It started in April. For most football fans, the day of the schedule release is a fun little mid-Spring day of football news. For displaced fans, it's an event. A group of former Michigander friends and I have made a pledge to go to at least one NFL game per year (with a Lions game as a priority). In 2009, we made the trek to San Francisco. Last year, with no Lions games on the west coast, we traveled to San Diego to watch the Chargers take on the Patriots. I was lucky enough to be in Florida during the Lions' two road games in the Sunshine State last year and was able to watch the Lions break their road losing streak in Tampa Bay and then follow it up with a win in Miami.
This year, we already knew the Lions would be playing in Oakland -- the question was when? Finally, the schedule was posted, and we saw the day of our planned game: December 18, 2011: the week before Christmas. This was troubling, at first. I wasn't sure I'd be able to take enough time off of work to go to the game and also visit my family. But it didn't matter, we'd make it work.
It only took a couple days for my friend to secure tickets on the secondary market. It was eight months before the game would be played, and we already had our seats. In fact, we were in the midst of a lockout, so there was no guarantee that the tickets we owned were to a game that would even be played. My friends and I had joked about getting tickets in the infamous Black Hole section of the stadium, but I never took the conversation seriously. So when the tickets were procured, I curiously asked where we would be sitting.
"What do you mean, ‘Where are we sitting?' The Black Hole, that's what we agreed on."
"Uh ... seriously?"
The next six months were filled with debate. Should we wear our jerseys? Are we going to resell these tickets for something safer? I asked Lions friends. I asked Oakland fans. I googled. I twittered. Most advice was telling me to lock it down, it wasn't worth it. But none of us wanted to do that. I kept searching, kept waiting to for the answer that I really wanted to hear. I never got it. Didn't matter, we had all decided we were headed to Oakland unabashedly sporting our Honolulu blue attire.
When the lockout finally ended, we were relieved that the trip was on. When the season was five weeks old, we were ecstatic. Not only were we in for a road trip for the ages, but we had tickets to a matchup between two possibly elite teams. As the date crept closer, the two teams cooled off a bit, but it was apparent this would still be an important game for both teams. Before I knew it, it was Oakland week.
The sugar plum fairies visited me a week early. It was the night before the game and thoughts were break-dancing in my head. My excitement was always cut off by worst-case scenarios I morbidly created in my head. I had spent the entire week joking online of my impending death, but behind my sarcastic façade was a real fear. I began to question this whole decision. Why would I risk my well-being, and even potentially my life, just to wear a piece of clothing? I fought off these fears by reminding myself that I am a decent human being, and a good away fan. I should be focusing on the game itself, which would be the most important game in nearly a decade for the Lions. I closed my eyes and drifted to sleep without ever settling the internal debate.
6 a.m. Time to hit the road. My friends and I had a six-hour drive ahead of us from Los Angeles to Oakland, and the last thing we wanted to do was spend 12 hours in a car and miss any part of the game. I found comfort in the company of three other devoted fans. We were on our way to an unforgettable day, no matter what happened.
I'm the idiot not keeping his eyes on the road
We arrived in the city of Oakland around 11:45 local time; over an hour before kickoff. Suddenly, the fear crept up again. We had been stuck in traffic for nearly twenty minutes and I had yet to see a single Lions jersey. We weren't just going to be the only people dumb enough to wear jerseys at the game, we were going to be in the most dangerous part of the stadium while doing it.
We eventually found our way into parking lot outside of the stadium. As my friends slowly exited the car, I urged my compatriots to hurry up, as I didn't want anyone to spot my car and do anything to it while we were at the game. After looking at me like I was joking, they hurried up and we started toward the stadium. The lot we had parked in was well outside the venue and in order to get to the stadium, we would have to go through all of the tailgating parking lot.
It didn't take long to garner attention. One Raider fan would spot us, either boo us or yell "RAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIDERSS" and everyone within a 50-yard radius would turn and join in the heckling. When we finally arrived at the tailgating section, we experienced something that one of my friends likened to walking through a haunted house. Scary masked men were jumping out in front of us in a fairly threatening manner, but never touched us.
