The Feeble and the Damage Done

 
The television fell silent as I repeatedly slammed my fingers down on the decrease volume button and tossed the remote to the floor beside me. A strange and terrible feeling had washed over me as I watched the Lions Commandant of Craplitude, Jim Caldwell, declare that there were no tanks in Baghdad with all the emotion of a decomposing carp. Facing down an 0-3 record, Caldwell had turned in a masterful piece of absurdist performance art; rapidly oscillating between tepid defiance, throwing various players under a mutherfucking bus and demanding calm patience – despite the fact that his team has objectively played like steaming dogshit across the first three games of an NFL season that is all but over in Detroit, before hockey season had even started. The little bastard even had the nerve to take a shot at the media for stoking up anger in the fanbase; as if we, the fans, had not just watched the team shit the bed on national television three times in three tries. The press conference was the sort of thing one would only attempt for two reasons; either to actively enrage Lions fans across the world and facilitate an immediate exit from a sinking goddamn ship, or because you have absolutely no fucking clue what you’re doing and clinging to old football clichés while snapping at the media is really all you have left besides openly admitting the goddamn water is closing in around your tiny, bald head.

Normally, such a Kafkaesque display of tone deaf idiocy would send me into spasms of uncontrollable fucking rage; today’s emotions however, were somehow different. As I lay back in my chair, I felt a profound wave of bitter disappointment, hopelessness and sadness wash over me. My chest quivered with a strange sense of tightness and suddenly, before I knew what was happening, I began to weep silently through clenched, exhausted eyelids. The darkness once again spread across my tortured, enfeebled mindscape – plunging me headlong into a hellish, introspective nightmare of the variety one can only experience whilst wide awake, tripping balls on stimulants and cheap alcohol. Terrible, gnawing questions began to rise up inside my cerebral cortex, echoing out of the wretched void. How had this happened? How had I come to find myself in such pathetic misery over a mere game?

I’d been drinking constantly since the 2nd quarter on Sunday night after what may have been an unavoidable culture clash with the babbling, twenty-something glue addict who runs the counter at my local convenience store here in Toronto. Despite my best efforts to account for national customs, our conversation had turned awkward when a language barrier caused communications to break down:

Snarky francphone clerk at lunch
Snarky francophone clerk at lunch

Me: “where do you guys keep the beer in this place? I want to load up before the Lions game starts.”

Him: “Lady, I’ve told you before, we don’t sell beer – this is a convenience store.”

Me: “I’m not sure you’ve understood me Pierre. I wish to buy beer before the football game this evening and you’ll conduct this transaction in English, goddamnit! Dear Christ man, do you people expect me to watch Lions football sober?! ”

Him: “Hello?! I’m from Scarborough, its right across from Buffalo, my last name is McDonald – we don’t sell beer asshole! You’ll have to go to the LCBO like everyone else, okay?”

Me: “Fine, I’ll take two bags of chips, a pack of Camels if you’ve got those in this god forsaken country and a box of Little Debbie Snack Cakes. Make it snappy Jacques – I don’t want to miss the kickoff.”

Apparently, that was too much for the diminutive francophone and we spent the next twenty minutes arguing about whether or not Scarborough was the Quebecois word for Frogtown. Finally, he agreed to let me depart with my bounty of potentially lethal game day supplies, but the delay had already disrupted my routine. By the time I made it back from the aptly named “Beer Store” with a case of Molson and a twelve pack of Strongbow, the Lions were already down 7-0 on their way to a humiliating, soul crushing 24-12 loss to the least impressive Denver team I’ve seen since Tim Tebow was a goddamn starting quarterback in the NFL.

“Houston, we have a problem!” 2015 Cap Charge: $3.9M, Status: Retired

To be sure, watching the game itself had been a painful experience but I knew deep inside that it was not the cause for my current state of catatonic despair. After all, I had firmly expected the Lions to lose this contest and the “stunning” collapse of the team this season had been predictable as far back as 2011; when management had started throwing big dollar contracts at any mutherfucker who strung together six good goddamn games in a Lions uniform. The wheels of salary cap parity turn slowly in the National Football League, but turn they do and when that pinhead Martin Mayhew doled out significant fucking cap space to the likes of Chris Houston and Stephen Tulloch – the writing was already scrawled across the wall in blood for the Stafford-Megatron-Suh edition of the Detroit Lions. Bumbling Lions management had managed to open the team’s Superbowl window for a mere three seasons and promptly proceeded to waste two of them with an enraged fascist drill sergeant running the team into the ground. Now, Suh is gone because we didn’t save enough money to keep him and a 24 -20 loss to referee Pete Morelli and the Dallas Cowboys would serve as the high water mark in another era of Detroit’s long, dark history of pathetic pigskin failure. Just like that, the window slammed shut and the dream was over; sheer providence granted us two legendary athletes, powerful enough to finally smash the curse of Bobby Layne, only for injuries, ineptitude and a feckless front office to piss it all away a mere five years later.

