Before anything else, if you remember one thing from this piece, let it be this: It's not that they lost, it's how they lost.
There's an intrinsic self-deprecation that has always been a part of being from Michigan. From the brutal winters, the decline of Detroit as a premier city, the embarrassment of missing aid for Flint's water, and the sheer existence of Kid Rock, there were a lot of reasons to shrug sheepishly when one would have to admit they were from Michigan.
And that's not even counting the dreaded Michigan accent, that seems to burst forth from our noses and neglect t's and drop g's. Our vernacular is saturated with "Ope" and "Meijers." You can absolutely tell someone is from Michigan because their accent is an embarrassment even in the entirety of the Midwest, which is astounding because have you heard people from Minnesota?
All that front-and-center shameful Michigander nonsense is woven together in that tapestry of self-deprecation, yes, and one of the most pronounced threads is Honolulu blue; the Detroit Lions have been emblematic of the state.
Like the city they hail from, the Lions were once a powerul force on the country's landscape, albeit on the sporting side. They collected four NFL championships from their relocation in 1934 to 1957, where they defeated Jim Brown's Cleveland Browns in the final without quarterback face of the franchise Bobby Layne.
Yet things went downhill for the Lions in the Super Bowl era. I'm sure you're familiar with the stats (they've been front and center for each playoff game this season...): one playoff win in 1991, the lone win in a playoff record of 1-12 from 1970 to 2016. Their last division title was in 1993. And still, despite Hall of Famer (and best RB of all time) Barry Sanders, the Lions couldn't find success.
Hell, the team's consistent losing and franchise incompetence were driving forces for Sanders to retire early. And he wasn't the only generational player to do that! Calvin Johnson, one of the single most gifted WR of all time, was ground down by the losing and the ineptitude and also retired early.
(I could honestly write for another 7,000 words about how the team was run by short-sighted executives and a front office that used crayons, but I'll give two examples of bungled personnel decisions that haunt me to this day. First, according to former Lions coach Wayne Fontes, the Lions could've had the legendary Joe Montana when he was looking for a move out of San Francisco. Apparently the Lions GM declined, stating that Montana was old...and was suspiciously quiet when Montana led the Kansas City Chiefs to a division title and two playoffs in 1993.
(Second, in 1998, the Lions used the 20th pick of the NFL draft on Terry Fair, a diminutive cornerback out of Tennesee. Fair was as notable a corner as he was a kick returner...which was mediocre. With the 21st pick in the draft --the very next goddamned pick-- divisional rival Minnesota took wide reciever Randy Moss out of Marshall. Yes, that Randy Moss.)
It all culminated in 2008, where former player/talking head Matt Millen's guidance saw the team finish winless for an entire season, going 0-16 and becoming the punchline for all of Michigan. Late night television used them countless times as a punching bag, a pathetic stand-in for a state that was being run poorly and whose denizens were left with little to be glad about during a national recession. It was miserable.
One of my favorite stories about my late father in law gets told every year when the Lions are doing poorly... which is to say it gets told literally every year. At one point his family forbid him from watching any Detroit Lions game because it affected his mood so negatively, and would cause him such grief, that he wouldn't be enjoyable to be around.
I imagine that was the case for a lot of Lions fans during the previous dark eras; This team wouldn't just lose games, it would lose them in a way that would take your heart and just shit in it. Like, they found ways to squander leads slowly, methodically, like a man bleeding to death with a gut shot. Or maybe they'd switch gears and get waffle-stomped right out of the gate, their oppenents piling up points, and having the game be decided before the first quarter even ended. Watching Lions games became an exerecise in masochism.
Like I alluded to earlier, Michigan is an absolutely abysmal place to live during the winter. Lake effect snowstorms can destroy roads and plans (as well as power grids), and since it's the only state surround by lakes you can imagine that there's basically no place to hide. It gets so bleak that sometimes Michiganders don't get to see the sun for months.
Coupling the unending gray skies with unpredictable weather can lead to Season Affective Disorder. SAD occurs when a human body doesn’t receive any natural sunlight, thus affecting your body’s internal clock and reduces your level of serotonin. This causes the afflicted to feel endlessly tired, moody, and sluggish. And if you combine SAD with traditional forms of depression? You can imagine how grim things can feel.
