clay dressed with the others. Tim McKyer, his fellow defensive back, offered him some after-shave, in case Clay had plans to celebrate later on.

“Try this stuff,” McKyer said. “It’ll make you smell good.”

He might want to douse some on Sunday’s game, while he’s at it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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