October 6, 1996
Pontiac, Michigan. The Silverdome.
The Atlanta Falcons at the Detroit Lions.
Back in the late eighties and early nineties, Holly and I would try to get to at least one Detroit Lions football game a year. Ok, ok, it was probably just me that was trying to get to the games, but Holly would come along because we usually went with friends and it became more a social party gathering kind of thing. If you know my wife, you know if there is food, drink, and friends, you can count her in. I enjoyed that too, but I went for the football.
I have been a Lions fan since the early seventies when I was just a boy. I remember being at a Christmas party at my Aunt Jo’s place watching the Cowboys beat the Lions 5-0 in a playoff game back in 1970. Throughout the seventies and eighties there were a lot of games, a lot of losses, a lot of coaches and very few wins. Tear down, fire everybody, rebuild, Restore the Roar, you name it, they tried everything. And nothing worked.
And then, through a little bit of luck and not much skill, Barry Sanders fell to them with the #3 pick in the draft. (Thank you Green Bay Packers!). There were shouts of cheer throughout Motown and all of Michigan. Finally, someone to get us to the promised land.
Well, it didn’t really work out that way. The Lions were certainly more successful in the nineties then they were in the previous two decades, but no Super Bowl, and only one playoff win. (I will blog soon about Sanders and what is was like to be in the Silverdome watching him.)
On a day in early October, 1996, the Lions were playing the Falcons in the Dome. The Lions were 3-2 at the time, a great start for them, and the Falcons were winless. We had tickets for the game in the end zone about 20 rows up. Not my favorite place to sit, but not bad. If I’m gonna have end zone seats I would rather be up high where I can see everything.
(A quick note about the Silverdome. I loved that place. I know it’s probably not cool to say that because it didn’t have a lot of character. The whole place was kind of plastic. Plastic seats, plastic grass, plastic roof. I remember the first time I went to a game there. Thanksgiving day, 1974. We lost to the Rams 20-0. We went on Thanksgiving because, if you remember from an earlier blog, Sundays were for church. The first thing I noticed. “Wow, its smoky in here.” There was a kind of blue haze that was always present at the Silverdome. Back then you could still smoke in public places, and this being Michigan, everybody did. The second thing I noticed. It was raining. Indoors. It had snowed the night before, collapsing some of the roof panels, and causing the melting snow to leak through the holes in the roof and fall onto the field. Guys with big rollers were trying to get the field ready for the game. Which kind of foreshadowed some serious problems in the future.
But wow, when the Lions were good, or playing a hated rival like the Packers or the Bears, that place would totally rock. Sure, it didn’t have the history of Lambeau or Soldier fields, but Lions fans were loyal and loud. There was nothing better than getting Brett Favre to call a timeout because he couldn’t hear anything, or getting a Bears lineman flagged for a false start. Good times. So much for a quick side note.)
The Lions started well that day. Scott Mitchell, the Lions quarterback, had scored on a two yard sneak and had thrown 3 touchdown passes, all in the first half. 28-0 Lions. It looked like an easy road to 4-2. Only one of the touchdowns were in the end zone where we were sitting, but that was ok because it looked like Lions would be scoring all day. The Falcons scored before the half, but we still felt pretty confident.
And then the second half started. And the Lions started playing what I call the “prevent offense.” Basically what that means is you get out of your regular offense, run the ball and try to take some time off the clock. This might work for some ground and pound teams with a big running back slamming into the line, but the Lions had Barry Sanders. As every Lions fan knew, Barry could lose 2 yards as quick as he could gain 11. He was a home run hitter. Bottle him up for awhile then Bam! up the middle, and down the sidelines for a quick touchdown. But take time off the clock? No. Asking him to do that was like asking Mark McGwire to move the runner over from second. When Mark McGwire comes up to bat with a runner in scoring position, you let the big dog eat. With Barry, you run the regular offense.
