“What is your favorite Thanksgiving Lions game?” I faintly remember my mother asking.
I barely heard it at the time. By then, I had mastered my gameday ritual. There I was, sitting in the corner of the room, laptop in tow with Tweetdeck equipped in one of many tabs. My focus so intense that it could only be bothered with two things: the images of the game and the “noise” of Twitter. I only catch announcer commentary these days if someone else in the room remarks on it.
With so much going on at once—especially that day—I didn’t bother responding to my mom. Hell, I didn’t even know if she was addressing the question to me.
“I think it was this one.”
That’s all it took to break me out of my trance. The quiet bubble I had mentally manufactured in the small corner of that hospital room burst, and the weight of reality came crashing down onto me.
A few weeks ago, we, along with the rest of SB Nation, asked our respective communities why they were fans of their teams. I gave my own answer, a hastily thrown together five or six bloated paragraphs basically just saying I was born into it. Since it’s Father’s Day, I think I owe it to Dad to give the fuller story now.
I’ve never known a life without Detroit Lions football, it’s true. But there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that my Lions fandom wasn’t inherent in my blood, but carefully curated by my father from the moment I was old enough to care.
My dad worked long hours during the week, so weekends were already special to me in building a relationship with my father. Though he was never the athletic type, he encouraged me to play any and all sports that interested me, all the while never turning into one of those Sports Dads you see berating little league umpires.*
Since work kept him away from many of my practices and games, and his own lack of athleticism prevented him from becoming a trainer of sorts, we developed our own sports-centric tradition: watching Detroit Lions football.
For nearly the first two decades of my life, 10 Sundays a year, we would watch our Lions play live. As a child, the event was just a wondrous spectacle. The roaring echoes of the crowd bouncing off the walls, pageantry of the Flyin’ Lion and the huge inflatable helmet and the comfort of a bi-weekly tradition were intoxicating to me.
But nothing hooked me to live football more than the passion, and my dad had buckets of it. He was never a scholar of the game. In fact, we hardly ever talked about football on any days that weren’t Sunday. But once we were under the manufactured lights of the Pontiac Silverdome, I saw my dad transform into a man possessed, and I deeply wanted to be alongside him, under football’s spell.
It wasn’t long before I had become a small clone of my father. I went out and made him buy me a pair of his bright yellow headphones he would use to listen to the broadcast of the game we were watching live with our eyes. I begged my mom to buy a pair of binoculars so that I could see the game in as fine of details as my dad did. I followed my dad’s lead screaming at the refs, even if I didn’t know why I was doing so. And my vocabulary... let’s just say it aged a bit.
As time went on, life’s circumstances forced our tradition to change every year, but it only made our bond grow deeper. By the time I hit double digits, my sister and mother had been ostracized enough by our behavior at games that they turned in their season tickets. Our viewpoint of the Lions changed from a couple section down from Barry’s Balcony to Section 243, Row 3, Seats 7 and 8 of Ford Field.
Then in 2002, my dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer. When you get news like that, I think it’s human nature to be immediately selfish in the moment. My first thoughts weren’t, “Oh my god, is he okay? What can I do to help?” Instead, I pondered if he would see me graduate high school, or witness me walk down the aisle, or if we would ever see a Lions game together again.
But not even the threat of cancer was able to strike down our shared connection. For the next six years, my dad would fight through treatment after treatment to make room for our Sunday tradition. Even as I headed off to college in 2004, he would—more often than not—pick me up from Ann Arbor and drive me to downtown Detroit for three hours of pain both on and off the field.
In 2008, though, we had to end it. My dad, now forced to retire at an early age, wanted to spend his winters in the comforts of Florida. Myself, bored of the midwestern monotony, drove cross country to the west coast. It was just a beautiful/tragic coincidence that the it all culmated in the worst season of football in NFL history.
Though thousands of miles now separated us, our passion persevered and evolved, like it always had. Our Thanksgiving Day tradition was dead, along with plenty of other gameday rituals, but we discovered a brand new way to keep the flame alive: Away games.
Just a year after we had both settled into our new homes, we decided to take in the Lions-Buccaneers game in 2010, despite the fact that Drew Stanton—not Matthew Stafford—would be throwing passes that day, and Detroit had not won an away contest in their last 26 attempts. The Lions would end up winning that game, sparking a tradition that continued the following week, when we saw Detroit mount a comeback against the Dolphins from the nosebleeds at Sun Life Stadium.
For the next six years, it seemed that the two of us were together during the Lions’ most momentous events. We were sitting side-by-side at a Florida sports bar when Detroit clobbered the Chargers in 2011, clinching their first playoff appearance in over a decade. We made a rare trip back to Detroit to see Calvin Johnson set the all-time season record for reception yards against the Falcons.
But that changed last year. Early in fall, his cancer had taken a turn for the worst. When my mom said over the phone in a tone I had never heard her use, “I think you should come down here,” late October, I was on the quickest flight to Florida.
That Thanksgiving in the hospital was agonizing. Though my dad’s wit, cynicism and spirits were all recognizable, his body was not. The cancer was blocking his digestive track, causing him to lose an extreme amount of weight and his skin to turn jaundice.
As the Lions sleep-walked through the first half, my dad’s body was rejecting the last food doctors would attempt to feed him through a tube. I selfishly looked away and buried myself in the game that no one else in the room was watching anymore.
So when Darius Slay picked off Sam Bradford with just 30 seconds left, I let out a wholly inappropriate scream, causing everyone to jump and my mom to hush me. The buildup of emotions I had been trying to suffocate in the corner of that hospital room had exploded.
Ashamed and embarrassed, I retreated back to Twitter, where wore out the caps lock and deliriously started playing out playoff scenarios.
#Lions playoff number is 3. Win three and the North is theirs.— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) November 24, 2016
Ignore me. Caught up in emotions. Magic Number is still 4.— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) November 24, 2016
The next few minutes were filled with wavering emotions. I couldn’t help but be beaming on the inside after such a monumental win, but every few seconds a wave of guilt would blow over me. Surrounded by my entire family, who were exhausted and drained over the past month of emotions, and here I was, happy about a dumb, meaningless football game.
The guilt was finally starting to overtake me as the buzz of the game faded into grim reality. That is, until I heard my dad say, “I think it was this one. I think this was my favorite Thanksgiving game.”
Mine too, dad. Mine too.
*If I had a parent who was anything like a Sports Dad, it was actually my mother, whose interest in my brief athletic career was one of her biggest hobbies as a parent. She never forcefully intruded, but I wouldn’t be telling the story of my sports love without mentioning her undying support, whether it was simply her presence, her extensive scorekeeping during baseball games or access to her car for trips to the sports club.