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Thanksgiving perspectives: Are you thankful for the Detroit Lions?

Thanksgiving grants us the occasion to reflect on elements in our lives that we distinctly appreciate. Upon reflection, I realized how impactful the Detroit Lions have been in my life, despite whether they win or lose.

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NFL: NOV 25 Bears at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Note: This is a guest article from Detroit Lions fan Bruce Walker (@Smoke25 on Twitter). Because of Bruce’s generosity in our Movember campaign, he has been given the opportunity to write an article for the site. He wanted to use the moment to reflect on the importance of Detroit Lions on this holiday week. Here is his story.

Every Detroit Lions fan has a story. Mine might be longer than most, so grab a cup of coffee or swipe the snifter of Courvoisier that your wife was planning to add to the stuffing, relax, and enjoy the ride.

My Lions journey started in 1962 when I was nearly one year old. The way my dad told the tale, he was in great shape upon his honorable discharge from the United States Marine Corps and was allowed to walk into a Lions camp tryout.

That year, the 11-3 Lions had a solid team led by the top-ranked defense in the league. They would place second for the third consecutive season in the NFL Western Division, right behind the 13-1 (you guessed it) Green Bay Packers. Fun fact: The Packer’s only loss that year came at the hands of the Lions on Nov. 22, which would come to be known as the Thanksgiving Day Massacre. Even though sacks were not an official stat then, Pro Football Reference indicates that Bart Starr was sacked 10 times for a whopping 93 yards lost.

[NFL Films has a great video of this game, and blogger Keith Yowell does a great job breaking down the historical game here.]

Good times, but I digress.

The point is that the Lions were fielding a pretty good team, especially on defense, where my dad played as a light defensive end or slow-ish linebacker. When they cut him, they advised him that if he tried out for the second-year expansion Minnesota Vikings, he would likely not only make the team but have a good chance to start. At the time, with three kids, he apparently made more money chroming bumpers at Pontiac Motors than playing professional football; otherwise, this article might be about the Vikings instead of the Lions. Again, it was his story, and he was consistent with the details over his earlier years, so I always took his rendition at face value.

His later years were a different matter. A fiercely passionate lifelong Lions fan, he passed away in April 2021 from dementia complicated by the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. His dementia made his stories more entertaining but a lot less factual. For instance, I learned during one visit that John Wayne was his best friend in high school (no, he actually was not, but I think “El Dorado” was playing on the TV in his room at the time, so that is where dad was living at that moment). That is why I chose to contribute to the 2022 Pride of Detroit’s Movember charity drive. After all this time, I still can’t tell you the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, but I can tell you that they both need to be vanquished before they steal more souls.

My relationship with the Lions began in 1967, when Mel Farr and Lem Barney were both drafted, then ultimately selected Rookies of the Year. An offensive and defensive player—each chosen from the same team—would not happen again for five decades until Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore won the honors for the New Orleans Saints in 2017.

Farr was fine, according to my six-year-old self, but Barney was pure magic. In 14 games, he had 10 interceptions, returning three for touchdowns. He also returned punts and kickoffs, scoring several touchdowns throughout his career. I stayed glued to the TV for every game.

In Barney, I saw Barry Sanders before Barry was even born, right down to the 20 on his jersey.

If you watch the clip above, you will see that one of his touchdown-for-interceptions looked exactly like the pick that Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah made in Week 10 against the Chicago Bears. At six years old, I wanted to be him, stealing passes and slaloming down the field to score touchdowns. In first grade, we would try to tackle each other on the playground at recess, with me pretending to be our left cornerback. I was pretty good at it, too, until the teachers made us quit because—at first—they thought we were fighting. Then they decided it was too dangerous or reckless, I suppose. Looking back, they were probably right.

My parents moved the family to Wisconsin in the middle of my junior year of high school. That meant I could only watch Detroit play against Green Bay on Thanksgiving. The rest of the time, if the weather cooperated, I would take my ’69 Olds Delta 88 (with the 455 Rocket engine) to a 350-foot ridge just west of town and pick up a few scratches of the game off WJR, some 380 miles away. Then the Lions changed their “flagship station,” and that opportunity vanished.

Later, as a single teen living in Tucson, AZ, while still using milk crates for furniture, Sundays found me heading to the mall to hang out in the Sears electronics section to watch whatever local game was playing. Eventually, I would catch a score ticker or, if lucky, glimpse a Lions highlight at halftime so that I could have an idea of how the Lions game was going.

Then, during my single years in Oklahoma City, it was usually impossible to trek back to Wisconsin for the holidays. Still, I never went without a Thanksgiving Day invite from friends. My prerequisite was that the Detroit game would play on their TV, and everyone generously complied. In retrospect, they may have just felt sorry for me as I exhibited blind hope.

Hope, as an example, is as such: I recall that signing after his holdout, Billy Sims was coined “Bird Legs” by the Detroit Free Press. Then he signed his contract on my birthday. How much more of a sign of great things to come did I need than that?

The 1980s brought me marriage and my daughter, and at the end of that decade, I decided to relocate back to Wisconsin to work in my dad’s business, with the idea of taking it over one day. Every day, we would stop at the local drugstore so that I could buy a Chicago Tribune for 25 cents in the hopes that there might be a transaction detail buried in the back. (They also tended to have much better game coverage than the local papers).

For a year, I subscribed to the Detroit Lions newsletter. The problem was that I would always receive it the Tuesday following the Sunday game. Game previews carry significantly less value after the game is played, and the technology at the time prohibited receiving it early, so I did not renew my subscription. Sorry, Lions.