Succinctly put, during the NFL regular season, Michganders struggle to find happiness inside (Lions games) or outside (winter) for nearly a third of the year.
A funny thing happened in 2021: the Lions brought Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell into the fold.
Holmes was the assistant general manager of the St Louis/LA Rams, a team forever on the cusp of doing something cool, the shadow to inventive and daring GM Les Sneed. Campbell was a tight ends coach in New Orleans, previously a coach (interim head coach at one point) in Miami. They were hires that were greeted with all the gusto of two white people smiling at each other on a sidewalk - no teeth, no joy, no time to stop.
The team itself was coming off a toxic period where two dorks were trying to create a junior varisty version of the New England Patriots and failing miserably, so spirits weren't exactly high. These were the Same Old Lions they've always been, and a quotable press conference from Campbell wouldn't change that.
...Or would it?
Over the course of three years, almost coinciding with a time of rejuvination in Michigan, the Lions began to start shedding their mediocrity. They lost in droves the first year, sure, but the losses felt different. They were close, sometimes bold. The team started to target players with not just talent, but character that reflected the team itself. Campbell had the athletes playing better, and Holmes kept bringing in crowds of players that were perfect fits. They strung a few victories together, then some more.
The culture around the organization started changing, hearts melted, hope was embraced. As Michigan went, so did the Lions; things were on the up and up. The second season became the third, and all the previous groundwork began to manifest in a team that wasn't just winning, but winning games they never would have before. The roster was full of gritty, talented guys with sometihng to prove. This team reflected the city of Detroit in all its blue-collared glory, and was embraced by citizens from the top of the Upper Penninsula to the depths of the border (looking at you, Toledo).
They represented us, and made us forget about the embarrassments of the past.
Until Sunday night, when it all came back in stomach-churning agony.
It's hard to tell if it was Josh Renolds' drop on the first attempt at a fourth down conversion, or when the ball clanked off Kindle VIldor's face and into Brandon Ayuk's hands that signalled that this was going to be a vintage Lions loss. Both were fluky plays, as Reynolds had been as dependable as the sunrise in the playoffs, and nothing too fucky happened yet to the milquetoast secondary, but they were turning points nonethless.
The Lions stormed out to a big lead, at 24-7 halftime, and it felt like the entire country was thrilled for not just fans of the team, but also for the folks with Michigan coarsing through their veins. This was going to be a triumph the likes of which had never been seen: the Lions are one of the few remaining teams (and only non-expansion team) to have never even played in a Super Bowl. This was a new era, this was the culmination of the impossible becoming tangible.
But the turning point came like a punch to the gut, and all the old feelings of helpless came flooding back, PTSD for SOL. It was a vintage choke job, where it's almsot happening in slow motion, and nothing is going right and all you want to do is change the channel or go to sleep or go to a goddamn cider mill for some goddamn donuts and a goddamn jug of apple cider but you CAN'T because the Lions are melting in front of your eyes like they've done countless times before and holy shit why am I in the fetal position on the couch?
Yet, honestly, it's not that they lost the game that hurts. Before the game started, most folks thought that the 49ers would win - they were the higher seed, theyd been a contending team longer, and holy God the Lions secondary is so so bad. But to have bought in so deeply to the change in attitude and culture from this team, to see the improvements every week, to witness a team be resurrected from the ground up...it felt like an emotional betrayal.
"You weren't supposed to hurt me like this anymore."
The dust has settled now. We've had a night to sleep it off. Cooler heads are prevailing now, and we're able to see the season in the warm light of day. This was the best season of professional football the State of Michigan has ever seen. This is the best leadership -- in the locker room, on the sidelines, and in the office -- that we've ever witnessed in the Honolulu Blue. Next season promises (and it's hard for me to even think this, let alone type it out) an even better team, with improvements across the board and new Holmes gems to be added. And Campbell will be another year better as a coach, implementing his hard-learned lessons into his aggressive repitoire.
But it's hard to let this one go. Not with how far we've come, as a team, as a state, and as post-lockdown people. We opened our hearts to that scrappy bunch, we learned to trust again. And yet in the end they lost in a way that was all too familiar, that churned up the cynical gunk at the bottom of our emotions. You're never hurt more than by those you love, and by god we loved that team.
You see, it's not that they lost that hurts, but how they lost.