As the Detroit Tigers prepared to play the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Division Series last Tuesday night at Comerica Park, a handful of Detroit Lions players made their way to their seats and were immediately gripped by versions of the same thought: This was the atmosphere all professional athletes crave. This was what it means to bring a city together. This was what it felt like to play on a national stage — one that doesn’t fall on Thanksgiving day, with the Lions playing the role of the turkey. ¶ “It was crazy,” wide receiver Calvin Johnson said. “People were waving towels and stuff. The game hadn’t even started, but it was already bonkers in there.” ¶ Not far away, veteran wideout Nate Burleson and running back Mo Morris were sounding jealous tones, lamenting the Lions’ own hype deficit in recent years — the local television blackouts and the national invisibility: “Sometime our games aren’t even shown on the highlights on ESPN,” Burleson said, shaking his head. ¶ But all the Lions had to do to remember how far they have come and what lies in store for them was to look over their left shoulders. Next door to the baseball stadium, Ford Field, the Lions’ own 65,000-seat coliseum, sat dark at that moment. But in a matter of days it would be the center of the NFL universe.
On Monday night, the Lions, 4-0 on the season for the first time in three decades, will host the Chicago Bears in the franchise’s first “Monday Night Football” game since 2001. A team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2000, and that just three years ago endured the only 0-16 campaign in NFL history, has officially arrived. No more visits from Fox’s fifth-team announcing duo for the Lions. This is the real deal: Tirico, Gruden and Jaws.
“To come from where we’ve been, to now being on, really, an international stage — it’s going to be exciting,” Burleson said. “It’s the closest thing guys are going to get to the playoffs who haven’t been.”
The Lions’ slow, methodical march into the national football consciousness, which culminates Monday night, has been a stealth campaign, but one you could have seen coming if you were paying close enough attention. They struck gold on three recent high-profile draft picks — Johnson (No. 2 overall in 2007), quarterback Matthew Stafford (No. 1 overall in 2009) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (No. 2 overall in 2010). Johnson and Suh may be the best in the game right now at their positions, and Stafford, after an injury-plagued 2010, carries a season passer rating of 100.3 into the Bears game.
“From the day he stepped on campus, he had great command over the offense,” Lions Coach Jim Schwartz said of Stafford. “What we’ve managed to do is put more talent around him. It looks like he’s developed more, but Matt’s pretty good.”
Still, few noticed when the Lions won their last four games of the 2010 season, salvaging a 6-10 record, or when they won a tough game at Tampa Bay to open 2011. But then they demolished Kansas City, 48-3, in Week 2 — a score that invites attention.
It was what happened next that turned the Lions into a national story. In successive weeks, on the road, they found themselves trailing by 20 points at halftime to Minnesota, then by 24 points early in the third quarter to Dallas — then stormed back to win both games, the first time in NFL history a team has overcome 20-point second-half deficits in consecutive weeks.
“You can’t come back like that with just one freaky play,” Schwartz said. “You gotta put a string of plays together, and you can’t do it with just one side of the football. . . . We have some firepower and we can get hot. We need to play a little more consistently.”
If anyone embodies the Lions’ newfound swagger and attitude, it may be Schwartz, a 45-year-old who tweets the musical selections on his iPod from the team bus on Sundays (in Dallas, he went for local flavor and hair bands: Pantera’s “Cowboys From Hell” and W.A.S.P.’s “Blind in Texas”) and who doesn’t, under any circumstances, take any bull from anyone.
Already this season, Schwartz has been caught on camera shouting an expletive at Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, has taken a verbal jab in a news conference at Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and has called out one of his own players publicly for a “stupid” penalty.
Schwartz’s resume, among other things, includes stints as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans during a stretch of four playoff appearances for the franchise; a scout for the Cleveland Browns whom Bill Belichick once called “probably the smartest guy” on the Belichick coaching tree; and a linebacker for the Georgetown Hoyas in the late 1980s.
At a time when the Lions are looking ahead to playing on the “big stage” of MNF, that last bit from his biography offers ample ammunition for inside-the-locker-room ribbing from Schwartz’s players. Georgetown was a Division III program when Schwartz played there, and the school hasn’t had anyone play in an NFL game since 1956. What, pray tell, was the biggest stage Schwartz ever played on — those epic Georgetown-Catholic clashes at Kehoe Field in front of a couple thousand spectators?
“Sometimes I’ll tell him, ‘I don’t remember seeing you guys play on TV,’ ” Lions backup quarterback Shaun Hill, a University of Maryland product, said with a grin.
If anything, Schwartz’s humble beginnings give him a plucky, underdog veneer that resonates in this broken but resolute city. Detroit’s economic plight has been well-chronicled — the struggles of the automotive industry, the corporate abandonment, the 25 percent population loss during the 2000s. For the Lions, that reality has strengthened their ties with their community.
“I think [the players] have a lot of belief in themselves, but also belief in their teammates,” Schwartz said. “And the city is sort of the same way. People believe in themselves, and they believe in their city. And when you have those ingredients, you can bounce back from a lot of bad times.”
The night before home games, the Lions stay in a restored luxury hotel downtown, and a five-minute walk from there to Ford Field takes one past block after block of abandoned office buildings and retail space. On one such block last week, a solitary figure stood on a corner looking at one of those buildings for a good, long time. What could be so riveting?
It was this: A crane was humming and screeching, carrying steel and concrete to a building being torn down and built back up. The man watching was named Dave Sucharsky of nearby Gibraltar, Mich., a retired engineer who worked downtown for 25 years and who had returned to visit some old friends and do some shopping.
A new Lions hat stood perched on his head, and a Tigers pullover across his chest. More team-logoed merchandise poked out of shopping bags in his hand.
“The Tigers in the playoffs, the Lions on ‘Monday Night Football’ and cranes on Woodward Avenue — we haven’t seen those things around here in a while,” Sucharsky said. “It just proves, Detroit’s heart is still beating.”