SUNDAYS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN

Something strange is happening in our city. Today marks the beginning of football season, and everywhere you look, women are blinking at an usual sight.

Men.

“Want to go shopping today?” the husbands ask.

“Shopping . . .?” say the wives.

Isn’t today traditionally Bye-Bye Day for red-blooded males, the day the entire species disappears for the fall? When the NFL begins, couplehood ends. That’s the American way, right? Don’t bother me on Sunday? All men need from now until New Year’s is a bag of chips, an endless array of beverages and the remote control.

“How about the cider mill?” the boyfriends ask. “Want to go?”

“The cider mill . . .?” the girlfriends say.

The cider mill? How odd. Normally, Detroit men, some of the most ardent sports fans in the world, would be plopped in front of the TV screen, wearing their No. 20 jerseys and rooting for Barry Sanders to run for glory.

Only there is no Barry Sanders.

He walked away from the game.

And so, too, have many of the fans.

“Those leaves,” the men say, staring out the window, “they need raking, don’t they?”

“Leaves . . .?” say the women.

Decades of misery

Now, it’s true, the Lions are traditionally one of the more hapless organizations in the NFL. They have never been to a Super Bowl. The last time they won a championship was the Eisenhower administration. If this were France, Lions fans would be called Les Miserables. There were years the ushers at the Silverdome were better athletes than some of the Detroit players.

But for the last decade, there has always been Barry Sanders. He is — well, he was — perhaps the best runner in the history of the game. And since nothing is more exciting in football than watching a player run, there was always a reason to watch the Lions, even when, there was no reason to watch the Lions.

Sunday after Sunday, even if the team was hopelessly behind, you stayed glued to the set because you never knew when Sanders would burst free, cut left, then right, spin away from tacklers, scamper for a touchdown. It was brilliant, exhilarating, the kind of tease that could not be resisted.

But now he is gone. Walked away. The day before training camp started, Sanders, 31, declared that he was finished with the game. He was going to Europe, never mind the years that were left on his contract or the money he would owe the Lions organization. With a distant shrug, he said he was no longer interested in football.

And it seems to be contagious.

“You know,” the fathers say, starting up the car, “I bet the kids would like to go pick pumpkins.”

“The kids …?” the mothers say.

A one-man team?

Can one player cause such social disruption? Certainly. Look at Chicago after Michael Jordan retired from basketball. The Bulls transformed from the Rolling Stones to the Beaver Brown Band. TVs clicked off. Chicagoans stopped watching. The hottest thing in sports cooled like an iceberg.

The same thing has happened in Detroit. Oh, sure, the Lions coach, Bobby Ross, is insisting this “is still an exciting year.” And the other players insist
“this is not a one-man team.”

And everyone knows they’re kidding themselves — like those brave but misguided soldiers in “Gallipoli,” lifting from the foxholes and running straight into a barrage of bullets.

“Do you think the basement needs cleaning?” the husbands ask, holding the broom.

“The basement …?” the wives say.

This changes everything. To quote the old Spanky and Our Gang song, Sundays will never be the same. Houses will be painted. Snow will be shoveled. Kids will be carpooled. Baby showers will be attended.

An entire species in Detroit will be seen in places never seen before — like the groundhog in January, like Santa Claus in August.

Men on Sunday.

Wow. Who would have thought that one football player could have reversed a trend that has been decades in the making? Be prepared, ladies. Men will be showing up in the most unusual of places. Sundays will never be the same.

“Hey, Mom, you need help making breakfast?” the son asks.

“Why yes, Barry,” Mrs. Sanders says, “that would be nice …”

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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