As the Bears prepare for a cake walk Sunday, I have a confession to make. I am a Detroit Lions fan.
Like many of you born into a lifetime of football futility, I simply rooted for the team from my home state. I was born less than six miles from the Pontiac Silverdome. It was inevitable. You grow up in Michigan, you root for the Lions. Like kids born to a trapeze artist; if you're a Wallenda, you're not going to grow up to be a dentist.
Strangely enough, my earliest football memory was Super Bowl XX. I rooted for the Bears because my 6-year-old brain told me I should root for the team from America over the team from England. I almost wish someone had punched me in the face to explain the concept of New England. In any case, it was easy for a kid to love a team with a guy named "Fridge" on it.
I really honed in on football in 1989 when I started collecting football cards. Soon I was intimately familiar with players named Tunch Ilkin and Donald Igwebuike. But I needed a team to call my own. The Bengals had the allure of the Ickey Shuffle. The Colts had an awesome running back named Eric Dickerson. But 1989 was the year I fell in love with a rookie running back named Barry Sanders.
You remember Barry. He was the blue streak that twisted, turned and teleported through defenses every single Sunday. He shook some of the NFL's greatest defenders out of their shoes. (See the highlights here.) His ankles, hips, shoulders and head were constantly swiveling like a tornado. You couldn't catch him, you would just have to hope he'd run into you and fall over. Watching Barry whirl his way toward the end zone was like watching a bubble racing toward the surface of the ocean.
But in 1999, that bubble burst. Barry walked away within easy reach of Walter Payton's all-time rushing record. To use a Motor City metaphor, the engine just fell out of our car. And the Lions coasted down a long road of failure that ended with a dead stop. The unforgivable season of 2008. Zero wins. Zero. An entire year without victory.
My family came together for the final game that season. I bought Sweet 16 decorations to celebrate our 16th consecutive defeat. We wore paper bags on our heads. No team in history had lost all 16. At least they did something worth remembering.
In the years that followed, the team has improved. Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson give us reason to hope. But for every glimmer of greatness, there's another shattered Matt Stafford shoulder. And then the backup QB goes down. And before you know it, you're starting your third stringer for the stretch run of the season.
Some might accuse me of pessimism by expecting the Lions to lose Sunday. But we're on our third string QB. How confident would you be if Caleb Hanie were behind the wheel? Plus, you have a defense. My Lions have Alphonso Smith, who orbited Deion Branch for 50 yards on Thanksgiving, failing even to shove him out of bounds. I've seen better tackle attempts in Merchant Ivory films.
I know it's been a rough 25 years for you Bears fans. But you did have a Super Bowl appearance four years ago. And you look great for the playoffs this year. Even in the dark times, you can remember a larger-than-life figure like Ditka. Who am I supposed to remember fondly? Wayne Fontes?
In my entire life, the Lions have one playoff victory. One. I've been alive 33 years. I think the Iraqi army has a better winning percentage.
Perhaps naively, I thought this year might be different. When Calvin Johnson touched down in the end zone in Game One, I jumped off my couch and shouted for joy. We were 1-0. We'd just won on the road. With three young studs, this could be our year to challenge for the playoffs. But the refs stopped time. They said a touchdown wasn't a touchdown. The dream was denied. Reality came crashing down. Yet another classic Lions moment. Right up there with the time Marty Mornhinweg won the overtime coin toss and chose the wind over possession. And the moment later this season when we had a 307-pound defensive lineman attempt an extra point... which he missed... and the game ended in an overtime loss.
So why do I keep rooting? I remember the Boston Red Sox fans in 2004. The joy of seeing a curse lifted is greater than any celebration Yankee fans will ever know. I hope that one day, I will see my Lions hoist the Lombardi trophy. I will probably cry and turn to my brothers and repeat over and over, "I don't believe it."
But hey, at least I have the Red Wings.
Oh, wait. You won the Cup earlier this year.
I should stop writing before I remember the current state of the Pistons.