As Matthew Stafford headed into the meeting that would change his life, he texted his wife, Kelly, and wrote, “Well, here we go.” The Detroit Lions president, Rod Wood, was waiting in the room. The Lions owner, Sheila Ford Hamp, was on speaker phone.

Stafford, who freely admits, “I never thought I would ever finish my career anywhere else,” had made what he calls the toughest decision of his life, to seek out a trade for a better shot at a championship. He was about to turn 33. The Lions were starting yet another upheaval — the fourth since he’d been here. He looked at the future and saw everything he loved if he stayed here, and everything he dreamed of if he left.

“I’ve always wanted to play in those big games, I feel like I will excel in those situations,” he says. “I wanted to shoot my shot.” 

In a long, free-wheeling conversation via FaceTime this week, Stafford spoke with passion, humor, sadness and hope about the events of the last few weeks since that meeting took place, and how, in one blockbuster deal, he went from a Lion-for-life to the L.A. Rams’ new starting quarterback.

Throughout the talk, Stafford remained torn. He was sitting by the windows of his house in Bloomfield Township. His four daughters were tucked away in bed. His love for “the place where all our kids were born” is fierce. And his dream was to stay in Detroit until his wheels fell off, to be here “the next 10 years and we win two Super Bowls.”

He says he even imagined his retirement news conference “seven or eight years from now, with Martha Ford and Sheila Ford and all of them around, and a bunch of ex-teammates and local people I know.’’

But the man who holds every passing record that matters in Detroit history is too smart to play dumb. Even before Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn were let go in November, the tea leaves were becoming clear.

Time not on his side

“To be honest, Kelly and I probably started talking about it before last season. It was one of those things where, you know, we were hoping that, golly, let’s go, I hope this thing takes off and we play great. But if it doesn’t, you just knew what was going to happen. They were going to tear it down and rebuild.

“And anytime you switch GMs and a head coach, you know that they’re going to want to bring their own people in, and that’s going to take time. And I, frankly, didn’t feel like I was the appropriate person to oversee that time.”Stafford was well aware of the terrible middle in the NFL, where you’re not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to get the top picks that can turn a franchise.

“In my mind, I felt like I was going to be able to help us go win six, seven, eight games, because I wasn’t gonna let us lose more than that, you know? But I probably wasn’t good enough (by myself) to help us win more than that. And maybe we don’t ever get those top picks that we needed.”

Sometimes you stare at a mirror long enough to realize it’s not going to change.

That’s when you have to.

And so, armed with a resolve that only comes with age, Stafford, wearing a mask against COVID-19, sat down for that meeting and opened his heart.

‘Go get a gold jacket, man’

What followed, he says, was more than he could have imagined. He explained to Hamp and Wood where he saw himself. Where he saw the team. What he envisioned for both over the next five years.

“I shared my disappointments in not being able to bring them what I ultimately wanted, a championship. It was a tough conversation, probably the hardest one I’ve ever had, but one that I walked out of, frankly, blown away with their support and their understanding. The respect. I mean, it was pretty incredible.”

Stafford knew that the Lions agreeing to trade him was far from a sure thing. “They had every right to go, ‘Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. But you’ve got two years left on your deal. So you’re going to be here next year.’”

That didn’t happen. Instead, both sides resolved to do something together, to remain fluid, and to stay in touch over potential deals. When he left the meeting, Stafford once again texted his wife to say, ‘That went about as well as it possibly could.” He told a close friend in the building what was going on, and he called two of his offensive linemen, Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow.

“Those guys have put their bodies on the line for me. And I felt like I owed it to ‘em. I didn’t want them to hear it any other way.”

Their reaction would buoy him. While both said “they would miss the hell out of” their teammate, they each added, “Go get a gold jacket, man.”

Stafford drove home feeling as if a boulder of anticipation had been lifted from his shoulders. It was quickly replaced by another one.

Where would he end up?

As one door opens …

Speculation on a future fit for Stafford burned across the national media. Reports claimed at least 10 teams had expressed interest once word got out that the Lions were open to a trade.

Where did the quarterback think he was going?

“I thought all the places that everybody else thought. Indianapolis. San Francisco — although you didn’t know what was gonna happen with Jimmy (Garoppolo.) Washington, but we obviously didn’t know what was gonna happen there.”

