Once you get a plane up to cruising altitude, pilots say, all you have to do is keep it steady. Of course, that’s harder to do if there’s a lot of turbulence.
Which brings us to Matthew Stafford, the ex-Detroit Lions quarterback, the current LA Rams quarterback and the defending Super Bowl winner, who in the past year saw his trajectory soar into the clouds. After 12 years with no liftoff in Detroit, he went straight to 30,000 feet in California.
Yet here he was, Friday, back on the runway where it started.
Steady as always.
“I wake up in the morning and I feel like I’m the same person,” Stafford admitted, sitting in a room inside the SAY Detroit Play Center at Lipke Park off of Van Dyke. “Do I get a couple more ‘Congratulations, Champ’ than I used to? Yeah, absolutely. And that’s fun. But I don’t see myself any different. I just try going about being the best husband and father and teammate I can be.”
Stafford and his wife, Kelly, had returned to this challenged section of the city to keep a promise. Last winter, just after Matthew was traded to the Rams, the couple pledged $1 million to build a new education center onto the SAY Play Center, home to hundreds of Detroit after-school kids.
It was a bit like leaving a suitcase in the old house before moving out. Gives you reason to come back. Friday, there were shovels in the dirt, symbols of the pending new construction, a nearly 20,000-square-foot facility that will create education, performance and job training opportunities. Stafford had already given $1 million to create a first-rate football field. His latest investment inspired partners to join in, reflected in its name: The Kelly and Matthew Stafford & Friends Education Center.
“This is where it kind of all started for us,” Stafford said. “I feel like the people here in Detroit know us. Know Kelly. Know myself. Know my family. Just by virtue of time. It’s a big city that has a small town feel. And the fans are incredible. Just went out to lunch before coming here to do this — and seeing people that I hadn’t seen in a long time and the congratulations we get is a lot of fun.
“Los Angeles is an amazing place. It’s such a cool city to be a part of. But it’s different. And we haven’t been there that long. And so the people just naturally don’t know us as well. Hopefully, I’ll play there for a long time and have success and people will get to know us more and more. But as we currently stand, it’s 12 years here and one year there. We just have more roots here, so it’s really fun to be able to come back and share that.
“And we’re proud of what this place (the SAY Play Center) has become.”
A ‘genuine’ homecoming
Interestingly, Detroit seems proud of what Stafford has become. That is not often the case with an athlete who goes elsewhere, especially one who asked for his walking papers. Stafford encouraged the trade after seeing his former coach and GM, Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, fired and yet another pair, Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, take their place last January.
They would be Stafford’s fourth GM and fifth coach in Detroit. A long rebuild was looming. The quarterback was almost 32 years old. it was a launch-or-be-forever-grounded moment.
He flew away.
But based on the reception at the sizable gathering Friday, few people begrudge him. Matthew and Kelly received a standing ovation when they rose to speak. The kids couldn’t wait to meet them. The adults crowded, shook hands, slapped backs. None of which was wasted on the couple.
“We might reside in California, but this is where we grew up,” Kelly said. “As we were flying in Thursday night, I kind of nudged Matthew. You see the city lights, you get this warm feeling.”
Friday morning, they felt it on the ground. They found a coffee shop in downtown Birmingham and took a seat. “People stopped by, they honked their horns at Matthew,” Kelly said. “You knew it was genuine.”
Maybe because most people, when they leave a city, don’t decide to make a million-dollar investment in it, as the Staffords did.
As part of the team that put the project together (I founded SAY Detroit in 2006), I believe they were not only looking for a way to honor the place where they worked, lived, bought their first house, got married and started their family, they were also looking for a way to keep it in their lives. They didn’t want a permanent goodbye. Football fortunes beckoned on the West Coast. But they weren’t seeking to yank their roots out of the ground.
So they left some here.
And they are growing.
‘I’m still the same guy’
The last time I saw Matthew Stafford, it was impossible to talk. He had just won the Super Bowl, it was pandemonium in SoFi Stadium, media, fans, friends and family were mobbing him.
Friday afternoon, sitting in a folding chair in the dance studio room at the SAY Play Center, Stafford was able to reflect. He looks the same. Maybe his hair and beard are a bit more professionally coiffed, and he seems a tad thinner. But conversation-wise, it’s as if he never left.
“I learned a lot about myself this past year,” he said. “It was a heckuva move for our family, and for me professionally. There was a lot of moving parts. And still, being able to attack the season the way I wanted to attack the season — go out there and play at a high level and ultimately win a world championship — was something that changed my life, probably in the eyes of other people more so than my own.
“I’m still the same guy. But it is awesome to be part of a group of guys that accomplished something so special. That’s my favorite part about the whole thing — just being a part of that group and being able to have that forever.”
I asked how he climbed the steps from having never won a playoff game, never been to a conference championship and never sniffed a Super Bowl, to winning all three.
“I never really thought about it that way, to be honest,” he said. “I bet if you ask Kelly how I was the week of the Super Bowl she’d say I was just, ‘It’s another football game. I’ve played a million football games. Gotta go play four good quarters — there’s gonna be good parts and bad parts — and gotta find a way to win the game.’
“And that’s kind of how I attacked all of ’em, all season long. There were good games and there were bad games, and I think that’s the only way I know how to go about it.
“If I had sat there at the beginning of the season and said, ‘If we don’t win the Super Bowl, this thing is a failure.’ Well, I can’t live that way. I couldn’t play that way.”
‘The kind of life I want to live’
Stafford has always been a master of talking calmly and congenially, while rarely revealing anything personal. Once in a while, he’ll give you a wink, or follow what you say with “Yeah, right?” But from his earliest days, he knew what cards to show and what cards to hold, and he is only more so that way, at age 34.
Still, having known him for more than a dozen years, I will say there was a noticeable ease and confidence to him Friday that likely comes from winning the ultimate prize and proving all those doubters wrong. He never obsessed over that. Now he doesn’t have to.
The perks of being a champion have come Stafford’s way. He signed a new four-year, $160 million contract with the Rams. He has purchased several homes in the LA area. He even has a national AT&T commercial where he talks about never forgetting his old phone that he’s had for 12 years (wink, wink, Detroit) while still enjoying his new one.
But Los Angeles is Los Angeles and Detroit is Detroit. Here he sits in a coffee shop and people honk their horns. “In LA, you go to dinner,” he said, “and you’re sitting next to a bunch of A-list celebrities and nobody cares (about you). And frankly, that’s great. That’s the kind of life I want to live.”
That sentence says it all. Stafford, after the season of his dreams, is living the life he wants to live: a champion who doesn’t have to flaunt it, a former Detroiter who doesn’t have to forget it, an athlete who believes in his talent and no longer has to prove it.
He is that plane that has reached the clouds and just has to keep it nice and steady and enjoy the view over his old hometown, right?
“I told Matthew this morning,” Kelly said, “wouldn’t it be great if in the last year of your career, you come back here to Detroit, win a Super Bowl, and then retire?”
Well, there’s a little turbulence.