WOOZY? WHO CARES! KITNA SAVES THE DAY

It was a Persian bazaar, a Russian novel, an Italian opera, a three-record set by the Who, an overtime victory with too many twists and turns to locate one turning point, so let’s begin instead with a question:

When was the last time a Lions STARTING quarterback was cheered onto the field?

Oh, sure, backups. Backups always get cheered – because they usually trot in to replace a guy getting booed. But I can’t remember when Joey Harrington got cheered for coming back or Charlie Batch or Rodney Peete or Scott Mitchell or … forget it, the list is too painful.

But here was Jon Kitna, one of the lowest-profile starting quarterbacks Detroit has ever seen, and it was the fourth quarter and the score was tied and he was pulling on his helmet, returning to the fray …

And the Ford Field crowd went nuts!

Of course, there were reasons for that. Most of them had to do with what happened during the two hours Kitna was sidelined with an injury. A kid named J.T. O’Sullivan came in, and, honestly, he made you dizzy. If he wasn’t throwing a touchdown, he was throwing an interception. If he wasn’t making a good read, he was getting sacked. If he wasn’t handing off, he was fumbling. O’Sullivan had been in or around the league for six years, mostly on practice squads or inactive lists, and he seemed to be making up for lost time out there Sunday.

But when the game needed to be won, not juggled, the Lions turned to their starter – or rather to their medical staff, who said it was OK for their starter to go back in. What exactly Kitna had wrong with him was a bit of a mystery – a possible concussion was how they first explained it – and a bigger mystery was how it healed itself by the fourth quarter.

But never let doctors ruin a good story.

And this was a really good story.

A triple threat: passing, running receiving

Kitna returned with little more than eight minutes left and seemed to pick up where he’d left off in the first half – directing an offense that more and more looks like the only thing that can stop it is itself. He hit pass after pass until a would-be winning field goal was missed with 45 seconds left.

No matter. The game went to overtime. And that’s when the passer did something unexpected.

He ran.

“I don’t think he knew where he was today,” Roy Williams later joked. “… He thought he was LaDainian Tomlinson out there.”

His first run was when a pass he threw ricocheted off several players and landed back in his arms. Kitna caught it – making him, temporarily, his own receiver – and then took off – making him, temporarily, his own running back.

He picked up nine yards.

Moments later, caught in a third-down squeeze, Kitna took off scrambling. Yes, scrambling. And he ran fast enough to pick up six yards and a first down – once he landed from an up-in-the-air tackle. Those kinds of tackles send lesser quarterbacks to the sidelines. Kitna – and remember he was supposedly woozy – got up and ran back to the huddle.

And if Detroit didn’t love this guy before, it did then.

Look who’s driving the franchise

“I’m not trying to pull a Willis Reed,” Kitna, 34, said after the 20-17 victory. Still, he finished 22 of 33 for 245 yards and a touchdown, and the game finished with a winning field goal for Jason Hanson – making up for his earlier miss. It put an end to the 10-game losing streak to the Vikings and provided a coronation for Kitna, the shaven-head quarterback, who has been a true believer in this franchise since he got here.

“I just hate not being on the field for my team …” he said. “If they want someone to play it safe, that’s just not me.”

Safe? We’ve had safe. We’ll take dangerous. We’ll take whatever the Lions are having, because they are 2-0 – first time in three years – and have shaken at least one longtime purple monkey off their backs.

Sure, it was sloppy. And, as Williams observed: “The average fan would probably say, ‘Here comes Detroit Lions football again with a loss.’ ” But then he smiled and added: “We have open seating on the bandwagon.”

I can’t tell you how many people are on that bandwagon this morning, but I can tell you who’s driving it. He just inspired a football team, won a city’s heart, and caught his own pass. Not bad for woozy.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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