LIONS’ HEROICS CAP WEEKEND OF WONDER

I can retire now. I’ve seen it all.

In one weekend, I watched Michigan finally beat Notre Dame, on a fourth-down bomb that surely would have made Bo Schembechler quit the game and go into baseball, if he hadn’t done that already. Then I watched the Chippewas from Central Michigan, who were supposed to be happy with the invitation to play Michigan State, stuff their RSVP down the Spartans’ throats

and beat them, 20-3. Thanks for having us, George. We had a great time.

And now, the piece de resistance. On Sunday, in a sweltering Silverdome — and wouldn’t it be nice if they saved these indoor games until the weather got cold? — I watched the Lions, our Lions, you know, Detroit, actually beat the mighty Miami Dolphins — Dan Marino, Don Shula, the whole cast — by stopping them not once, not twice, not thrice (thrice?) but four straight times within the shadow of the Lions’ end zone.

Defense? The Lions won with defense?

Somebody get me a Maalox.

“What do you think now, huh? Still pick us to lose?’ Chris Spielman gloated when he saw me in the locker room, after the Lions’ biggest victory in a long time, 17-13 over the Dolphins. To his credit — and my luck — he was laughing. Still, I was hardly alone in predicting Miami to beat the Lions on Sunday, based on past experience. And with five minutes left in the game, when Rodney Peete threw a desperation pass smack into the palm of a blitzing Vestee Jackson, and the ball bounced high into the air, and it came down in the hands of a big Miami lineman named Shawn Lee, who lumbered to the Lions’ 3
— well, I would say the doubters looked pretty prophetic, no?

But wait. Lions wouldn’t back down

There comes a point when you get sick of the big kids stealing your milk money. One day they rough you up, and, for the first time, you swing back.

So here was the Lions’ defense, the butt of more jokes than Dan Quayle, trotting out to do the impossible, keep Marino, football’s answer to the Veg-O-Matic, out of the end zone when he could almost walk in. If there were five people in the Silverdome who thought they could do it, it was a lot.

First down, Marino drops back to pass, the coverage is tight, he throws it into the turf.

“THAT’S ONE!” yelled the Lions in the huddle. “THREE MORE TIMES, BABY!”

Second down, a handoff to Tony Paige, a former Lion. Detroit has taken a lot of abuse for letting this guy go. Wouldn’t it be typical if he beat Detroit with a touchdown? “GET HIM!” the fans yelled — and Spielman got him, leveled him after a one- yard gain.

“THAT’S TWO!” Spielman hollered.

Third down. Another handoff, this time to running back Mark Higgs and — whoa! Dan Owens, the second-year lineman, comes bolting into the backfield, makes the tackle. A three-yard loss.

“THREE! THAT’S THREE!”

Now the final test. Fourth down. Less than four minutes left in the game. Against another team, trailing 17-13, the Dolphins might have chosen a field goal. Figured a touchdown was too tough, they’ll take three and hope for another chance.

Instead, against the Lions, Marino and company stayed out there, banking on a touchdown, the big kids saying, “Give us your milk money.”

The Lions dug in.

“Did it surprise me they went for it?” Bennie Blades would say. “Not at all. Nobody respects our defense. But this was now or never for us. We had to do it or live with ourselves the rest of the season.”

Ball is snapped. Marino looks right. Throws to Tony Martin in the end zone
— and Detroit’s Ray Crockett dives and bats the ball down. No flags. Fifty-six thousand fans suddenly realize what they’ve witnessed — the growing up of a football team.

They explode in noise.

I am looking for that Maalox. First in air, first on ground

“This is the first time since I’ve been here that everybody did what they had to do to win,” Spielman gushed in the locker room afterwards. “Maybe, finally, we have learned how to win.”

“A game like this two years ago, after that interception?” Lomas Brown added. “Maybe one or two guys would say ‘Let’s go!’ and the rest would have their heads down. But this time, everybody was on the sideline screaming, ‘We can do it!’ “

They did it, they actually have a winning record after three games, and they got it by beating a marquee team, not Green Bay, not Tampa Bay, but a team that goes to the playoffs and even wins sometimes. And it was not only that fourth down. The Lions actually outperformed Miami in — sit down, this could make you dizzy — rushing yards (Barry Sanders, a brilliant 143), net yards passing, third-down efficiency, sack yardage and time of possession. They also won the Punt, Run and Hide Competition when Jim Arnold, realizing he was about to get blocked, tucked the ball under his arm in the second quarter and raced 21 yards for a first down. OK. Maybe “raced” is too nice a word.

“That’s the farthest I ever ran with a football,” Arnold panted afterwards.
“But I would like to announce that, based on today, I will be entering the 1992 Olympics, in the 100 meters, thank you.”

After everything I’ve seen this weekend — the end of the Irish, the rise of the Chippewas, and the sudden maturity of the (gulp) Lions’ defense — it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

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