No, the pain had not begun last night, this season or even this decade I realized, as I sat alone, sobbing in the darkness of my apartment. The heady burn of vomit-inducingly sweet cider and indulgent despair pulled my thoughts backward against my own will; towards the last time the Lions had crashed against the rocks after finally threatening relevance for the briefest of moments. It was 1991, the original warmongering idiot named Bush was president, and the whole fucking world was watching the final death spasms of the Soviet Union with bated breath. The Lions season had started out like any other in the agonizing existence of the franchise – with a 45 to nothing drubbing down in Washington as the entire Detroit fanbase called for coach Wayne Fontes head and an end to the “same old Lions” as soon as humanly possible. This year however, was to be a different trip altogether. Somehow, someway the humiliated Lions responded with discipline, aggression and pride. The team rallied behind the return of sublime, whirling dervish Barry Sanders and rattled off five straight wins to head into the bye in command of their own destiny. Of course, they were still the mutherfucking Detroit Lions, so they promptly went out and shit the bed – losing three of the next four games and putting starting QB Rodney Peete in goddamn traction with a season ending Achilles injury.

utley-thumbs-up
A symbol of perseverance, Utley would go on to far greater heights than the Detroit Lions

Facing a soul-crushing return to irrelevant bottom-feeder status, the Lions would once again summon the testicular fortitude to right the sinking ship – but only after a devastating tragedy that would be forever burned in the minds of every fan who witnessed it. In an eventual win against the LA Rams, guard Mike Utley’s career came to a heart-wrenching end when he injured two of his cervical vertebrae; paralyzing him from the waist down. I remembered watching the moment in stunned, silent horror as they strapped Utley into a stretcher and he bravely threw a thumps up symbol towards the crowd on his way towards the ambulance. Suddenly, football didn’t seem as important to me as it had the moment before, but it sure became important to the Detroit Lions. As news spread the week after the game that Utley would never walk again, the Lions finally united in a desperate, inspirational attempt to find some sort of meaning in the carnage that had claimed the career of a beloved co-worker. Vowing that Utley’s injury would not be for nothing, the Lions rattled off five more wins behind cool-as-cucumber backup QB Erik Kramer – winning the division and securing a home playoff game against the Dallas fucking Cowboys of all teams.

To this day, I am proud to say that I attended that game against Dallas and witnessed perhaps the finest moment in the modern history of this cursed, incompetent, sack of shit franchise. The Cowboys were too young to be the dominant, league-destroying squad they would soon grow into that day. They sold out to stop Barry Sanders at all costs, only to watch Erik Kramer tattoo their collective assess with 341 passing yards and 3 touchdowns in a glorious 38-6 Lions curbstomping. I can recall the moment like it was yesterday, even though almost twenty-five years have passed under the bridge since then. I remember feeling sad when Utley’s face flashed across the scoreboard. I remember the deafening roar of the crowd as the Lions crossed the goal line yet again, pushing the game far out of reach for the overmatched Cowboys. I remember thinking that Troy Aikman looked, and played, more like a used car salesman from somewhere in Utah than a starting NFL quarterback; surely he would soon be exposed as a massive bust. Fuck, I even remember the damp, moldy smell of the Silverdome hallways; the faint aroma of stale urine combining with the overpowering sweat of thousands of euphoric Lions fans celebrating the greatest moment in team history since the invention of color television. Most of all however, I remember being seized by the profound sense that this was only the beginning – that the Lions had finally turned the corner, that for once it would be our turn in the mutherfucking sun. I was no longer thinking about a Superbowl, but Superbowls, as in plural. Lions management had lucked into something fantastic and this saccharine dream would play out over the next decade in an unprecedented era of Motown football dominance. After all, the only people would could stop us, all worked for the team, and now that we had the right quarterback and Barry fucking Sanders, the curse of Bobby Layne was some kind of sick joke about a past we no longer felt beholden to. For one, brief but gloriously perfect moment, the Lions were a real goddamn football team – and then, they weren’t.

