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.