Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Lions

On Dec. 29, 1957, the Detroit Lions barreled to an NFL Championship, defeating the Cleveland Browns 59-14 in the title game on a cold day in Detroit. 

That day it was easy, but it had been an uphill battle for those Lions, losing star quarterback Bobby Layne late in the season with a broken ankle. In the playoff game to get to the championship game, the Lions trailed 27-7 in the third quarter, with journeyman Tobin Rote at quarterback, on the road against San Francisco. The Lions roared (pun heavily intended) back with a 24-0 run to win 31-27. 

It was the Lions’ third title that decade, a magical decade in Detroit, and there seemed no sign the good times would end.

Sixty four years later, the Lions have won one playoff game since that title game romp.

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Detroit was a remarkable city in the 1950s, the car capital of the world, one of the richest cities in the world, fresh off its role as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” turning those automobile factories into war production, building plans faster than the enemies could shoot them down. There were certainly labor issues and racial issues that would later explode in the city, but many poor people used jobs at those factories to climb to the middle class, to send kids to college. Detroit was a city of great possibility in the 1950s, a top five city in the US by population. 

Today, possibility is maybe not the word most used to describe Detroit. It’s not the caricature of decay often portrayed, but there’s no denying the city fell hard as much of the money left the city and the Big Three carmakers hit tough times. Only one state lost population from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census: Michigan. Detroit has been mocked and maligned and largely forgotten in American consciousness, barely a blip behind Chicago when people think about cities between the coasts and north of Texas. The use of Detroit as the paragon of urban decay and decline is not without some merit. 

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The Lions have been the drumbeat of decline, of futility, of a bleak future; the wrong kind of embodiment of a city. In 2008 as the Great Recession hit and nailed Detroit in particular, the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16, failing to deliver even a single win to the city as its woes mounted. By 2014, Detroit declared bankruptcy. 

The Lions, meanwhile, have been reliably irrelevant. They did have one of the best players in NFL history, Barry Sanders, who with his brilliance gave the Lions a run of success in the 1990s and some playoff appearances, but they only managed one playoff win, in the 1991 season. Sanders retired relatively young. 

So it has gone for the Lions. Their two best players of my lifetime, Sanders and Calvin Johnson, retired young rather than soldier on in futility in Detroit. 
The problem for the Lions is that they flail away unseen, unconcerned about, so anonymous and irrelevant. There is not a litany of Lions heartbreak, like many fan bases have; they almost always haven’t been good enough the last quarter century to even have their heart broken. Ask anyone to name a memorable moment watching a Detroit Lions game, and the results would be predictable.
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But they do have Thanksgiving. One day a year, as Americans gather to eat and give thanks, the Lions take the national stage. The Detroit Lions have been playing football in Thanksgiving Day since 1934. For my family, football is a fun part of life, and my childhood memories of great Thanksgiving celebrations gone by are saying hello to family members and seeing the Lions on the big TV in that familiar room in my great-aunt’s house. Last year, when Covid disrupted everything about normal family gatherings, the Lions played on and I called my grandma to tell here there was a game on, and she watched it all. 

Sadly often, the Lions game is just a chance to ask if they should lose their traditional Thanksgiving slot. Or to mock them. The second Thanksgiving game, played by the regal Dallas Cowboys, towers over the proceedings. Year after year, it seems like the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving halftime show is the cool kids, the A-listers. The Lions’ halftime show is fine. 

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All this is a buildup not to mock Detroit or their football team, the only team around for the entire Super Bowl era to not play in a Super Bowl, but rather to say I desperately want the Detroit Lions to be successful. I have otherwise never been a Lions fan. I have never been to Detroit. 

But I see a team that’s down on its luck, a community mocked or forgotten despite towering contributions to American life, a town with a proud history trying to chart new courses, and I’m drawn to that. The Detroit Lions are what I want to root for. They fight on for people who think their day might come, who think against the odds the better days still lie ahead. They fight for underdogs and dreamers. Their coach is a dreamer, Dan Campbell. He is full of emotion and passion. He cried after his players suffered a brutal loss. He resolutely believes he is going to coach the Lions in the Super Bowl, just like I resolutely believe in my wildest dreams. His Lions have not yet won a game, in part due to an opponent making a 66-yard field goal at the end of regulation, smashing the NFL record, that bounced off the crossbar and in. 

I have a thank you card ready to write and send to Campbell after the first Lions win. Perhaps an insignificant gesture, but I’m drawn to the chase, drawn to a coach and a team trying to reverse long declines, to find hope again in a town whose winters seem designed to suppress hope. Still, summer has turned to fall and the leaves have fallen, and I haven’t been able to send that card. 

But to heck with negativity. Maybe this Thanksgiving is the day. Come on, Lions, win one for us.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Height of Land

Highway 17 rises in western Maine, winding up from the town of Rumford. The two-land road meanders and darts along the Swift River, which is a swift river, pouring and smashing and rolling over and around rocks on its way south. Traveling north on an autumn afternoon, Highway 17 provides a tour of leaves of all colors, green and then yellow and orange and red, all leading up to the Maine main event that day.

The Height of Land.

