When I left Ford Field on Sept. 7, 2008, I decided that the Lions’ quarterback, Jon Kitna, was my hero.
After a successful 4-0 preseason, my hometown team suffered a 34-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons due to a Swiss cheese defense that allowed Atlanta running back Michael Turner to run for 220 yards and two touchdowns.
But there was hope. Moments in the game, Detroit displayed an explosive offense. Kitna had thrown a 40-yard bomb to a gangly 6-foot, 5-inch, second-year receiver. His name was Calvin Johnson. Over the next eight years he would become one of the greatest receivers in NFL history.
Had I only known then.
Later that season, Kitna, due to a broken shoulder and a tendency to throw late-game interceptions, would go on the injured reserve list and Dan Orlovsky would replace him. And then, on Oct. 12, when their record stood at 0-5, the Lions finally had their chance.
The Lions’ defense contained the Minnesota Vikings and each team scored only a single touchdown. But Orlovsky, having momentarily lost his mind, ran out of the back of his own end zone for a safety. The Lions lost by two points.
Consider the misery.
Months before, Detroit had just been hit harder than any other American city by the 2008 housing crisis. Five percent of all homes in the city entered into some stage of foreclosure. Negligent homeowners burned empty houses for insurance money. Vandals stripped hot water heaters from basements.
After that, the Mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sent to jail. If all this wasn’t enough, the auto industry was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
And then, Detroit’s football team had the worst season in professional sports history.
A hard year to say the least.
But it was then that I learned what it meant to be a fan of the Lions. It means that you are allowed to bemoan each loss. But it also means that you keep a love of underdogs in a secret pocket of your heart.
So when the Lions played the Falcons this year and Matthew Stafford threw a touchdown to Golden Tate with 8 seconds left in the game for the win only to have the call overturned by the referees with a 10-second clock runoff, we knew what was coming.
The game ended with Stafford holding the football a single yard away from victory. Lions lost. Big deal.
This Sunday, Matthew Stafford threw for over 400 yards and even still, the Lions failed to score a single touchdown. The Lions had more yards, fewer turnovers, fewer punts, and fewer penalties. And we still hadn’t found a way to score.
This is just how it is to be Lions fan post-2008. Stafford’s arm and our core of acrobatic receivers can make big plays happen. But the points don’t seem to always add up.
But the drama seems inherent. Last season, Stafford caused Lions fans to chew their fingernails to bits as he led his team for an NFL-record eight game-winning drives. They were magical games.
And this Sunday, as I sit here watching the live update of the game watching the final incomplete pass to Eric Ebron, I lament the fact that this is not one of Stafford’s miraculous endings.
And in that lamentation there is at least a sigh of belief.
The Lions aren’t leading the NFC North. They may not make the playoffs or win another game this season.
But things have improved.
When I consider what the 2008 season must have felt like for people who needed something to cheer for, I think of Stafford standing on the 1 yard line, 100 yards away from where Orlovsky tiptoed out of the back of the end zone, scowling at the ref.
He can stand there, inches from victory, and after all the years of losing, we can see a new breed of Lion in Motown.