Then, I took my dad to my first Lions game for his 54th birthday present (My God, I am older now than he was then! How did that happen?) We left home on Saturday evening, Nov. 23, 1991, and drove to Minneapolis in a fierce winter storm. The morning brought us -17 degrees with bitter winds. We foolishly parked about two miles from the Metrodome to save money, and the walk was brutal. Every time we came to an intersection, the strong and gusty wind threatened frostbite within seconds. It was hard to talk because our faces were numb, but we were stoked just seeing the stadium loom closer with every frozen step.

Our seats in the nosebleed level of the stadium could not have been much higher above the field without scraping the Teflon-coated roof panels. The place was filled with a surreal silence during the visiting team introductions. They featured the defense on that particular day, so I took advantage of the stage. To this day, I swear that Chris Spielman heard me yell, “YO, CHRIS!” from that third tier! The Vikings fans around me tried to get me to quiet down, but that was not going to happen. I was having the time of my life!

The Vikings struggled that day, and after screaming my head off throughout the first half, I converted a few fans to root for the Lions. By the middle of the third quarter, Barry was juking his way toward his 220 yards on the day. Our entire section was rooting for Detroit and booing Minnesota. It was epic! I am still honored to have seen No. 20, No. 81, and several others play in person.

On one of several subsequent pilgrimages to the Silverdome, I learned that my third-grade daughter needed glasses because she could not pick out Barry’s number down on the field. That same game, she asked me, “Daddy? When is it our turn to score a touchdown?” At the time, I said, “I don’t know, honey. Hopefully soon!” The correct answer, however, turned out to be never. The Lions scored six or nine points, all on-field goals, and were soundly thrashed, making for a long drive back to Wisconsin. I sent a letter to the Lions explaining my daughter’s angst, and Lions head coach Wayne Fontes sent a care package after the season was over that included an autographed team picture, a t-shirt, a pair of sweats, and other goodies. I will always appreciate his personal touch on our lives.

On Sept. 27, 2011, my son Steven and I made another trip to Minneapolis. That day, we had tickets about eight rows back from the field at about the 5-yard line. As usual, we yelled our lungs out when the Vikings had the ball. With just under two-and-a-half minutes left in the first half and the Lions down 13-0, the Vikings were backed up near their own end zone right in front of us. As we screamed at the top of our lungs, the Vikings false-started. A nearby Vikings fan turned and said to us, “I think you did that!” I agreed. After a short Donovan McNabb pass, the Vikings punted. But Minnesota would eventually add another touchdown, and the Lions found themselves down at the half, 20-0.

The Vikings would score three more points that day, and unfortunately for them, the Lions scored 26. In overtime, a 17-yard frozen rope from Matthew Stafford to Titus Young right in front of us was followed a couple of plays later by a 40-yard sideline strike to Calvin Johnson on the opposite side of the field to set up a 32-yard Jason Hanson field goal for the win. A (probably normally nice) lady two rows behind us threw her popcorn at us in disgust. We just laughed! The Lions had overcome a 20-point deficit to win the game. The ride home was sweet, with about half of it spent listening to Minnesota sports radio complaining about the day’s disaster.

I said all that to say this: I am thankful for the Detroit Lions.

The team has been woven into the fabric of my soul since I can remember. They have given my family countless opportunities to bond. I have cultivated genuine friendships online because of the Lions. Sure, there have been crushing disappointments (pound the rock, anyone?). Still, the pure elation experienced from a last-second victory is hard to recreate. The only thing that surpassed it was watching my kids struggling to compete on the wrestling mat, football field, volleyball court, or dance competition. To put it another way: My wife thinks I am crazy when I yell at the television during a game.

My week is more buoyant when the Lions win on any given week. When they make the playoffs, the winter is shorter. The spring is optimistic and fun because of the draft. The summer is about following training camp and anticipating the season. The fall…?

Oh, yes, the fall. Through all that, the Lions give me recreation and distraction from a world that is all too often grueling, negative, and harsh. Even on the weeks they lose, I appreciate the time I spend relaxing, watching the game, and interacting with my friends online. That part is always enjoyable.

Recreation brings me to my final point. That point: I hope I could offer you a perspective of how the world used to be for a displaced Lions fan and hopefully help you appreciate how things are today. These days, I cannot personally be at training camp, special events, or most games, but I count on Lions beat writers to be my eyes and ears, and I sincerely appreciate the work that every single one of them produces.

The PODcasts, articles, Twitter posts, and every other electronic mechanism available to keep me informed are pure gold to me. If you are a passionate Lions fan and the only link to your team was to stand in a JC Penny’s hoping to see a score flash across the screen, you would be thankful for the advancements in technology too!

As a business owner in Wisconsin, people tend to cringe when they find that I am not a Packer fan. The conversations usually go thus:

They’ll gasp, “Oh, no! You’re not a Bears fan, are you?”

“No. I—”

“Don’t tell me. God! Tell me you’re not a Vikings fan!”

“Haha, no. I’m not a Vikings fan. I am a Detroit Lions fan.”

“Oh.” They tilt their head, nod, and smile. “Oh! Well, that’s okay!”

I say, “I know. My Grandpa was a Lions fan. So was my dad, and my son is a Lions fan. I have sought medical attention. They say there is nothing they can do.”

People typically do not respond negatively to learning I am a Detroit fan. That’s probably because most people were not alive in the 1950s when the Lions were consistently relevant. Since then, the Lions have not been much of a threat to the rest of the division. I was not alive in the ’50s either, but my dad was at camp a year before George Plimpton, so I’ll keep using that as an excuse.

You follow the Detroit Lions, too, or you would not have read this far. You watch them every chance you get. Now it is your turn to tell me why you feel the way you do.

I look forward to reading your stories in the comments.

Bruce Walker is a long-time Lions fan and a published author. You can check out his novel Price of Time here.