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ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Matthew Stafford(notes) was flat on his back, surrounded on the sideline by the Detroit Lions' medical staff. This was last November, the Lions with just one win on the season and down six to the Cleveland Browns. There was no time on the clock, but still one chance: The Browns had been called for end-zone interference on a Stafford mini-Hail Mary that the quarterback had released just before getting blasted.
That's when Stafford heard the words he wanted to hear.
It wasn't the doctors saying his separated shoulder was good enough to return to action – Stafford didn't care about their opinion. If he could grip the ball, he was playing. By being taken off the field due to injury though, he wasn't eligible to return.
Then the Ford Field public address announcer declared Cleveland had taken a time-out.
"Hey," Stafford yelled to the doctors, "that's a time-out. I can play."
He battled to his feet and immediately got in the face of head coach Jim Schwartz. "I can throw it if you need it," he said. He repeated that to his offensive coordinator. Soon enough, Stafford was whipping a game-winner to tight end Brandon Pettigrew(notes) and then celebrating with his arm hanging low and a grimace on his face.
And with that, a budding quarterbacking legend was born in Detroit. Even better, Stafford was miked up that game by the NFL, and the footage became an instant classic among long-suffering Lions fans.
Here was a young quarterback with the guts to match his obvious skill. Here was a guy who was as desperate to win – even if it was just the second victory of another lost season – as the fans.
"He earned a lot of stripes with this city with that Cleveland game," Schwartz said this week at Lions training camp. "[I'm] buried in here [working] but I still go to Target. I still stop at too many fast food restaurants. I talk with the fans and they talk about him.
"I think the city respects that [play]. It respects that he isn't a prima donna and isn't a guy who shies away from the physical nature of the quarterback position.
"They're excited about having a quarterback that No. 1 is a good player, but No. 2 is a guy that they can relate to."
Stafford threw 20 interceptions last season and just 13 touchdowns. His quarterback rating was an anemic 61.0. The team went 2-14. Yet there aren't many fan bases more confident and excited about their QB than Detroit.
To be a Lions fan is to expect the worst. This is the only continuously operating original franchise to never appear in a Super Bowl. It's had just one playoff victory since 1957. It once let Matt Millen make all the draft picks, an experiment that culminated in the league's only 0-16 season. This year is the first time since 2000 that the Lions team returned the same head coach and both coordinators.
Hotshot rookies have breezed in and out for decades. Some couldn't play. Some wouldn't stop smoking pot. Some were just overwhelmed by the culture of losing. Some never connected with the city or the fans. After years and years of supposed-saviors, Stafford's arrival was met with caution. He was expected to prove himself.
Amazingly he did. If nothing else he took over a horrible team and kept smiling and acting positive. Everyone could see that a sieve of an offensive line and a lack of a running game was half of the on-field problems. The two-win season was bad, but considering recent history, it was improvement.
And then there was the Cleveland game, the take-notice performance of the season.
So now, for the first time since Barry Sanders retired early rather than continue with this woebegone franchise, there's a potential star to believe in. To judge the level of fan desperation, Stafford's 8-of-11, one-TD preseason performance against Pittsburgh last week left radio-show callers breathless – not that anyone is predicting more than six wins.
Then there's the likeability factor. Stafford hails from suburban Dallas, played college ball at Georgia and owns a $41.7 million contract, yet he's connected with this blue-collar Midwestern town.
He didn't move into a gated community in a tony suburb. Stafford, 22, bought a condo in downtown Royal Oak, a popular spot for guys his age. He's seen in restaurants and stores all over. He wants to be around people. He doesn't want to just work here. He wants to live here.
"The people here, they probably see me out more than maybe some other guys," Stafford said. "Everybody has their own way of handling that kind of stuff. I'd prefer to keep living like a normal person."
Then there are the testimonials from the locker room. His teammates saw a high-profile, filthy rich quarterback arrive and immediately impress them with a common-guy attitude and the work ethic of a training-camp invitee.
"When a guy gets a contract like that there's kind of two ways to take it," said veteran lineman Jon Jansen(notes). "One is, 'Hey, I've arrived, I'm good, I just need to go out and play.' Or, 'Hey, I want to go out and prove I'm not just worth this, I'm worth more.' And he is trying to make everyone know he's worth what the Lions are spending."
Offensive lineman Dominic Raiola(notes) tells another story. Stafford heard that one of the free-agent tight ends who was just trying to make the team didn't have a car for training camp. So Stafford loaned him one of his dealer comp cars.
"He respects everybody in this locker room," Raiola said. "He comes in every day and comes to work. You've got to respect that. The amount of money he's getting paid, the position he's in, it's hard to find these days."
Stafford understands this about the quarterback position – in the end you get judged on wins and losses. He already has all the money he needs. He's here to rack up wins. And if your teammates aren't with you, that statistic is going to suffer.
"There are a lot of guys with a lot of talent in this league, which, for whatever reason, may not play as well as people expect them to," Stafford said. "And there are a lot of guys who people may say don't have as much talent, who wind up playing well and getting teams to win. That leadership quality and just knowing how to play the game of football [will] get you a long way."
No one inside the Lions organization was surprised Stafford took that final snap against Cleveland, despite having a separated shoulder. They'd come to expect it.
"The most telling thing about that wasn't that he got off the ground and went back in the game," Schwartz said. "A lot of guys have done that. But he was off his feet with a separated shoulder and had the presence of mind to hear the public address announcer say, 'There's a time-out, Cleveland.' And the first thing that popped into his mind is, 'I can go back into the game.' "
Everyone outside the franchise suddenly had the proof they needed. The Lions wouldn't win another game, but it hardly mattered. Another high draft pick netted man-eating defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes). Speedy tailback Jahvid Best(notes) came later in the first round. The offensive line was bulked up.
There's some talent in Detroit. There's some optimism. Fans feel they can believe. In perhaps the ultimate stamp of local approval, at a local concert this month, Kid Rock had some Lions highlights appear on the video screen during one of his songs. The image of Stafford earned a wild ovation.
"Really?" Stafford said when told of it. "That's pretty sweet."
It's a new season in Detroit. And they've got themselves a quarterback to believe in.
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