by | Jan 3, 1992 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I find you pacing nervously in the basement, with two cans of paint, one silver, one blue. You are smearing your face with a little of both.

“Silver on the left?” you ask.

“Sorry?” I say.

“Silver on the left? Blue on the right? Or blue on the left, silver on the right? This is so confusing.”

“Well,” I say, “I think. . . . “

“Never mind.” You drop the paint and run to the corner. You lift three giant papier-mache heads, one a lion, one Wayne Fontes, and one a cowboy with an arrow through his ears.

“Which is most appropriate?” you ask, struggling to hold them up. “The Wayne? The lion? No, wait. The dead cowboy, right? That’s more what they wear in the playoffs. Wait. I’ll try it on. What do you . . . mmmph? Mrphh dyzzl nnnph zzt?”

You are nervous. You are confused. I understand. It is January, and we are preparing for an NFL game — not someone else’s football game. Detroit’s football game. A real live playoff thing. Right here. In January.

The Lions? In January?

“Banners!” you yell, pulling out a half-dozen bed sheets and a can of spray paint. “We almost forgot about the banners! Who’s televising the game? CBS? So we make C-B-S expressions, right? Isn’t that how they do it in the playoffs? Something like “CAN’T stop BARRY SANDERS!” Or “COWBOYS go BYE-BYE SUNDAY!” Or “CAN’T BEAT SPIELMAN!” Or “COURAGEOUS BEHEMOTHS SURVIVE!”

“Uh,” I say, “that last one. . . .”

“Too many letters?” you say. Restore roar — and the wave

This is understandable. It has been a long time since an NFL playoff game involved Detroit. How long? Eight years? Barry Sanders was in junior high? Chris Spielman was tackling the dog? Jerry Ball weighed only 200 pounds? Eight years?

And now, all of a sudden, this. Sunday. Hosting a playoff game, against the Dallas Cowboys. Not even a wild-card game. A bona fide, conference playoff baby — one win from the NFC title match. No wonder everyone’s acting so jumpy. It’s like learning another language — in a week.

“Paws!” you say. “We should wear Lions paws. And make clawing motions at the other team.”

“Paws?” I say.

Isn’t this the same Detroit franchise that not too long ago made David Lewis a first-round draft choice? And Reggie Rogers? And wasn’t it just yesterday that Darryl Rogers was the coach, squeaking like Kermit the Frog in his press conferences? Wasn’t Monte Clark in charge not long before that? Monte Clark, who is now coaching football in Minsk? Wasn’t he?

“Chants!” you say. “The way Florida State has that ‘AH-AH- AH-AH-AH-AH’? The way Washington fans sing, ‘Hail to the Redskins’? Playoff chants. Let’s see. How about a roar?”

“A roar?” I say.

“Yeah. After every play, we go ERRAAARR!”

“Well, I–“

“Hey, kids! Come here and learn this!”

Aren’t things moving awfully fast? We go from a losing season with Fontes as the goat, to a playoff season with Fontes as coach of the year? A 12-4 record? A bye in the first round? The Chicago Bears get eliminated, and the Detroit Lions haven’t even played yet? That fast?

Wasn’t it just last week that a guy named Mouse was at the drawing board? And the leading receiver was a chubby, former IBM worker named Richard Johnson? Wasn’t it?

Didn’t it just happen that James Jones was one running back, and Garry James was the other, and Eric Hipple was the quarterback, and Joe Ferguson his

veteran backup, and people couldn’t wait for a kid named Chuck Long to get in there and save the team? Didn’t that just happen?

“OHMIGOD!” you holler. “THE WAVE!”

“The wave?”

“Do we do it when they have the ball, or when we have the ball? I’m blanking. Help!”

“Relax,” I say. . . . New team, new attitude

Relax. Act as if you knew this was coming. Never mind that you can still remember the lean years as if they were yesterday. Never mind that you can still see Lions punter Mike Black kicking the ball, having it blocked, catching it in midair and running — and it was the best offensive play of the day.

Never mind. Those things are history now. It’s a new team. A new attitude. Football in January.

Who’d have believed it?

“WE’RE READY!” you announce, emerging from the basement. You are wearing the dead cowboy head, with your body painted silver on one side, blue on the other, you have on Barry Sanders sweat pants, your sneakers say “THUMBS” and
“UP,” you have two CBS banners under one arm, and two children wearing lions paws and waving No. 1 fingers under the other.

“Well? How do we look?” you ask.

I think about Darryl Rogers staring off into space. I think about Rusty Hilger at starting quarterback. I think about the half-empty stadium and the boos and the boredom and the TV networks that for years treated Detroit like a terminal disease. . . .

“You look marvelous,” I say. “Absolutely marvelous.”


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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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