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If you find yourself driving a rented Nissan pickup in rural western Maine, perhaps it’ll be thanks to college football as well. When Mizzou football scheduled a game at Boston College, at the time impossibly distant years in the future, I resolved to be a leaf peeper. New England is famous for its fall foliage, so I made plans to go to the game in Boston, then spend a week driving around western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. 

Now, I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to really convince anyone of anything, but I gave the trip my best sales pitch to my friends. But with jobs and spouses and kids, spending a week romping around New England isn’t the easiest thing to do, even with a few years notice, but I knew I was going either way. And as much fun as I have traveling with friends, this would give me a chance to have a great adventure, to do something that helps me grow.

Solo travel.

It can be daunting to strike out on your own, to be responsible for all the plans, to face the mild little calamities and indignities of travel alone, to bear alone the pressure of deciding where to eat. 

But it is also living. It’s a thrill to learn about yourself and where you are going, to happen upon some beautiful moment by yourself, ethereal and dreamlike, and then either have that moment to yourself forever or excitedly tell loved ones about it.

If you can travel with friends and family, go for it. But if not, if circumstance and stage of life mean you go alone or not at all, then go and relish the opportunity. Yes, it would have been delightful to meander around New England with a wife or girlfriend and stay at fun bed and breakfast places. But even though you might have neither, New England is still up there, glowing with gold and red tress, the towering peaks of Colorado are still out there, the waves still smash on the jagged coast of Oregon, the sun still sets bright and perfect West of California. 

Go for it by yourself. Or text me and I’ll go with you. 

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Boston was a thrill, old and historic. The roads all seem to weave and wander like old foot paths, ancient old Fenway Park was buzzing with energy for a game with the hated Yankees, and late in the game even with the Red Sox losing the crowd lustily sang the good times never seemed so good.

Mizzou did what I’ve seen them do in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, and in Columbia, and way out in the magical area of El Paso… losing in heartbreaking and horrifying fashion. Boston College scored a go-ahead touchdown, and their raucous student section erupted, cups of beer flew above and across the screaming horde, little palm trees of liquid popping up and descending amidst a wall of sound. The Tigers fought back and kicked a moon-shot field goal to force overtime, and I hugged strangers in black and gold. But Boston College won in overtime, and the crowd surged onto the field in delirious joy. It was time to get dinner in the Old North End, sleep, and then head for the country.

I drove through central and Western Massachusetts, snacking on Dunkin Donuts and listening to a Patriots game on the radio, as if attempting to see if the locals would accept me as one of their own. 

Over the next few days I saw incredible views and progressively more eye-catching and bright foliage, driving up the national treasure that is Highway 100 through Vermont and the Green Mountains, driving and hiking up Mount Mansfield and seeing by turns haunting fog and spectacular views to the valley below, and winding through the lofty and colorful White Mountains of New Hampshire. Each little town and stream and pond seemed to tell its own stories, leisurely lingering in the mind as some pleasant little nook of a building tapestry of autumnal New England.

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Wednesday was Maine day. I sort of had a hybrid plan on my trip, planning destinations and things I wanted to see, but also leaving a little time to be spontaneous and allow for sleeping in should I feel the need. I was staying that night over by Acadia National Park to the east, so I had plenty of ground to cover, but I still wanted to drive up by the Height of Land, along the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Highway. 

One of the delights of this trip was many areas were fairly uncrowded and unhurried, and the journey to the Height of Land was every bit of that. I had Highway 17 up from Rumford largely to myself, stopping for photos here and there. I could have stopped right in the road numerous time and had minutes before anyone came along.

The trees grew brighter and brighter, closer and closer to peak foliage as I climbed. I turned off my podcast, wanting to focus fully on the moment at hand, the sights and sounds and feel. At one point the road bent left alongside a pond, yellow and orange and red trees standing like torches alongside the highway. This was a moment. The road climbed more quickly after that pond, like when a search for something elusive becomes more frenzied as the thing you’re searching for gets closer. Views opened up here and there to the left, with pulloffs, showing nice views of mountains and fall. But the big view was coming up.

Finally, I rounded a curve next to some bright red trees and there it was, a wide pulloff. I parked the pickup, slowly walked over to the edge, and I marveled. 

I looked in wonder at the Height of Land view, colorful trees mixed with evergreens, big cold lakes with seemingly haphazard boundaries, the looming White Mountains far off in the distance, storm clouds dropping rain far off on some of those mountains, a lifetime away but also right there with me. It was all right there with me, after a long and winding journey, and it was truly beautiful and peaceful, and I was moved to great emotion.

It was chilly and gray, as happens when October draws near in Maine, but I stayed and savored the view and the moment. It is a joy to know there are such places in the world, with so many big and little things to consider. A single tree can be special, and here were endless trees to enjoy.

In the course of my reflecting, I thought about how it would have been nice to share this view with someone I loved. My mind briefly thought about how cool it would be to come back here with the love of my life, should I ever find her, and that’s a fine thought to have. But also my mind quickly steered back from that, and I felt a strong call to just enjoy it now. I was there on that day, and that was enough. Savor, live in the moment, live in gratitude. I felt so fortunate to be there. 

Yes, I was there by myself, sharing the view intermittently with a few other spread out travelers. But I was there with God, and nature, and the vast swath of Maine stretching out before me. I was happy and content.