My name is Michael … and I am a Detroit Lions fan.
I was born in Michigan, but my family moved to the Philly suburbs when I was 3 years old. Driven by sibling rivalry, I eschewed fandom for my brother’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles and chose the Lions as my football team.
For almost five decades, I have paid a terrible price for that decision.
Followers of the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills will tell you that they are football’s most long-suffering fans. But they don’t know the half of it.
The last time the Lions won a playoff game, George Bush was president. I don’t mean George W. Bush — I’m talking about his father. On Jan. 5, 1992, the Lions soundly defeated the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC playoff game. It was a fitting win because only 11 days earlier, another evil empire had been vanquished: the Soviet Union.
When you’re a Lions fan, you take your victories wherever you can get them.
Since then, life as a Lions fan has been one misery and heartbreak after another. There was the 1993 playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, when Detroit blew a late lead by leaving Shannon Sharpe so wide open in the end zone that there wasn’t a Lion within 15 yards of him. What about the playoff game the following year, also against the Packers in frozen Lambeau Field, when our all-world running back Barry Sanders rushed for -1 yards? Since 1992, we’ve had nine straight playoff losses: it’s the worst postseason losing streak in NFL history.
There are many “Same Old Lions” moments but Lions fans can recite most of them from memory. There was the Calvin Johnson “complete the process” game; the “batted ball” game against the Seahawks; the Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary; the “runoff game” versus the Falcons; that time the Ravens’ Justin Tucker hit the longest field goal in NFL history to beat us in 2021; and of course the “the refs picked up the flag” playoff game against the Cowboys in 2015 that sent me into a deep emotional abyss (and still does when I recall it).
In 2008, the Lions were the first NFL team to go 0-16 (other teams had winless seasons but did not play 16 games). We’ve had two of the greatest position players in the history of the game, Sanders and Johnson. Neither won a playoff game. Matthew Stafford, our Hall of Fame-worthy quarterback, finally left the Lions and immediately won the Super Bowl with his new team, the L.A. Rams (no Lions fan is upset at Stafford, though, who was a great player for us who deserved to win a title). We’ve lived through both the Matt Millen era and the Matt Patricia era, which from a historical perspective, are probably most akin to the Dark Ages or a stroll in the Sahara without water.
We Lions fans are largely resigned to our fate. Our singular expectation is that when something can go wrong, it inevitably will. Optimism is for other teams.
That’s what makes the dawn of the 2023 season, which kicks off tonight with the Lions playing the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, so unusual.
We have hope. We have a pretty good team this year. We could go to the playoffs.
Yup, I said it.
I can pinpoint the last time I had real hope as a Lions fan: the morning of Dec. 30, 1995. The Lions were playing the Eagles in the NFC wild card game. They had finished the season on a seven-game win streak and would have hosted a playoff game had wide-open Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Yancey Thigpen not dropped a pass in the end zone to hand the Packers the NFC Central title. Our all-pro offensive tackle Lomas Brown guaranteed a victory.
After we tied the score 7-7, the nightmare began. The Lions gave up 44 straight points, including a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half, to end in a 58-37 loss. That this crushing defeat came at the hands of the Eagles — my brother’s favorite team — only enhanced the misery.
But fast-forward 27 years. Going into the final game of the 2022 NFL season, the Lions were on a roll. We’d won seven of our last nine games and headed to Lambeau to take on the Packers yet again. Earlier in the day, we’d been knocked out of the playoff race, but Green Bay was still alive. A win would send home the team that every Lions fan learns to hate from an early age.
Without hope and belief, what’s the point of being a fan?
Our defense, an Achilles’ heel all season, hounded Rodgers all game, with the highlight being the interception on the Packers’ final drive that sealed the game.
Beating the Packers in Green Bay and humiliating Rodgers was our Super Bowl. Finally, we could take pride in our Lions fandom. I fully appreciate how pathetic that sounds, but when you’re a Lions fan, you take your victories wherever you can get them.
That end-of-season run has made the Lions the sexy pick to dethrone the Packers atop the NFC North this season and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. It didn’t hurt that the Lions crushed free agency and the draft, or that we have one of the most creative offensive coordinators in the game today in Ben Johnson. We sport one of the best offensive lines in the game, a dual-threat running attack, a beast of a pass rusher in last year’s No. 1 pick Aidan Hutchinson, and one of the best up-and-coming receivers in Amon-Ra St. Brown.
The expectations are sky-high, but so too is the confidence among Lions fans that this team is not the same old Lions that have broken our hearts, year after year. Anything less than a division title and a home playoff game will be a disappointment.
Simply putting these words to paper is playing with fire. As any sports fan will tell you, there is no such thing as jinxes … except when it comes to major sporting events.
But how do you put a jinx on a team that has lived for decades under a black cloud of disappointment and despair? If anything, to confidently state that the Lions will finally win a playoff game this year is the ultimate reverse jinx. If assuming the worst has always led to terrible gridiron outcomes, then maybe the antidote is in hoping for the best and saying it publicly.
But hope — irrational, misguided and deluded — is the lifeblood of every sports fan. Winning championships is difficult. Sometimes it happens once in a generation. For the Denver Nuggets (who finally won a title this year), it took five decades of futility to reach the mountaintop.
And even dynasties inevitably have their fallow periods as any Detroit Red Wings fan will tell you. As sports fans, we make inordinate (arguably unhealthy) emotional investments in sports franchises where only one team can emerge as a champion, and the rest finish the season searching for answers. It’s not rational or even wise and, far more often than not, it ends in heartbreak.
Yet we come back season after season, believing against logic and experience that this will finally be the year. No matter how bad things get, the pull of fandom is too strong. After all, without hope and belief, what’s the point of being a fan? Even if you expect the worst, there’s always that small part of your brain that says “maybe it could happen.” The only difference for me between now and previous seasons is that I’m willing to actually say it out loud:
I’m a Lions fan, and I have hope.*
*If they finish 5-12 this year, you’ll know whom to blame.