As for Los Angeles? He had his doubts. “I just didn’t know how they would ever be able to (pull it off.)” Stafford says. “You know, I’m not a salary cap guru. It kind of got to a point where I’m like, OK, I can’t sit there and go crazy. I just tried to let it happen. And L.A. aggressively jumped into it.”

Coincidentally, the Staffords were in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a short vacation when things really heated up. A number of other NFL players were vacationing there as well, and Stafford walked past a hot tub and saw the Rams’ veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth in it. Whitworth waved at Stafford and joked that his team was gonna “make a run” at him.

A few hours later the deal was done.

Stafford had been traded to L.A. for their quarterback, Jared Goff, plus two first-round draft picks and a third-round pick.

When the call came from the Lions, Stafford told Kelly and they hugged. Then a whirlwind of emotion flooded over both of them.

“Obviously, we were excited for a new start, excited for the whole process of being on the trading block to be over. Now we had a place. We knew where we were going. I was excited about their roster and their coaching staff and what they can bring to the table and their recent success.

“But at the same time, it was a close of the door in Detroit. At that moment it was real.”

Walking wounded

Stafford did not take that lightly. His biggest worry, he says, was that the Lions or anyone else would think that he was turning his back on them.

“You know, I want nothing more than to be able to come back to this place 10 years from now and everybody welcome me with open arms. And that was one of the biggest things that was weighing on me as I went in there to talk to them. I was like, ‘I don’t want anybody to ever feel like I’m giving up on this town, or this city, or this place, I gave it everything I possibly had here.”

To that end, I ask about his injuries, about which Stafford has been notoriously secretive.

“I mean, this past year was bad,” he admits. “I had the partially torn UCL in my right thumb, I tore my UCL on my left elbow on the second to last play of the Houston game that nobody knew about, trying to stiff arm a guy. That’s why I started wearing a sleeve on my left arm because I had all sorts of tape underneath it, just to hold it in place.

I broke my cartilage on my eighth rib in Green Bay. I also tore something (in the back of) my left knee. And then I had a subtalar, right ankle sprain.”

He said he never spoke of those or other injuries, not only in deference to his fellow players who had injuries of their own, but to the city of Detroit, where he knew people were dealing with much tougher challenges than trying to play a game with a multimillion dollar contract.

“For them it’s not injuries on their hands and ankles and ribs, it’s ‘Where am I going to get the money to pay the mortgage? And how am I going to get my car from here to there?’”

‘I gave this team every damn thing I had’

It’s that connection between player and city that is going to be sorely missed now. Not that Goff or anyone who takes snaps for the Lions can’t develop it. But it doesn’t happen fast.

Stafford, who arrived at age 21, literally grew up here. Became a married man here. Became a father here. He embraced everything about Detroit. When he won the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2011, he likened his comeback to that of the city in which he proudly played.

Fans often say that Lions quarterback and Red Wings goaltender are the two most beloved, scrutinized, criticized and yet ultimately embraced jobs in Detroit. I believe that’s true. So ask yourself, in the history of the Lions, what other quarterback ever made this kind of connection? You’d have to go back to Bobby Layne. And obviously things with him ended on a far more sour note.

Stafford is grateful — and determined — to ensure that’s not his story. He and Kelly are planning a major announcement about another charity endeavor before they leave (they have done an extraordinary amount of charitable work during their time in Detroit) and he’s hoping there will be a chance before the trade becomes official on March 17 to say a louder farewell to the city.

Until then, he keeps the spirit of that brief text before his meeting — “Well, here we go” — as his approach to a promising but unknown future and a precious but completed past.

“Sometimes it’s not the perfect storybook ending in the same place,” he says. “But I can leave here knowing that I gave this team every damn thing I had.

“The way that they handled it, I think it’s worked out for everybody, and I think it will in the future. I cannot I cannot express how much gratitude I feel towards the Lions for handling it the way they did.

“As much as I’m moving to a place that’s got some pieces that are ready to go, I’m also betting on myself too, betting that I’m the person that can take them there. So this is a big challenge for me.”

He pauses, then adds. “But I’m gonna miss the hell out of this place.”

Here we go.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

Part 2: Sunday

Check back with the Free Press on Sunday, in print and online, for the second part of Albom’s conversation with Stafford, as they look back at his 12 years as the Lions quarterback, both on and off the field.

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