The 2016 NFL season just ended in spectacular fashion. The greatest Super Bowl ever took place a few weeks ago. A team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy (The New England Patriots, if you haven’t heard), but it wasn’t the Detroit Lions. It has never been the Detroit Lions. 2017 marks 60 years since the last time the Lions won a championship. This occurred in 1957, 10 years before the Super Bowl came into existence. Since that date, the Lions have given us thrilling comebacks, long-lived kickers, and electrifying once-in-a-generation talents. But along with that, they have given fans of the Honolulu Blue years of blown leads, boneheaded decisions, and generally putrid mediocrity.
Despite everything, we crowd around our televisions to watch, hoping against hope that something will change. I interviewed several of my friends and relatives who are Lions fans, old and young, to see what we love about the Lions, warts and all. Here is the history of the Detroit Lions as told be their fans.
As is usually the case with sports fandom, most people I talked to have been Lions fans since birth.
“I’m 27 years old, and I don’t remember not being a fan,” Kyle Fooshay tells me. The same is true for Ryan Aldridge, 23, Marshall Scheldt, 23, and my uncle Tim Wetherill, 62, who has been watching since the early 1960s. The lone exception is Mike Fitzpatrick, 41.
“When I was a kid, I was a Chicago Bears fan,” he reveals. “When I got to be a young adult I started watching the Lions. I’ve been watching the Lions since probably Barry Sanders’ 2000 yard rushing year .”
Everyone has a different story of when they realized the Lions, who haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, were a team with continual struggles. Wetherill recalls seeing the difference between the Lions and the powerhouses of those early NFL days. That was back when the league was smaller and top heavy.
“A couple years after drafting Joey Harrington,” is Scheldt’s answer, recalling the Oregon quarterback taken 3rd in the 2002 draft who never the guided the Lions to a better record than 6-10.
Of course a subject that must be addressed is the infamous 2008 season, when the Lions became the first and only team to go 0-16. “They just didn’t have the talent,” Wetherill muses. “They had guys on their last legs, they had guys they drafted who weren’t good.” As the seasons crept along, optimism was still there, at least in small amounts.
“You always think they’re going to win one,” Aldridge told me. And a play that comes up so often is the Dan Orlovsky safety against the Minnesota Vikings on October 12 of that year. I highly encourage you to rewatch the linked video to refresh your memory of that moment. Awful, right? The worst part of that play (besides the absolute pity in the voices of the announcers) is that the Lions ended up losing that game by 2, 10-12. That comical display of ineptness cost the Lions what might have been their best shot at a win that year. Fans still wrung what happiness they could from the season though. Fitzpatrick tells me he and his friends had a tailgate the final week of that season to celebrate the historic accomplishment.
Through all the misery and loss, happy memories and hope still endure. Fooshay and Fitzpatrick both have sons who have inherited Lions fandom just as the team has started to claw towards respectability. And even those who don’t have children shared their optimism and happy memories gladly.
“It was my son’s second birthday, it was last year [the 2015 season]…when they finally beat Green Bay in Lambeau,” Fooshay remembers. For Scheldt it was this year’s come-from-behind victory against the Eagles, the first Lions game he attended at Ford Field. Aldridge recalls watching the Lions beat the Bears on Monday Night Football in 2011. Fitzpatrick counts his times watching Barry Sanders with his best friend Markus as his happiest in Lions fandom, and Wetherill remembers attending games at the Silver Dome while Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” blared over the speakers.
With the draft coming up, hope springs eternal. Everyone I spoke to agreed that defense was the top priority, unless a can’t miss player dropped farther than expected. College superstars Dalvin Cook of Florida State and Michigan’s very own Jabrill Peppers are both names that came up. And in a sign of the crazy, optimistic hope that we all have about this team, every person I talked to besides Fitzpatrick said they believe the Lions will make a Super Bowl in their lifetime, and even Fitzpatrick acknowledged he’d be overjoyed if they did.
That hope, despite years of evidence to the contrary, is how it goes when we talk about our team; the team that most of us grew up with, the team that we’re on this wild journey with. At the end of every season, there’s a comment sentiment, spoken in hope or in resignation, depending on the day, mood, and person. The feeling behind it changes, but the words seldom do: “there’s always next year.”
All statistics, box scores, dates, etc. sourced from Pro Football Reference.