Hell is over for Chuck Long. He goes free now. The golden boy with the quarterback savvy who four years ago was supposed to save this franchise is being sent to California for a third- round draft pick — the football equivalent of selling a Pinto through the Tradin’ Times — and the Lions are happy to get that much. And Long? Long is so thrilled he’s running around the house like Sally Field at the Oscars. “They like me!” he keeps yelling at his wife, Lisa. “The Rams really like me!”

This is the guy who finished second to Bo Jackson in the Heisman Trophy voting. The guy who was hailed in Detroit headlines the day he was drafted:
“THE LONG ERA BEGINS.” Yeah. Nobody knew how long. Took four years. Felt like forever. He leaves now, like a forgotten soldier, hearing the echo of cheers for a new savior, Andre Ware, another guy who has used that little Heisman statue to get everybody all excited. People are saying Ware is the answer, Ware is the future. Chuck Long, 27, must be laughing his head off.

“If I learned one thing in my time here it’s that there is no future in the NFL,” he says, now that the trade is official. “Teams can’t really wait four or five years. If you don’t win in two years, three tops, heads will roll. I’m just glad this whole thing is behind me.”

Why not? He had become cancer in the Silverdome. He got booed. Fans and coaches gave up on him. The Lions tried desperately to deal him, and he worked out for the Rams as though his life depended on it. But know this, even as we say good-bye: Chuck Long never did anything wrong here. He was a victim of timing, a victim of coaching, a victim of injury. But how a man goes from first-round draft pick to clipboard holder in four years may have more to do with lousy management than lousy athlete.

And Chuck Long might get the last laugh after all. Golden image tarnished

Here is Long’s Detroit career: 1) We love you! 2) Where have you been? 3) Have a seat. He came late to training camp his first season, contract holdout, and that tripped him up. He had a shining moment that November when his first NFL pass landed in Leonard Thompson’s hands for a touchdown. “I should have retired right then,” he jokes. Because that was about it for moments.

The rest was a steady slide into the mud. The Lions got worse, not better, and people questioned Long’s arm, his feet, his leadership. After hurting his elbow in the 1988 pre- season, he was rushed back too soon by Darryl Rogers, who was desperate at that point to save his job. Didn’t work. Rogers got canned anyhow. Long went on the injured list. The new coach, Wayne Fontes, was never much for the slower, drop- back style. He switched to the run ‘n’ shoot, and as soon as a new kid named Rodney Peete showed some promise, Fontes threw his arm around him and said, “You’re my guy.” Long was treated as though he had bad breath.

Things deteriorated. Normally an upbeat guy, he began to gripe. We did a TV interview together once and Long asked me beforehand to “please mention I want to be traded.” When injuries to the other quarterbacks forced the coaches to look his way, Long, hurt and embarrassed by his status, foolishly demanded a promise: If he starts the game, he finishes the game. It was over right then.

“You get thrown on a shelf, after being the No. 1 quarterback, and that’s really hard,” he says. “It got so bad, I didn’t even want to go to work. I had to drag myself out of bed each morning.”

I ask whether he is already packed for LA.

“Not yet, but soon. Let’s just say we’re moving out of town . . . and I don’t plan on being back in the near future.” Time for a new savior

He goes free now. He started all of 21 games here. Was he any good? How can you tell? In 21 games? Maybe he was a bad pick. Maybe he had bad coaching. Maybe he was hurt too much. Whatever. The irony is in LA, Long, now healthy, will be backing up Jim Everett, the former Purdue star who got less acclaim than Chuck in college. And Long’s happy about it. He can’t wait to go. Let’s face it. His chances of a Super Bowl are a lot better out there, where the team doesn’t practice in the parking lot.

The Lions? Here they sit, with a new hero. Ware. A nice kid with a ton of statistics and that little bronze Heisman thing. Will he be the answer? You tell me. Every coach wants to draft his own quarterback, build his own system. Rogers tried it with Long. It crumbled. Now Fontes tries it with Ware.

And the fans sit and wait. Amid the hoopla on draft day, few mentioned that this is the second time in four years the Lions spent the big pick on a quarterback. Good teams don’t do that. They say this is a new regime? It was a new regime with Rogers and Long. The fact is, Detroit has a stack of passers now, and you still wonder if this organization knows what it’s doing.

Chuck Long doesn’t wonder. Not anymore. I can still see him the day he arrived in Detroit, all golden locks and youthful promise. Someone asked about

the Lions’ losing ways and he shrugged as though it was a mosquito bite.

“I’ve won everywhere I’ve played,” he said with youthful bravado. “In high school. In college. I believe I can win here.”

Now he leaves, quietly. It’s not even a big story. Today’s savior is tomorrow’s want ad. And the Lions know it better than anyone.

You listening, Andre?

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