Thursday, November 12, 2009

Taking Back Sunday

Sunday afternoon. Those words used to mean something around here. There might have been leaves to rake, errands to run, or in-laws to visit, but all of those things would have to be worked in carefully. Around the Lions game. You could make plans for later in the day, or even for brunch in the mid-morning, but being occupied from those sacred hours of 1:00-4:00 Eastern Standard Time?? Not happening. That was Lions time. No, our boys in Honolulu Blue were not perennial Super Bowl participants; but you'd better believe they would be fighting for one of those last playoff spots come late December. They had a Hall-of-Fame running back (Barry) and a semi-intelligent coach (Wayne-O), and that was good enough for us. Good enough to carve out that crucial make-or-break portion of our Sunday. But those days are no longer. The Lions took our loyalty, and abused the privilege. We no longer feel burdened on the final day of the weekend. Once again, the time is ours.

You could say I grew up in the heyday of Detroit Lions football. The numbers don't lie. In the 1970s, the Leos made exactly one playoff appearance. In the 80s, that number doubled to two. (And one of those was the fluky strike-shortened '82 campaign when the NFL invited practically every team to the playoffs, including the 4-5 Lions.) All of a sudden, the 90s came along, and the Lions were almost annual postseason participants. They went dancing a whopping six times, and even managed to snag the first and only playoff win in their history. Those were the days. The Silverdome was rockin' and rollin', with as much brawling in the stands as there was on the field. Barry Sanders was in his prime, cementing his legacy as quite possibly the most entertaining athlete in Detroit sports history. Herman Moore and Brett Perriman combined to form one of the most dangerous receiving combos in the league. The defense, while unspectacular, was nothing like the group of sieves that occupy Ford Field today. The coaching of Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross was never going to be confused with the likes of Lombardi or Halas, but it was serviceable, and each guy carried their own little unique charm. And finally, that special group that has defined this franchise for centuries...the quarterbacks.

It was most definitely a ragtag bunch of journeymen, but somehow each was usually able to put it all together for a few weeks, or even a season. Erik Kramer looked like a future star in '91. Rodney Peete never quite panned out, but on a good day, he could still qualify as some kind of poor man's Randall Cunningham. Dave Krieg dusted off the cobwebs for a playoff run. Scott Mitchell, though wildly inconsistent and often downright horrendous, was still capable of slicing and dicing a secondary ('95) when he had perfect protection and the aid of All-Pro receivers. Hell, even the severely washed up Gus Frerotte could call himself a Lions playoff quarterback by decade's end. Save for the typical playoff disaster where #20 would run for -12 yards and the game would be decided by halftime, you felt pretty cozy being a Lions fan during the 1990s. You could spend those Sundays doing whatever your heart desired, but chances are as the clock ticked towards 1:00, you were scrambling to rouse up some corned beef and a bag of Ruffles before the opening kickoff descended on Mel Gray's waiting hands. But times have changed. And so have our Sundays.

That "pull" is gone now. That feeling that used to inevitably creep into your brain telling you, "Stop, drop and roll. It's time to watch three consecutive hours of Lions football" is a thing of the past. Sunday is a day for the cider mill now. It's a day for hitting golf balls or catching a flick. Even if you find it necessary to watch TV, the other options are far more satisfying than another Lions' stinker. There's the AFC game on CBS. There's the highly underrated PBA tourney on ESPN. I'll even go so far as to flip on CBC and watch a healthy matinée dose of Raptors' basketball. After the triumvirate of Mornhinweg, Mariucci, and Marinelli produced one of the sickest runs of futility in the history of professional sports, what choice were we really left with? Were we supposed to blindly continue to devote precious chunks of our Sunday to watch a rookie QB throw ducks into the wind? To watch mooks like William James and Eric King unsuccessfully try to impersonate real-life NFL cornerbacks? Even if we moved past all that, and decided to subject ourselves to this horror, most of the home games are blacked out due to dwindling home crowds that are no longer measured in thousands, but in dozens.

To watch the Leos now, you have to be willing to get dirty. My buddy BK, perhaps the most die-hard Lions fan in the state, spends his Sunday afternoons hacking bootleg websites and streaming fuzzy pictures to his computer. God forbid he misses one of those riveting Casey Fitzsimmons 3-yard catches or the similarly timeless Cliff Avril 15-yard facemask penalties. You gotta respect BK's desire and undying loyalty, but at the same time, you worry that this kind of behavior can only end in disaster, with the next Nick Harris 28-yard shank job sending him right over the edge and into a lifetime catatonic state that could only be cracked with a Lions' Super Bowl appearance. Somebody better go unplug that modem...immediately.

My Sundays have changed quite a bit from those salad days of the 1990s. Back then, the day would be mapped out around the Lions. Where can we go grab a bite and watch the game? Who should we have over the house to watch the game? Is there any way to kidnap Brian Baldinger to prevent him from announcing this game? But now things are different. I'll flip on the game for a few minutes in the first half. Maybe a couple more plays here and there. If it's close late in the game, maybe I'll come along for the ride. But if I happen to miss the entire 60 minutes, then that's fine, too...I'm not gonna lose any sleep. Nobody gets together anymore to watch the Lions. And why would they? It's like having a viewing party to root on the Washington Generals. You already know the outcome, so why put in the time and effort? You can catch the highlights on the 11 O' Clock News for a fraction of the emotional price. The philosopher Albert Schewitzer once said, "Do not let Sunday be taken from you. If your soul has no Sunday, it becomes an orphan." The Lions have stolen our Sundays for a very long time, but we tolerate it no longer. The day is ours now, Lions-free. And fear not; the resulting void in our souls will be filled in no time. The PBA Tour season is right around the corner...

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