One of the more amusing recent developments in my life as a sports fan has been watching my mother become a devoted supporter of the Detroit Lions.
I don't know when or how exactly this started. Maybe because I would often pick her up on Sundays from work at the University of Michigan hospital, and usually had the Lions game on the car radio, listening to our Honolulu Blue-clad gridiron heroes lose yet again.
She could see my pain, clenching my teeth, banging the dashboard, gripping the steering wheel like it was Matt Millen's throat, or just resting my head against that wheel, hoping the cold rubber would somehow ease the throbbing tension in my forehead.
My pain became her pain. Mom wanted to see the Lions win. And not to take away from her fandom, but she also found Johnnie Morton and Joey Harrington extremely attractive. When I got her a Harrington jersey for Christmas, she put it on as soon as she unwrapped it. (That garment was donated to the Salvation Army years ago.) But those guys are long gone, and she's still rooting for this team.
(I later found out that another reason she rooted for the Lions was because she wanted this one guy on the cleaning crew at the hospital to shut up. He found out she was a Lions fan and would often bother her in the break room with a "They're losing — again!" taunt. Or if they had the lead, it was "They're winning — but they're going to blow it!" I mention this largely because I can't stand these kinds of fans. They take all of the fun out of following sports.)
Before the 2009 season began, my mother asked me a question plenty of Lions fans have surely asked each other during their lifetimes of following this team. "Are the Lions going to win a Super Bowl before I die?" Considering the Lions were coming off an historic 0-16 season, it was a perfectly reasonable question.
Mom just picked the wrong time to become a Lions fan: The Matt Millen era. She'd never known anything but monumental suck from the football team she misguidedly chose to root for. The best season she'd ever seen was 2007's mirage record of 7-9.
She literally does not believe me when I tell her that the 1991 Lions were one game away from the Super Bowl. This team was once pretty damn good. But that kind of success — improbable as it may have been — just doesn't seem possible. Especially without any solid video evidence. And though 1991 might sound recent to some of us, it's actually much further back in the past than many would care to admit.
OK, I certainly didn't intend this post to be all about my mother. But I brought her up because I feel like she represents the most recent generation of Lions fans.
Previous eras of Detroit Lions football may as well be shown to them in black and white. (Or better yet, sepia.) Do they know who Wayne Fontes is, other than the patron saint of Al Beaton's institutional Lions blog? When Calvin Johnson notched 214 receiving yards against the Raiders two weeks ago, racking up the highest total since Richard Johnson in 1989, how many asked, "Who the hell is Richard Johnson?"
Thankfully, Barry Sanders hangs around Lions Country to remind people that there was once greatness in a Honolulu Blue jersey. There was good reason to cheer. Our fandom was rewarded.
But maybe none of that matters anymore. Of course, it matters to those of us who lived through the last successful era of Lions football, only to suffer through another deep dive. However, to Lions fans of a more recent vintage, hope is now in the picture. Their team is playing good football and has provided several thrilling moments and stirring comebacks to remember.
And after Saturday's win over the Chargers, the team they follow is a playoff team. Meaningful football in January really can happen in Detroit.
Maybe you still can't believe it. My mother can't. She's never really followed the NFL playoffs, because her team wasn't playing. I'm not sure I believe it, either. I had the Lions finishing at 9-7. I know plenty of other fans believed, however. Yes, there's almost always an inflated sense of optimism before each season. But this time, the Lions really were a team on the rise, with players that other teams actually envied. Many NFL observers and analysts saw it the same way.
That optimism and support has finally been rewarded. Coaches and players taking a lap around Ford Field after clinching a playoff spot was a special moment for everyone involved. It wasn't quite like the Tigers spraying champagne on fans after the ALDS win over the Yankees in 2006, but it was similar. A very big step has been taken.
Obviously, this isn't the end. The mountaintop hasn't been reached. But you can't win a championship without getting into the playoffs.
Matthew Stafford is only going to get better, and he and Calvin Johnson are already a lethal passing combination. (Just imagine what can happen if the Lions can find a feature running back.) And though the defense has improved considerably (look at what they did to the Chargers on Saturday), the hope is that head coach Jim Schwartz can eventually put together a solid secondary to match the front seven. (What I really hope is that I won't have to watch Eric Wright get burned or commit another dumb penalty next season.)
It can happen. It can all come together. Why not? Maybe a playoff surprise is too much to hope for this season (though I don't see why the Lions can't be one of those teams right now), but this thing is getting close. Asking whether or not the Lions will win a Super Bowl in your lifetime no longer seems silly. Better yet, the question can be answered with a hopeful nod, rather than a painful wince.