ONCE AGAIN, LIONS BREAK OUR HEARTS, AND THEIRS

The Last Man Out pulled his coat on over his sweatshirt, and his hood up over his baseball cap. His jeans were zipped. His sneakers tied. He was ready to go, but he sat down anyhow. As the few remaining players headed toward the exit, he bit a fingernail, nodded, and mumbled, “See ya tomorrow.”

Then he caught himself.

“Listen to me,” Chris Spielman said quietly, “I keep saying see ya tomorrow.”

After the Lions’ season ran out of tomorrows Saturday evening, in a heart-squeezing, last-minute, 28-24 defeat by Green Bay, some players dressed and left quickly. Some answered questions, and when the questions were finished, so were they. Some nursed their aches and pains, and hobbled slowly to loved ones waiting in the tunnel.

And Chris Spielman, who has long been the solar plexus of this team, took another shot to the gut. He stayed by his locker in the corner, the Last Man Out, as if maybe, if he waited long enough, some ref would come running in and yell, “It was all a mistake! Sharpe was out of bounds when he caught that touchdown! You guys won!”

An hour passed. No ref. Instead, someone turned on a vacuum cleaner, and Spielman tried to talk over the whrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

“That feeling, when the ball was in the air, and you see the guy wide open in the end zone — it was one of the lowest feelings in the world. Your heart sinks. It’s the closest thing there is to being told someone you love has died.

“I know people won’t think its right to compare those things, but when you live and die for football, it is.”

He rubbed his unshaven face and pushed his fingers through the hair behind his ears. The vacuum was near his locker now, whirring away, and he shook his head in the noise.

Doesn’t it always seem to end like this? A Lions season? With some sort of heartbreak? Even in the playoffs? If it isn’t Eddie Murray missing a field goal against San Francisco, it’s the Washington Redskins scoring their umpteenth touchdown against the Lions’ defense, or, on Saturday, with a minute left, Kevin Scott, slowing up, as if driving past an accident scene, while Sterling Sharpe sneaks behind him into the end zone and catches a bomb pass right out of the sandlot.

Always something. Spielman has been here long enough to brace himself for the cold months ahead, filled with “same old Lions” comments.

“Oh, I know it,” he said. “But the way I look at it, only one team in the NFL each year is truly successful: The one that wins the Super Bowl. So we haven’t been truly successful yet.

“Still, I think we could have done better. . . . “

There were theories offered from doughnut shops to radio talk shows Sunday, theories as to why you shouldn’t feel bad about the Lions’ playoff exit:

1) They would have lost to the 49ers, anyhow

2) They would have gotten killed by the 49ers.

3) They were lucky to be in the playoffs.

4) What did you expect from Wayne Fontes?

None of these is necessarily true. None of them really makes you feel better. But in their own weird way, they are part of the healing process. Talk it out. Assign blame. Wrap up the season before you stick it in the attic.

Fans do it one way. Players do it another. Rodney Peete, who had been such a big part of this team the last few years, dressed quickly and said few good-byes Saturday. He is a free agent, and when asked whether he’ll be back, he grinned and said, “We’ll see.”

He seemed to be saying, “No way.”

Next to him, Andre Ware, who was once celebrated as the future of this team, buttoned his shirt for most likely the final time in this locker room. No reporters even spoke to him.

Some things change. . . .

And some things stay the same. Spielman got a grapefruit from the back room and ripped off the yellow skin and put the fruit into his mouth. He will be in the Silverdome today and tomorrow and the next day, by himself, lifting weights, getting sweaty, because he admits he is addicted to this game.

“I’m a prisoner of it,” he says. “I can’t let it go.”

And yet even he has adapted. On Saturday, I asked his plans for the week.

“Wednesday night I start Lamaze class with my wife,” he said.

Lamaze class?

“She’s eight months pregnant.”

Lamaze class? Chris Spielman?

“I know, I know,” he said, chuckling softly. “But I’ve changed. Besides, I always promised if I ever had a family, it would come first, so I’m gonna stick by that.”

Maybe there’s a lesson there. We can go with the old ways, kick and moan about these luckless Lions, or we can adjust with age, admit that at times this team stunk, and at times it really surprised us, and it did win the Central Division, and, good or bad, it gave us more to talk about than any other Detroit team all year.

Choose your poison. As he left Saturday night, Spielman threw the grapefruit into a trash bin and headed for the door. A public relations man yelled over, “It’s locked, Chris! You can’t go out that way.”

They can’t go out that way. But year after year they do. These Lions. You make peace, or you drive yourself crazy.

“See ya tomorrow,” Spielman said instinctively. And he pushed through the door to meet his pregnant wife because, eventually, life does go on, win or lose, for everyone, even the Last Man Out.

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