The setup forced us to walk a narrow strip of concrete with tailgaters surrounding us on both sides. We walked in 2x2 formation, cleverly thinking this would be the safest way to protect each other. Curses, boos and "RAAIIIIIDERSSSS" chants showered down upon us. It was like walking the red carpet in Hell. Fans got up in our face, verbally threatened us, and threw discarded poultry at us. As you can see in this video (NSFW language), my friend took it with ease, welcoming it. I decided to pull out the phone in case any video evidence would be needed. You may notice that I rarely pan to the left or right. This is mostly due to paralyzing fear. But we made it to the gate, gathered ourselves and decided there was something enjoyable about what had just transpired. But it didn't make me feel any better about our experience ahead.
As we went through security, I thought about slipping the guards a 20, urging them to be extra thorough today. I decided against it, and we were off to our seats. When we arrived, about an hour before kickoff, the Black Hole was only about 10% full. The section itself was around 22 rows deep before an elevated part of the section began. We were row 19. Only the first four or five rows were occupied at this point -- the die-hards. Fortunately, those fans focused completely on what was in front of them. The few people around our row were sure to give us deathly stares and occasionally comment on the girth of our testicles.
The Oscar the Grouch hat was clearly foreshadowing
For the next forty minutes or so, I buried my head in my phone, distracting myself from fears with Twitter and Facebook. My friend from San Francisco called me minutes before kickoff and pleaded for me to change my mind. It was too late, I said, we had already committed ourselves to the Lions Pride and there was no going back.
Before I knew it, the national anthem was going and our section had filled up. We had lucked out. The majority of people around us were middle-aged men and women who apparently had left their face-paint and pointy shoulder pads at home. I casually struck up conversation with a lady Raiders fan who shared my love in attending away games. A couple of fans went up to us and covertly displayed the Lions gear they were smuggling under their black sweatshirts. My fears were gone; it was game time.
In the weeks before the game, I questioned how audible I would be during the game. Do I try and represent Detroit hard or should I act subdued and stay silent to assure my own safety? When the game was underway, my instincts kicked in and I couldn't stop myself. I couldn't hold back my excitement if my entire entourage had physically restrained me. When I first let an outburst go, I'm sure the look on my face was pure horror at my own actions. But nothing happened. So I did it again. And again. Soon I felt as comfortable as if I was standing in Ford Field. Sure there were people staring, and the occasional profanity directed towards me (19 in total, in fact), but the fear of violence never crept up again.
Then the Lions started losing. Since we had all drawn plenty of attention with our jubilation, we got triple the attention when the Raiders did well. Sarcastic offers for high-fives, people seeing my displeasure and asking if I was going to cry, etc. For those of you who have been to an away game, you know this is all common practice. But when Matthew Stafford fumbled the ball away, the only thing I could do is stare ahead emotionless.
I have a psychological ritual after every Lions loss. I scour my brain for pivotal plays in the game and inevitably wonder what would've happened had they gone the other way. What if the Lions had picked up fourth-and-inches? What if Cliff Avril had sacked Palmer legally? What if Lions receivers had decided pregame that dropping the ball was a bad thing?
Then the Lions started their comeback. When the Lions were fourth-and-two deep in Raiders territory, the Raiders called a timeout. I watched the Lions sideline during the timeout to see what they were talking about. I noticed something strange. Stafford was just hanging out with the receivers, but the coaches and offensive line were gathered up and talking emphatically about something. I'm not sure why, but this felt like something ... significant. I went to Twitter to share this piece of information, but the Internet tubes were clogged up. "They couldn't think about running on this play, could they?" I thought to myself. When the Lions went empty backfield, I nearly said out loud, "Quarterback draw?" but thought better of it when I pondered how dumb that sounded. One quarterback draw later, the Lions were in position to score. Not sure why I mentioned this, but it was a cool at-game observation and I like to humblebrag.
