WHEN THE LIONS NEEDED IT MOST, MOORE WAS ALL HEART

There were no warm-ups for Herman Moore. He began the week on crutches, and now, on Sunday morning, he took the first bus over to the stadium — “The one with the players who like to get here and sleep,” he would say later — but he did not sleep. Nor did he stretch or even jog. He went straight to the trainer, Kent Falb, who hooked Herman’s left foot to an electric stimulator: two pads, some conducting jelly and a flipped switch on a little black box.

He sat there, his torn ligaments getting buzzed, even as his teammates dressed and wished each other luck. He sat there even as they ran onto the field for warm-ups. And he sat there, with the little wires hooked to his feet, like a truck at a gas pump trying to squeeze every last second of rehab into his tank.

Finally, he heard the national anthem echo through the tunnel. He looked at Falb, the gray-haired trainer who’s been fixing broken Lions for 32 years. Falb removed the pads and wires. He pointed to his heart. “Whatever you’re going to do today, Herman, will have to come from here.”

Well, isn’t that where the best football begins?

So it was on this Sunday afternoon, in the final two minutes of a game and a season that had been sometimes depressing, sometimes satisfying, but was about to end in a maddening fashion — that the cream rose to the top, that the pain was conquered, and the heart took over.

“I want the ball,” Herman Moore said.

Their last chance came gift-wrapped

Of course, they all wanted the ball. Every angry man wearing a Detroit uniform. After Scott Mitchell’s poorly thrown interception with less than three minutes left, the Lions were begging for redemption. There had been so many near-misses on this December afternoon. Two blown field goals. Barry Sanders getting stuffed on a fourth-and-goal at the 1. And now this lousy interception.

They were still only trailing by six, but if the Vikings scored, even a field goal, the game was lost, the playoffs missed, the season a washout. “I was hoping the football gods would finally give us a break in this place,” Mitchell would say.

Merry Christmas, Scott. Eddie Murray, in the nicest thing he ever did for his old team, blew a 37-yard field goal with two minutes left, and the Lions suddenly had one more chance. As they ran into the huddle — Kevin Glover and his concussion, Larry Tharpe and his bad ankle, Mike Compton and his broken wrist, Moore with his torn ligaments and dislocated fingers, so bad he had not practiced one minute all week — they gathered together with inflated spirit.

“This is our season,” Moore said.

And suddenly, it was a different team. The offensive line, which had been mowed like tall grass much of the game, stiffened. Mitchell, previously erratic, was now sharp. He completed his first pass, to Tommie Boyd, 12 yards. His second to Sanders, six yards. Then an eight-yarder to Barry. A nine-yarder to Morton, who needed to get out of bounds but went down a few inches shy.

“Time out!” the Lions screamed.

Twenty-eight seconds left, ball on the Vikings’ 32. No time-outs left. This is when your stars win you games. This is when Moore — who to that point had caught just four insignificant passes — forgot the wires, the crutches, the cortisone shots and the fact that he felt a snapping pain every time he tried to go left.

He lined up right. Just before the snap, he froze for an instant, because the Vikings were pointing as if there were a penalty. But he heard no whistle and figured, “Forget it, I’m going.” He ran about 20 yards and cut into open field over the middle. Mitchell threw high, but high is where Herman lives. He lifted off his one good foot and made a great stretching catch at the 12.

That left 12 seconds on the clock. Time enough for two plays. Mitchell tried Morton in the end zone, incomplete — but pass interference was called on cornerback Dewayne Washington, which gave the Lions one last chance, from the 1, where they had already blown a golden opportunity.

First-and-goal, season in the balance. They stepped to the line. Mitchell glanced at Moore.

Six seconds from staying home for the holidays . . .

Finally, a momentous moment

By now you know what happened. Moore drew single coverage, he went wide in the end zone, and Mitchell never hesitated. He zipped a high fastball, and Moore ignored the pain and went airborne, trusting his hands.

He caught the ball like a magnet catches metal.

Touchdown. A 14-13 victory. In two minutes, the Lions had gone from all-but-out of the playoffs to possibly hosting a first-round game. In the locker room, they sounded like high-schoolers, all whoops and yells.

But there was something very mature about what they’d done. Staring their dour legacy in the face, they made it blink first. And they won a game they seemed destined to lose.

“It wasn’t time to go home,” Glover said, his voice hoarse from yelling.
“Every one of his felt the same thing.”

There are moments that make a season, and moments that make a team. This was both. It assured no losing record in Bobby Ross’ debut year. It showed the NFL that the Lions are not over until they’re over. And it proved what the trainer and his little black box already knew:

All the wires, tape and padding cannot make a heart beat. The Lions are alive because they willed themselves to be. There is no telling where an attitude like that can take you.

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” at 7:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Waldenbooks, Livonia; 7-8 p.m. Wednesday, Smith’s Books, Devonshire Mall, Windsor; and 7-8 p.m. Thursday, B. Dalton, Eastland Mall, Harper Woods. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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