CHICAGO — It was as messy as a bachelor party and as ugly as the hangover, but it counted, it’s done, and like the groom-to-be crawling home at sunrise, the Lions wear a small smirk on their faces this morning. The streak is over. The curse is dead. The road is no longer lined with poison bricks. The NFL record they never wanted — three straight years of road defeats — is someone else’s to break now.
“Is everybody here?” a smiling Joey Harrington bellowed in a crowded visitors’ locker room after the season-opening victory, a 20-16 squeaker over the Bears. “This is the last time I’m going to speak about it. We won! I don’t care where we won! We didn’t lose! I don’t care where we didn’t lose! Indochina! Timbuktu! Greenland! Iceland! South Pole! North Pole!”
“Oregon!” someone yelled.
“Oregon!” he yelled back. “Wherever. It felt great!”
Never mind that the Lions, down to the final seconds, did their best to make sure they kept a possible defeat alive. I mean, when you draw three penalties on a single play — is that even possible? — when you must take a safety to give yourself a chance, when you let the other team, on three consecutive long gains, reach your 9-yard line with a first down in the final minute — well, you are not flirting with disaster, you’re giving it your room number.
But a win is a win. Or as Joey sort of put it, a non-loss is a non-loss. And a drought that stretched back to December 2000, when Gary Moeller was still coach, when Bill Clinton was still in the White House, when the New York Jets had to miss a field goal in the closing seconds to give Detroit a 10-7 victory and its last pleasant plane ride home — followed by 24 straight road losses — well, yessiree, that drought is finally history.
“Don’t care if it came on Mars,” said Shaun Rogers, the defensive lineman who recovered a fumble and blocked a field goal that led to a touchdown. “I’m just glad we won. And it’s over.”
The magical rookie
Now, that’s the good news. And before we get to the really bad news — the potential season-ending injury to wide receiver Charles Rogers, and the potentially long injury to cornerback Dre’ Bly — let us keep this happy feeling alive for a few more paragraphs.
Because there was a moment Sunday, a moment you should mark down and tuck away. It came in the second quarter, when not much else was happening, when the late-summer heat was coming hard off Lake Michigan and fans were counting the minutes to halftime and something cold to drink. Harrington dropped back and hurled a long pass toward the right sideline. Rookie Roy Williams, the target of that pass, had one man on him and another coming over to help. Suddenly, Williams left his feet, and, between the defenders, stuck his right arm out, palmed the ball to bring it to a stop, flicked it back loose across his air space, then caught it again with both hands as he fell to the grass and rolled upright.
“Aw, that was lucky,” he would later call it, sheepishly, but it was anything but. Players left their feet on the sidelines — Lions players, even some Bears players — and shook their heads in disbelief. The audible gasp from the Chicago crowd told you all you needed to know: There was magic in that moment, undeniable, physical magic, even to partisan fans, even to those who wanted to dismiss it. It was some catch. It was a hell of a catch. And it was as if someone plugged in the Lions and threw a switch.
Not since Barry Sanders scampered for a long gain the first time he touched an NFL ball has there been something so newly tantalizing, something that could turn Detroit football fans into wildly excitable boys every Sunday.
“That’s what they pay me to do,” Williams said. “Catch the ball.”
The magic, apparently, he proves for free. That 26-yard reception wasn’t just a catch, it was part of a performance, his third grab of the day. His first was a sweet clothesline pass down the middle, the kind many rookies would miss. He gathered it in over his shoulder without breaking stride and picked up 27 yards. He would finish the day with four catches and 69 yards. That’s not counting the 16 yards he earned his team when cornerback R.W. McQuarters nearly tackled him in the end zone, drawing pass interference to prevent a touchdown.
“We saw you trash-talking with McQuarters after that,” Williams was told in the locker room afterward. “What were you saying to one another?”
“Oh, you know, I asked him how long he’s been in the league, he said seven years, I told him good job, stuff like that.”
He smiled. He was lying.
“What did you really say?”
“After I gave him a hard shove,” Williams said, “he was like, ‘You don’t know me, homey.’ And I said, ‘Well, you don’t know me, neither. But you’re gonna get to know me.’ “
You know what they call that?
What we’ve been waiting for, that’s what they call it.
The other receiver
So there’s the positive news. Here’s the negative. Rogers, who missed most of his rookie season with a collarbone injury, injured it again on Detroit’s third offensive play. He went across the middle, missed on a diving catch, and went to the sidelines. He was taken to the locker room. For all we know, that may be the extent of his 2004 season.
“I feel so terrible for Charles,” Harrington said. “He’s worked so hard to get back. You could see on his face how excited he was to be playing. He didn’t miss a practice in preseason. And that play — I’ve seen him make it every week. Why this time he got injured …”
He shook his head. “I feel terrible for him.”
And for the Detroit faithful who had been salivating at the thought of Rogers on one side and Williams on the other. Just like that, the double threat was halved.
But rare is the NFL Sunday when there isn’t good news and bad news in a single game. The injuries will be accounted for. The adjustments will be made. For now, revel in the glow of a — however brief — undefeated record, and the end of a shadow that took three years to shake.
“Usually when we fly home from Chicago, it’s like a 47-minute flight,” Harrington said. “But today it’s gonna feel like 37 minutes.”
Hey, every minute counts. Just like every game. The Lions are up one. And coming home, for a change, smiling.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com