LION’S JACKPOT: BLADES, SPIELMAN LIONS TAME DRAFT FOR A CHANGE

You had to like this right away: Bennie Blades, the Lions’ No. 1 draft pick Sunday, took a jet from Miami, a helicopter from Metro Airport, a car from the parking lot, and now, 7 p.m., he was courtside at the Silverdome before the Pistons-76ers game, awaiting his introduction to the people of Detroit.

“Yo man, take some shots,” yelled Pistons forward John Salley over the blaring music.

“All right,” said Blades. And there, wearing his stone-washed jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirt, he began to fire away, in front of everybody — Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, the crowd. A three-pointer. Missed everything. Another. Missed everything. Another. Another.

Miss. Miss. Miss.

“Aw, let us show you how it’s done,” yelled Salley. He tossed a ball to Vinnie Johnson, who sank a 14-footer.

“That’s OK,” yelled Blades, undaunted, “we’ll get a football and see how you like to take some pounding.”

Hit the ground talking. The difference between this year’s Lions draft and all those years before was immediately apparent in one very important quality
— confidence. Confidence from the drafted players. Confidence from the front office. Confidence, well, damn it, on the basketball court, if necessary.

Ladies and gentlemen, listen: This was a smart draft by the Lions, a good draft, a quality draft. Hallelujah! Remember the goof-up with Reggie Rogers last year? How other teams seemed to know he had problems and the Lions drafted him anyway?

Not this time.

Hit the ground running. W e put special emphasis on the character of the player this year,” said vice-president for personnel Jerry Vainisi, who is the biggest boost to the Lions since expanded parking. “All through our meetings this year, the item we discussed first was personal character — then his football talent. There were players we passed over who had the talent but whose personality was questionable.”

Good. That’s smart. In Blades, the Lions have snared a guy who can hardly be deemed lacking in confidence, yet, according to scouts, was not part of the stupid shenanigans that characterized many of his Miami teammates. He taunts. He hits. He hurts. What else do you want from a defensive back?

“When I strap on a helmet, I am pure beast,” said Blades, 6- feet-1, 216 pounds, during his crack at the press. “I don’t care who it is out there, my brother or anybody else, my job is to annihilate him.”

Ooh. Gotta like that.

Meanwhile in Chris Spielman, the second pick, Detroit selected a linebacker who simply exudes grit and determination, a guy who has been told he’s too small and too slow and has proved them wrong every time.

Listen to this exchange from Spielman’s introductory press conference:

QUESTION: Was Detroit where you wanted to play?

SPIELMAN: I don’t care where I play. They could have sent me to Africa. I’m just ready to get started.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about starting right away?

SPIELMAN: I’ve had one goal since I could walk, talk or breathe and that’s to be a professional football player. I never sat on the bench and I don’t plan on starting now.

QUESTION: What about your supposed lack of speed?

SPIELMAN: Look. When you’re running those 40-yard dashes, what are you running for? Nothing. There’s no reward. You put a guy running down the sidelines and give me 40 yards and I’m gonna catch him, believe me.

Did someone say humility? Did someone say shyness? What for? This is football. The Lions have had enough meekness for 10 lifetimes. Time to get serious. Time to play tough.

Hit the ground swinging.

Now, sure, there is always a lot of positive feelings on draft day. Why not? Nobody has to suit up. But on this Sunday the Lions, long known for punting when it came to draft day, suddenly seemed, well, in control. Credit Vainisi. He made that great trade last week, surrendering the No. 2 pick for Kansas City’s No. 3 plus the Chiefs’ second-round selection (which became Spielman). And he was never caught off guard.

“We had this very same top three — Blades, Spielman and (Pat) Carter — in a projected scenario,” he admitted.

“How?” someone asked. “There’s so many players between those picks.”

“Well, I worked the phones these last two weeks. I pieced together what everybody really needed. You know, of course, that everybody lies. But you learn to read between the lines.”

Hear that? That’s one difference right there — experience. Rich, knowledgeable, deep. Vainisi, who is truly plugged into the NFL powers-that-be, was merely an observer during last year’s draft, having just come over from the Chicago Bears organization. This year, he was hands on, he made the big calls.

The difference showed.

So congratulations. The Lions now have a defensive back who already has challenged an NBA team, a linebacker who has already dismissed the NFL’s method of evaluation, and a tight end (Carter) who, in the words of Blades,
“is 270 pounds of pure meat coming at you.”

Good draft. Nice job. No games have been won, no records have improved. But the feeling is positive, and that’s an important step. Hit the ground talking. Now let’s see. If, come September, the hitting is half as good, the Lions struck it rich.

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