So, as the Lions kept not getting first downs and kept punting the ball back to the Falcons, Atlanta started to score. Two touchdowns made it 28-21. And then a Morten Anderson field goal made it 28-24.
Meanwhile, back in our end zone seats, the natives were getting restless. Apparently when the offense shut it down and the defense started giving up touchdowns, that was the cue for people to start drinking heavily. A boring, frustrating game became a game of let’s see who can get the most drunk and then, for fun, let’s see who can start a fight. Drinking, like smoking, is something we are very good at in Michigan. A number of fights broke out in the stands. A fight that was just off to our right involved two very large and very inebriated men who spilled beer on everyone around them and tumbled into the row in front of them, which pissed off more inebriated people,( I say people because at this time the women started throwing down,) and caused security to come running in to break it all up and haul off the offending parties. Wow. Thank God my kids were at Gramma’s.
At that point, somebody on the Lions sideline decided that the score was a little close for comfort, and it might be a good idea to kick in the regular offense again. People started running again, Herman Moore, the Lions other big star at the time, caught a 38 yard pass, and they started marching down towards our end of the field for hopefully the clinching touchdown. The crowd started cheering again. The Falcons had to start burning time outs as the Lions picked up a few more first downs, getting closer and closer to scoring. The Falcons burned their last time out just after the two minute warning.
And then, with the crowd going crazy, the Lions decided to take a knee. Now, looking back, it made total football sense. The Falcons, with no timeouts, couldn’t stop the clock. And the Lions took another knee. And the crowd started to boo. Mitchell came up to the line, took a third knee, and the game was over. The crowd, especially in our end zone booed very loudly. We had just won the game, and it felt very unsatisfying. I don’t think I ever felt worse after watching my team win a game. The whole game felt wrong.
As we got in the car and turned on the radio, the after game analysts were really mad at us morons in the crowd. The Lions had to do what they had to do to win the game. Even though they had lost all the momentum and basically limped in to a victory, a win is a win and we shouldn’t have booed, rooting for that last touchdown.
And I started thinking,”You have no idea. You have no idea what it’s like to sit in crappy seats all game that you paid a bunch of money for, deal with parking and traffic issues, try to keep your self and your wife safe as melee after melee breaks out in the stands. I wanted to see a touchdown before I went home. I go to one game a year. You have no idea.”
And that, my friends, is one of the reasons that I am writing this blog. The press sits in a press box. Great seats, no cheering, and really no connection to the real fan experience. My friend Brad Northrop is a huge Packers fan.(I know, nobody’s perfect.) His first game at Lambeau was the playoff game against the Giants this year. After Aaron Rodgers threw that Hail Mary at the end of the first half, he sent out a Facebook post that said, “The Hail Mary was in our end zone!” That is the fan experience in a nutshell. Sitting in the freezing cold, screaming your guts out, hoping that something really cool happens in front of you. And when it does, you lose it for a little while. I want to write a blog from the real fan experience. I might get the facts wrong from time to time, but I want to write with passion and from a fans perspective. If you don’t agree with me, you can certainly email me or comment on whatever I write. If you were sitting next to me in a bar, I would expect nothing less.
By the way, the rest of that 1996 season did not go well for the Detroit Lions. They went 1-9 the rest of the way, finishing the year at 5-11. Their coach Wayne Fontes, was fired. Scott Mitchell struggled the rest of the year and was eventually replaced. Barry Sanders played for 2 more years, running for over 2000 yards in 1997, but didn’t get along with Bobby Ross, the coach that took over for Fontes, and after the 1998 season promptly retired. Bobby Ross, without Barry Sanders, couldn’t win, retired during the 2000 season, and the Lions cleaned house. They hired Matt Milan, and the rest, as they say, is really crappy Lions history. I know that going for that touchdown at the end of that Falcons game back in 1996 wasn’t the cause of the last 20 years of Lions ineptitude, but it sure didn’t help.
Thanks for reading.