medium_BarrySanders
Beaten but not broken, Sanders made his final escape

The season ended the next week in Washington just as it had opened, with the helpless Lions getting run off the field by a superior goddamn football team. The next year would be marked by poor play, injuries and a mind-bogglingly stupid three-way quarterback controversy fueled by inept coaching. The Lions would finish 5-11 – embarking on a seven year journey of mediocrity and active attempts to waste the career of the greatest running back who’d ever played the game of football, Barry Sanders. The goddamn Lions have never won another playoff football game since that fateful day in the Silverdome and in fact, the prolonged period of futility before the 1991 season means that the victory represents the team’s only playoff win in the past half-century and change. Sanders would retire in abject frustration at the age of 30, before the 1999 season; leaving mental midget owner Clay Ford Sr to his own devices to start the process that would eventually culminate in the mutherfucking Matt Millen era and the only 0-16 season in the entire fucking history of the NFL.

Had that been the moment that the damage had been done? Had this deep, gut-wrenching soul pain been born in the fateful wake of that cursed 1991 Lions squad? No, I realized, for that moment was simply when I learned what a mindfucker hope can be, especially as it pertains to the Detroit Lions. Something older, more powerful and deeper in my past was pulling me into the recesses of my own twisted subconscious. Past the pain of drafting superbusts Reggie Rogers and Chuck Long, into the earliest days of my childhood love for all things Detroit Lions. The year is 1984 and I’m lying on the old shag carpet of my parent’s living room in front of a hideous, beige television. It’s my first season as an active Lions fan and boy have I picked an amazing fucking time to catch the fever. After decades of hopeless futility, the Lions are finally climbing out of the NFL shithouse behind the mind-blowing abilities of running back Billy Sims. The former number one overall draft pick is the kind of transcendent talent who can finally, once and for all, obliterate the fucking curse of Bobby Lane. With superhuman athleticism and more moves than Michael Jackson, Sims is capable of dragging the worthless fucking Lions on his back to new heights of glory; nothing can stop him, or us, now – and then of course, it did.

Superman Sims
Before Barry & Megatron, Sims was the Superman of the Silverdome

The play was a harmless sweep to the right on 2nd and 4, but it was conducted on the treacherous turf of the Minneapolis Metrodome. One of the Lions hopelessly overmatched guards missed a fucking block, forcing Sims to plant his leg on the unforgiving turf and attempt to cut upfield a fraction of a second too early. As his foot snagged a seam in the rug, Sims was struck high along the shoulder pads by a Viking linebacker and all the hopes and dreams of a little girl watching her hometown team for the very first time went up in a puff of auto factory smog. As Sims was carted off the field, I broke into open tears and asked my father if he would be able to come back to the team eventually. The old man hemmed and hawed before assuring me that the injury didn’t look too bad, but he was wrong. Just twenty-one months later, Sims would announce his retirement with an anonymous, sobbing little girl observing the whole wretched ordeal on television from miles away in Detroit. He never played another goddamn game again after the knee injury and the Lions immediately crashed back into bumbling irrelevance; starting the process that would lead to the drafting of Barry Sanders and the team’s next, desperate attempt to finally break the fucking curse of Bobby Layne.

Sliding back in the chair, I reached across the table for another Molson through heaving sobs – quickly slamming it down my gullet and praying for the blessed oblivion of a drunken blackout. I knew the truth of the whole wretched thing now, just as deep inside I had known it long before this latest iteration of the Lions collapsed under the weight of its own staggering incompetence. Unfortunately, I found no solace in the realization that there had simply never been a moment when the Lions had not caused me soul-wrenching anguish; only more gnawing, taunting questions from the darkest recesses of my booze-addled brain. Why had I not simply given up yet? Why couldn’t I shake this horrible, Honolulu blue addiction? When would I finally fucking learn not to hope? Was I stupid? Did I like the pain? Inebriated, exhausted and emotionally drained I let the empty beer bottle slip from my hands and shatter against the floor besides me, as blessed sleep wrapped me in her comforting arms. Somewhere, in the distance, Wayne the Big Buck Fontes smiled while pulling back on a fine Cuban cigar; as the ghost of Bobby Layne cackled in the cool night air of another Detroit Lions season lost before it had even started.

– Nina Illingworth