by | Oct 18, 1999 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CHARLIE BATCH watched from the bench, his arm in ice. Herman Moore slumped next to him, with a bum knee. Barry Sanders sat, well, wherever Barry Sanders sits these days.

Which meant the first, second and third options of the 1999 Lions’ offense — the best quarterback, running back and receiver — were now, in the final minutes of the fifth game of the season, scratched from your program. So was the old offensive line, which, thanks to injuries, was being set and reset like a sail in a hurricane.

No Barry. No Charlie. No Herman. This begged a simple question: Who’s running the store?

Why, Gus, of course.

Gus and Greg.

And Brian and Johnnie and Jason.

They might not draw the biggest paychecks — let’s be honest, you wouldn’t recognize them if they came to your door wearing pads — but here they were Sunday, with less than 100 seconds left in a game that was a lot more important than it looked. The Lions were coming off two straight losses, they had been beating the Vikings by 19 points and now were trailing by one.

Morale was in the balance. Momentum was in the balance. It could be that the season was in the balance, considering what happened last year after the Lions dropped three in a row.

And — to top it off — this plucked-from-the-chorus-line crew was being asked to carve a game-winning drive with no time-outs. Clock management. And the Lions, traditionally, are as good with the clock as Adam Sandler is with Shakespeare.

“Were you worried about being rusty?” someone would later ask Gus Frerotte, the backup quarterback.

“I didn’t have time,” he said.

Oh, that’s right. I forgot to mention this was Gus’ first action as a Lions quarterback — and his first game in a year — and he only learned he was going in just after halftime, when Batch couldn’t throw because of a bruised triceps.

Things didn’t start well for Gus. To be honest, he began the game as if he were still dizzy from the time he rammed his head into a concrete wall. He threw two balls that were dropped, one that was too long, and was sacked on successive third downs.

But, as the Lions say, in Gus we trust.

Translation: We’re out of players.

A stunning drive

And slowly, surely, Gus began to settle in. And so did Greg Hill, the running back. And Johnnie Morton, Brian Stablein and Germane Crowell, the receivers. And Barrett Brooks, the free-agent offensive lineman, and Eric Beverly, the makeshift center.

And with 94 seconds to go, they began a march to steal back a victory.

First, Frerotte hit Crowell on a slant. Eight yards.

Quickly, same play. Crowell for six yards, first down.

Spike ball, stop clock.

(Hmm, you thought. Under Wayne Fontes the clock would still be running while someone tried to get his headphones to work.)

Next play. Frerotte found Stablein over the middle and he scampered for 16 yards.

Spike ball, stop clock.

(Hmm, you thought. Under Darryl Rogers, the clock would be running while someone told him it was Sunday.)

Next play, Frerotte found Morton on a slant for 11 yards.

Spike ball, stop clock.

Same play, other side, Morton for seven yards.

Spike ball, stop clock.

(Hmm, you thought. Am I at the Silverdome?)

By this point, the Lions had cruised to Minnesota’s 25. There were 12 seconds left, the crowd was wild, and all that remained was a Jason Hanson field goal.

Of course, it couldn’t be that easy. These are, after all, the Lions. And so just as Hanson booted a successful 43-yarder, the referees threw their yellow flags. Delay of game. Five-yard penalty.

“What happened?” someone would ask Bobby Ross.

“I think Jason got entranced,” he said.

Entranced? What’d he do, look at Medusa? Has an NFL coach ever used that word before? Entranced? Who’s Hanson’s holder, The Amazing Kreskin?

“Were you entranced?” I asked Jason.

“I hope I’m not that stupid,” he said.

Now that sounds more like football.

Plenty of grit

Anyhow, Hanson moved back five yards, kicked it through, he had his sixth field goal of the game (seventh if you count his trance), and the Lions won, 25-23.

The crowd roared. The players stormed the field. Gus leapt in the air, shook his fists and, thankfully, couldn’t find anything made of concrete.

How about that? The Lions won one with moxie, with a comeback, and with what Ross would call “true grit.” I always thought that was a John Wayne movie, but if that’s what you call adjusting on the fly, winning with subs — and scoring 25 points without an offensive touchdown — well, it was true grit.

Frerotte completed 15 of 24 passes. Greg Hill — who’d had only 29 yards all season — had 67 on Sunday. Morton, who’d caught only 12 passes in the first four games, had eight on Sunday.

And Hanson saved the day.

“This is as big a win as I’ve ever had,” said a jubilant Frerotte.

“Why this one?” he was asked.

“Because this is where I work now.”

This is where they all work now, Gus, Greg, Germane, Brian, Johnnie, and the rest of the Barry-less bunch. They don’t think about history. They don’t think about who goes down. They don’t think about the previous Lions teams.

And you know what? They don’t play like them, either.

Three victories against two losses, with no Barry, Herman or Charlie?

Next you’re going to tell me the Rams are undefeated.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or Catch Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM


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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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