LOSING THEIR STAR HELPED THE LIONS FIND THEIR WAY

Willie Green grabbed the water bucket and snuck up behind Wayne Fontes. Photographers raced over. Fontes must have known. He stood there anyhow, looking innocently away as the clock ticked down. Whoosh! Green doused his boss. Fontes yelped.

Wouldn’t you know it?

Even when he wins, they dump on him.

“I can’t tell you how great I feel,” a raspy-voiced Fontes said after the Lions captured the Central Division, beating Green Bay, 30-20, in the last game of the regular season. “It shows what you can do when players believe.”

He said this with a wet head — but with no malice, no I- told-you-so gloating, and that’s good, because this is not about I told you so. This is not about some feud between the Lions and the media or the Lions and their fans.

No. This is about hanging in, hanging tough, doing your job.

And this is about filling empty spaces. The first is a small space of rafters above the 300 level seats at the Silverdome, where, regardless of what happens now, a banner will hang next year: “1993 Central Division Champions.”

The second is an empty space in the Lions’ locker room, where Sunday the players celebrated — not like children, but like men, subdued, happy, and mature.

The empty space is a locker.

The one marked: “No. 20, Sanders.” Other players shine through

Don’t forget that in 1991, the last time the Lions made the playoffs, Barry Sanders had a sensational year. He gained 1,548 yards, was named NFC player of the year, was first choice for the Pro Bowl, played in all the Lions games except the season opener, and had over 100 yards rushing in three of the last five, a winning streak which zoomed Detroit into the post- season.

Sanders was the offense, and, in many people’s minds, he was the team. His injury this season on Thanksgiving was supposed to be the crippling blow to this franchise. You need only look at Dallas when Emmitt Smith missed two games or Miami minus Dan Marino or Philadelphia without Randall Cunningham to see how losing a star can be the end.

For Detroit, it was just the beginning.

Since Sanders’ injury, the Lions have changed their offense, boosted their imagination, and risen to the occasion. Players like Eric Lynch and Ty Hallock have come out of nowhere, but players like Erik Kramer, Herman Moore, Brett Perriman, Robert Porcher, Kelvin Pritchett — good players who have been here all along but were sometimes overlooked in the glare of Sanders’ spotlight — well, those players are making a difference.

The Detroit Lions, 1993, are a team.

Which is why they’re still playing in 1994.

“If today showed anything, it showed our ability to keep things together,” said Chris Spielman, who, with the eyeblack on his cheeks and the blood stains on his uniform, seemed to relish victory more than any player in the room.
“Think of what’s happened to us — the injuries, the quarterback changes, the
(assistant) coaching change, all the media stuff. Those things can really throw a team off.”

Instead, you had Sunday, where the big plays all seemed to be joint efforts: Porcher batted a Green Bay pass into the air; Tracy Scroggins intercepted it. Anontio London came charging like a madman on punt coverage and jarred the ball loose; Ray Crockett picked it up. The offensive line blew open a hole; Lynch burst through for a five-yard touchdown.

Detroit had four interceptions, each by a different player, and three TDs by guys who weren’t on the team last year.

Barry Sanders — and Bennie Blades, another 1991 Pro Bowl star — were in street clothes.

“You know, I think Barry is probably the happiest guy on the roster,” Kramer said, glancing at the empty locker. “When he comes back, he’s joining a team that won’t put all the weight on his shoulders.” Victory a stranger no more

You looked around that room Sunday, guys like Spielman, Lomas Brown, Kevin Glover, Jim Arnold — guys who suffered a long time with a team that was always expected to lose and who went crazy in 1991 when it finally won. They were different Sunday. Happy? Sure. But calmer. Winning is not a shock anymore.

“I feel we can beat anybody out there in one game,” Spielman said. “This Central Division title is great. I’ll enjoy it tonight, but come tomorrow, it don’t mean squat.”

Earlier, Fontes had spoken about his early days in Detroit, how his first goal was “to get everyone to spit out the taste of losing,” to stop expecting defeat.

Sunday, as the game and the division title went back and forth, with TDs and interceptions, Fontes said, “I never had that old feeling that we would somehow give it away.”

This is a huge step. For years, this team has had an embarrassing losing tradition. Now it has two division titles in three years, and the roster is young. Maybe next year they compete and they win it again. You see what happens? People see Detroit as a team that’s supposed to win.

The effects of that are endless. It’s the difference between free agents wanting to come here, and lines at the season ticket windows, and nationally televised games and, well, you get the picture.

The Detroit Lions are not the best team in football — and they stumbled some this season, half as often as they shone. But they are a team now, one that, on Sunday, filled some important empty spaces with a win, a title, and the splash of a victory bucket. That kind of dumping, they’ll take gladly.

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