A half-hour before kickoff, a heavyset man in a T-shirt walked down the Ford Field steps, holding hands with his 8-year-old son. They were wide-eyed at the sight of the gathering crowd, so many clad in blue and silver.
The Lions were not their football team, but they were today. Sterling Adams and his son, Eric, had escaped the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, had driven up in a stuffed vehicle from New Orleans, and now, thanks to the kindness of the Lions’ public relations staff, father and son had tickets for the opener. The long wait for a day of fun was over.
Zoom ahead to the fourth quarter. Joey Harrington dropped back to pass. He lofted a floater to the left side, and Charles Rogers slid underneath it like a magic carpet catching a falling genie. The ball was in his hands. A 31-yard gain. The crowd erupted.
It had been nearly two years since Rogers caught a pass that counted in the NFL, battling not one but two season-ending collarbone breaks. He got up and put the ball through his legs, once, then twice, enjoying the moment. His long wait for productivity – and health – was over.
Zoom ahead a few minutes later. Harrington, near the goal line, dropped back and zipped the ball into the waiting hands of a 21-year-old rookie. Touchdown. The crowd erupted again. Mike Williams had waited since the 2004 Rose Bowl to catch a pass that mattered, having had to sit out a year of college before joining the NFL. His teammates mobbed him. They yelled, “Spike it! Spike it!” His long wait for that feeling – being back on a team, being a player, being a contributor – was over.
It was that kind of Sunday. Patience paid off. The Lions, who hadn’t beaten the Packers since the Thanksgiving game of 2003, finally stamped them out in an efficient if not perfect 17-3 victory, starting the season on an up beat, hearing cheers as they ran off, leaving Brett Favre to exit looking more like actor Dennis Quaid than a miracle man who would break the Lions’ hearts.
“It was great to beat Green Bay,” Harrington said.
And everyone around here knew what he meant.
The rookie’s big moment
That’s how you start a season. If you can’t be beautiful, be efficient. If you can’t be supersonic, don’t be super stupid.
The Lions didn’t light it up on offense, but they had no turnovers and few penalties. They kept Green Bay from making the big plays and then, when most needed, they made one themselves, a diving interception by Kenoy Kennedy that Ping-Ponged up into the hands of Terrence Holt. That spark led to the Williams touchdown that iced the game.
“We were all yelling at Mike to spike it,” Roy Williams said in the locker room afterward. “It’s been a while since he had a” touchdown ball “in his hands and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. I think he wanted to keep it. But you can spike it and then go get it.”
Which, in the end, is what he did.
“Pretty good spike, too,” Roy remarked.
But if you think that moment was long-awaited, consider Rogers.
Drafted in the first round back in 2003, he lasted five games before his rookie season was over, and one series before it was over in 2004. He came close on a few passes earlier Sunday. But then, with 6:47 left in the game, Harrington found Rogers in single coverage and he pulled that ball in. His comeback was officially recorded, and he was out of the debit category and into the credit.
“All that 2003 and 2004, that’s all behind me,” Rogers said. “I gotta move on, make plays that help this team.
“I’m just happy I was able to put a dent in it. And then Mike was able to help finish it off.”
Nobody better in the NFC North
And so, Monday morning, the Lions sit atop their division, thanks to losses by Minnesota, Chicago and, of course, the Packers.
No, it wasn’t a perfect game. But if heaven wants to give you a day as nice as Sunday, you’ll take it, and if the Packers want to give you a game as badly as they seemed to Sunday, well, you’ll take that, too.
It’s not often you see Favre whiff on a pass – arm extends, ball doesn’t – but on Sunday that was an omen, along with numerous dropped passes and countless penalties that wiped out big Green Bay plays.
Usually, that’s the Lions’ modus operandi, botched plays, too many yellow flags. On Sunday, it was the Lions who played with composure and surety.
Harrington, wrongly booed before the game – hey, folks, what do you want him to do? He’s the best they have – had a nice game, with 167 yards, two touchdown passes and no interceptions. Kevin Jones (87 yards on 25 carries) continued to impress, if not with explosive finishes, then with initial bursts and jukes.
And the defense, which many felt would be the Achilles’ heel of this team, turned the screws Sunday, keeping the Lions in the game, forcing a fumble, making that pick, holding the Packers to a lousy 5-for-16 in third-down efficiency. Hey. Three points allowed, anytime, anywhere, against the Packers, is a defensive victory, no matter who scores touchdowns for your side.
So it’s a 1-0 start, with a good chance to make it 2-0 in Chicago next week and to start the season on a roll. The Lions already converted one observer. “My son is a Lions fan now,” Adams, a lifelong Saints man, said when the game was over. “That’s all it took was one game.”
You wait all year for football to start, and then you wait all day to see if that first Sunday goes your way. For a healing wide receiver, for a grateful rookie, for a displaced man and his wide-eyed son, and for a city that always breathes happier when a Sunday goes well, the wait was rewarded, and the weekend ended with a smile.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.