Longtime Lion reflects on losses, embarrassmentsDominic Raiola finally has reason to smile after years of misery
DETROIT – Dominic Raiola(notes) has been the starting center of the Detroit Lions for most of the last 11 seasons. In 2001 he arrived from the University of Nebraska, an All-American set to join a 9-7 team that was one victory from the playoffs and still rumored to be getting Barry Sanders back.
"I was ecstatic," he said.
Instead he wound up snapping balls to Charlie Batch(notes), Ty Detmer, Mike McMahon, Joey Harrington(notes), Jeff Garcia(notes), Dan Orlovsky(notes), Jon Kitna(notes), J.T. O'Sullivan(notes), Drew Stanton(notes), Drew Henson(notes), Daunte Culpepper, Shaun Hill(notes) and Matthew Stafford(notes).
"Man," Raiola laughed, "that's a lot of quarterbacks."
Did we miss any?
"I snapped to Jim Harbaugh in the preseason my rookie year," he said of the now coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions' Week 6 opponent.
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Fourteen quarterbacks is a number that speaks to a struggling team, yet it's hardly the ugliest stat of Raiola's less than dreamlike career. That would be 121, as in total losses – the worst in the NFL during that stretch.
There's been none this year, however. The Lions are, of course, 4-0 and hosting Chicago on Monday Night Football. Raiola was there for Detroit's last MNF appearance, a 35-0 shellacking by the St. Louis Rams in 2001 that left Lions fans chanting "Let's Go Red Wings."
You could say that was embarrassing but Raiola doesn't even remember it. You can hardly blame him. Until this season, his entire career has been a series of bizarre, depressing events as one of the few good players on the worst team in the league.
Raiola isn't bound for Canton but you can't play 11 seasons in the league unless you're a very good football player.
He just shrugs. This was his career and at this point, he isn't changing any of it. He could've left Detroit as a free agent following the 2009 season. But despite all the losing and all the heartbreak and all the frustrations and all the rebuilding plans, he told his agent he wanted a contract extension instead of hitting the open market.
"It was here or nowhere else," he said.
What's it like being a good player trapped in a bad franchise? Consider some of the "highlights" of his career.
Such as the time new coach Marty Mornhinweg (one of five Raiola's played for) decided to set the tone in training camp by throwing the team out of practice and then dramatically driving off on his Harley-Davidson.
"People said he did it because [Mike] Holmgren did it in Green Bay," Raiola said. "He was trying to send a message or something. I don't know."
Did it work?
"We started off 0-12 that year."
How about the Cleveland game his rookie year when Detmer threw a near-NFL record seven interceptions?
"I was just like, 'This can't be what the NFL is like,' " he said with a laugh.
How about the time Orlovsky earned a safety by running out of his own end zone despite not being pressured?
"At that time I was [blocking and was] like, 'What just happened?' They showed it [on the Jumbotron] and it was one of those moments where you're like, 'Wow, did that just happen?' "
Then there was the time that the Lions waived Tatum Bell(notes) and signed Rudi Johnson(notes). When Johnson showed up in the locker room, he left his luggage unattended. When he returned it was gone. Security cameras showed Bell taking it (Bell returned it and said it was an innocent mistake. Johnson didn't believe him).
"That was where we were as an organization. It was sort of like, 'Yeah, that's how it is here.' "
The Matt Millen era produced no lack of embarrassment, famously highlighted by the Lions defying all logic and using a top 10 draft pick on a wide receiver three consecutive years: Charles Rogers (2003), Roy Williams (2004) and Mike Williams (2005).
"The three wide receivers? I actually trusted what was going on upstairs. You have to take the good out of it. Charles Rogers? That's the hometown guy. Yes, Andre Johnson(notes) was there, but hometown guy might work out.
"Then the next year was Roy. Then I was like, 'Well, Charles was hurt, maybe this will work.' We could get two guys healthy.
"Then Mike Williams. I still tried to take the good. 'OK, he sat out a year but still he was talented at USC.' Then when that didn't work out I think I was like, 'Wow, those were bad drafts.' "
Bad drafts were a Lions staple. Raiola recalls a time he and others decided to figure out how bad.
"One day, some of us sat down and looked at the rest of the NFL's drafts during those years. And we saw who would've been available. Wow. That was crazy."
All the losing, capped by the NFL's only 0-16 season ever in 2008, eventually ground down the normally positive Raiola. That year he said he was so sick of Lions fans heckling the team he flipped some off. He then said he'd give out his home address for anyone who wanted to come by and try to fight him but he was worried someone might show up with a gun.
"I'd do that, but you can't," he said at the time. "Nobody plays with fists. Everybody wants to play with metal."
"Frustration," Raiola recounted last week. "It was more because I don't think they felt where I was coming from. Obviously I don't want to fight any of my fans. I don't want to fight anyone in Detroit. I love this city. I've given 11 years of my work to it. I want to reward them with wins.
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"It was just frustrating getting booed. How many years were we booed? Six years? It gets on you."
A year later he got into it again with fans who were all over then-rookie Stafford.
"Give this kid a chance," he said. "I saw what happened with Joey [Harrington] and I wasn't going to let that happen again and let that ride. I knew that kid was special."
There's more, of course. So many crazy losses, so many ridiculous moments, so much mayhem he can't even remember it all.
There was the time Mornhinweg won the coin toss in overtime and took the wind, not the ball (the Bears promptly drove down for the win). There were Millen's many antics, from using a slur to describe Johnnie Morton to various bizarre personnel moves. And of course, there was the assistant coach who got drunk and entered a Wendy's drive-thru naked.
There were, well, there was pretty much everything. Except Raiola never, ever, lost faith that it would work out. He laughs at himself.
"For me every year was: this could be the year. Every time. Every year. At the beginning of the season I always said, 'This could be it. We could be one of those teams that go from worst-to-first.'
"Every year I kept believing."
Raiola had grown up watching his father work as a lineman for the phone company, putting in long hours without complaint. His mother serviced loans for a bank. They were workers. He became a worker. He's been injured just once, starting 104 consecutive games during one stretch. And no matter how hopeless the seasons got, Raiola never stopped giving maximum effort.
"It's a bad feeling when you know the team has checked out," he said. "All I knew was make sure it's not me. Make sure I'm not the guy who has checked out."
Raiola is the first to remind folks that the Lions haven't accomplished much. A 4-0 start is just a start. After all these years, he wants to play in the playoffs. He wants to win a division, or a conference, or who knows. Maybe it's not too late.
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That said this start has been something. Boos have turned to cheers. The pride has been restored. If nothing else, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have brought a level of professionalism to the organization that Raiola always deserved – no one can imagine luggage theft, slurs or Harley gimmicks any more.
So now here comes Monday Night Football. Here come the Lions. Here comes one of those solid NFL soldiers, a long-deserved moment in the sun.
"It's going to be awesome," Raiola said.
Yes, yes it is.
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