Next play, touchdown. Then the Lions catch a lucky break with the Carson Palmer overthrow. Could this really be happening AGAIN this season? But doubt quickly set in again. The Raiders' unbelievable special teams managed to pin the Lions on their own two. "This could be Stafford's defining moment. You know ... since the Cleveland game. 98 yards, two minutes," I uttered with little, to no confidence. First play, drop. Second play, overthrow. I return to my ritual. "Why not quarterback sneak when you literally need ONE inch? When is Titus Young going to stop looking like a first-week rookie?" I blindly stared ahead of me, almost missing the next few plays. Then Stafford hit Calvin deep. I immediately had flashbacks to the game I had attended at Tampa nearly exactly a year ago, a game in which Calvin Johnson absolutely dominated the fourth quarter and overtime. It was at that moment, I knew we would take the lead. Giddy and frightened at the same time, I pleaded the Lions to milk the rest of the clock, but to no avail.
Who enjoyed Megatron's first TD? My friend, Marvin, that's who.
If you look closely, you can also see me doing my best Stone Cold Steve Austin impression
The Lions scored, but gave the Raiders 40 seconds and two timeouts to kick a game-winning field goal. But it was at this moment that my mind started to drift away from the game. I started to realize that in about five minutes everyone around me was going to either be extremely pissed or unbelievably happy and wanting to rub it in my face. I debated which outcome was less horrible as Palmer drew the Raiders closer and closer to Sebastian Janikowski's seemingly endless field goal range.
Seconds before Avril crushed Palmer and we exploded with joy.
As the Raiders lined up to try their potentially record (and heart) breaking field goal, I took solace in the fact that neither team had a timeout and I would no longer have to stress over my fate. The next ten seconds would decide everything.
No good. Not even close.
Our immediate reaction was: "Let's get the hell out of here!" Actually, no. Scratch that. Our immediate reaction was "ohmygod ohmygod, hell yeah, winning season, winning season, playoffs! I love you guys! Now let's get the hell out of here!" But then we remembered the parking lot incident and decided the safest place was in our seats with security all around. We made sure that our friend, who had the unfortunate luck of having the aisle seat (Sorry, Frank. You're a trooper.), had moved into the middle of the aisle, away from the livid fans. As the metal-suited hordes passed us, most did not even make eye-contact. They were (reasonably) too emotionally drained to make any heckling effort. A few told us we'd get our [butts] kicked in the playoffs, but we ignored them.
Gratuitous scoreboard picture? Gratuitous scoreboard picture.
Slowly, more Lions fans trickled down into the Black Hole. We high-fived, we hugged, we shared stories. One man had been treated to a Bud Light shower; another had been constantly scolded by a relentless fan next to him. We managed to escape with only a few churro crumbs and a dash of buffalo sauce on our jerseys. When we decided it was safe to go, we started heading for the exits. Before stepping out of the stadium a fellow fan offered some very helpful advice, "It's okay to wear a smile, but make it subtle and sympathetic."
As we walked toward our cars, we drew little ire from the down-and-tired fan base. One fan jokingly tried to run us over and another one expressed interest in courting my mother's behind, but other than that, it was an uneventful trip back.
Post-game there was a huge line at the port-o-potties. Presumable for all of the vomiting.
After traveling a safe distance away from Oakland, we decided to find a local sports bar to celebrate the win and our survival. A few Raiders fans were drowning their sorrows at the bar, and we did our best not to interfere. Another lady Raiders fan approached us, sat and chatted. She had shattered her cell phone during the game today, but was really cool about everything, and after we had downed our winning-season beers, she actually wanted a picture with us (much to the dismay of the other Raiders fans in attendance).
Yes, I got her number.
On the ride home, I had a friend take the wheel so I could catch up on sleep, knowing that I'd have to be awake again within five hours of getting home (I'm writing this on a plane right now). I never did end up falling asleep. Still trying to process the entire day, I decided to celebrate with all of my Lions e-friends. I checked in with Pride of Detroit, I caught up with my flooded Twitter timeline, assured my family I was okay, and imagined how fun the Fireside Chat must have been that night. I snapped back to reality for a second to realize I hadn't stopped smiling since the end of the game. As we pulled up to my driveway, my friend was aptly playing Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day." Indeed, Cube. Today I didn't even have to use my AK, I gotta say it was a good day.
For more pictures, head to my site: Detroit OnLion.