DETROIT – Some were half-dressed, others barefoot. None of them cared.
Coach Jim Schwartz addressed the Detroit Lions victorious (at last) locker room and in an unusual move told the team to get back on the field, find whatever fans were left and thank them for sticking with the team through the thinnest of thin times.
Stafford celebrates the Lions' narrow win over Washington.
(Leon Halip/US Presswire)
"We're going to go back out the tunnel and celebrate a little with the people of the stadium," he said.
So out they charged, 53 players strong, sprinting down the concrete ramp back to the Ford Field playing surface and into the waiting cheers and outstretched hands of the NFL's most die-hard fans.
They offered hugs and jumped up on the wall and mostly shared this long-coming day of delirium. The players cheered the fans. The fans returned the favor.
Detroit 19, Washington 14. The game won, the streak done, the party just begun.
Since Dec. 23, 2007, the Lions had lost every game they played, 19 in all. Many were by lopsided margins, an exercise in futility and frustration that included the first 0-16 season in NFL history.
Yet 40,000 or so showed up to watch anyway, to believe for another day.
When Detroit's Larry Foote(notes) finally tackled the Washington Redskins' Ladell Betts(notes) with time expired and the score locked into history, Ford Field rocked like a Super Bowl had been won. Players were emotional. There were tears and hugs and disbelieving high-fives. Some guys didn't know what to do.
"We got King Kong off our back," said owner William Clay Ford.
This entire thing had been hell, a dysfunctional franchise amid historic failure, so much negativity even the dream of playing professional football felt like a nightmare.
Veteran offensive lineman Dominic Raiola had grown so bitter that a year ago he flipped off some fans and then said he wished he could fight them. Sunday he was so overcome with fear he couldn't watch the final two plays, burying his head as a teammate tried to reassure him.
"I just let the crowd tell me what was going on," Raiola said.
When the fans' roar told him about the victory, he tried to hold back tears, eventually staring up at the stands and blowing kisses while shouting "thanks."
"They've been through a lot more," Raiola said of the crowd. "Not just coming here, but off the field. This city's been through a lot with the jobs and all of that. This is real little for them. But you see the joy on their face."
The Lions' victory won't pay anyone's mortgage, reopen a factory or heat a home. It won't drop the metro region's 17.7 percent unemployment rate. It will take one bit of blight away though, allow for one less punch line about this downtrodden town. At least no one has to answer for the Lions this week, including the Lions.
Seated near each other in the locker room, veteran leaders Backus and Raiola spoke in soft tones, each overwhelmed at the moment they deep down wondered possible. Backus leaned back on his stool and sighed deeply.
"It's all anyone wants to talk about it, locally and nationally," said Backus, the franchise's first pick by former general manager Matt Millen.
Down the way, second-year lineman Gosder Cherilus(notes) had just won his first NFL game. He talked about how every Sunday night his mother cooks a huge postgame dinner, a recipe from their native Haiti that calls for lots of beans and rice. And now, he said, he wouldn't have to fake his enjoyment of it.
"My mother is a great cook but it never tastes good," he said. "I don't know what she's going to make [Sunday], but I'm going to have two plates of it."
On the other side of the room was Foote, a Detroit native who back in February won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh. This wasn't better than that, but it was special in its own right. He actually wanted to return home, even as his peers laughed at the thought. Who wants to join the Lions? Now he made the final tackle on the first victory in so long, giving all those old friends from the neighborhood something to cheer.
"Maybe the next home game won't be blacked out," he said with a laugh.
The NFL's greed-driven television rules had sent people across Detroit out to enjoy a fine fall day. As word spread that the Lions were leading though – 10-0 to start, 13-0 at the half, 19-7 late – people were scrambling to pull out old radios or sitting in their cars, the big news coming old school via play-by-play man Dan Miller's voice.
"Nightmare over!" Miller shouted across the airwaves.
It was a moment of collective relief, a victory that in big ways is so small, yet in small ways so big.
Needed now because the longer it went the worse it got. The bumbling Redskins (1-2) were an opportunity that couldn't be missed, what with three tough opponents, two on the road, looming. This could easily have stretched into November and by then the NFL's all-time record, 26 losses in a row by Tampa Bay in the late 1970s, would be in play.
Washington was going to have to be the one, even before coach Jim Zorn potentially cost himself – first sending out an unmotivated team and then making a series of questionable calls.
Meanwhile, the Lions' 43-year-old, Shakespeare-quoting, rookie-head coach Schwartz, who had daringly waded into this graveyard of jobs, was riding high. He had worked during the week to instill confidence as much as install a game plan. The losing streak, he had come to realize, loomed over all.
"If we act like an 0-19 team, then we're going to lose again," Schwartz said.
So he fell back to the most basic of basics.
"What we talked about in the offensive meeting [was] score more points than the defense allows," Raiola said.
When you're staring down your 20th consecutive loss, sometimes that's how simple you need to make it.
It helped that strong-armed rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) not only avoided an interception, he repeatedly made brilliant down-field passes. Or that the tandem of Calvin and Bryant Johnson(notes) kept snaring them out of the air. Or that Kevin Smith hammered out 101 yards before getting injured.
Mostly though it was a full-roster win, everyone pitching in however they could. The much-maligned defense set the tone with a first-quarter goal-line stand. Six Lions ran with the ball. Eight caught passes. At one point the offense had converted 9 of 11 third downs. Calvin Johnson(notes) even went in on defense for the final play.
By the end, all over Ford Field there was joy and relief, elation and emotion.
In his corner of the locker room Stafford wore his youthful smile. Just 21 and unburdened with last year's humiliation, this was more about winning his first game. The kid's cool and confident; the No. 1 pick overall who, for one, never doubted this was coming.
As the veterans were choking up and offering perspective, he was searching for jokes to tell while pulling on his jeans. He shouted across to his fellow rookie, tight end Brandon Pettigrew(notes), and reminded him that the thrill of victory wasn't going to erase the memory of one embarrassing in-game incident.
"Don't think anyone's forgetting you puked on the field," Stafford said.
Pettigrew dropped his head and laughed. Stafford laughed harder.
It was the sweet sound of victory in Detroit.