'The Spirit of Detroit' transformed Matthew Stafford into an idol in the Motor City

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) celebrates his touchdown run in 2012.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has spent his career lighting up scoreboards, but this one was more meaningful than most.

It is beside a football field that bears his name at a community center in one of the poorest parts of the city. When he was playing for the Detroit Lions, Stafford and his wife, Kelly, made substantial donations to the SAY Detroit Play Center, featuring an artificial-turf field with their foundation logo in the middle.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Stafford threw the switch to bring that scoreboard to life. It was a somewhat rare public appearance for the Staffords in terms of philanthropy. Often, their work took place behind the scenes and with little fanfare, including their tradition of choosing families in need over the Christmas holidays, providing them with all of their gifts and stopping by to spend the day with them.

That’s one of the many reasons why Stafford and his family are still beloved in the Motor City, something that adds a dramatic twist to Sunday’s playoff game between the Rams and Lions.

Stafford spends the first 12 years of his storied career trying to win the NFC North so the Lions can host a postseason game, but it doesn’t happen. Now, for the first time in 30 years, Detroit has a home playoff game …

And the Lions are facing Stafford.

It’s Henry Ford meets O. Henry.


Making the situation even stranger, Lions quarterback Jared Goff spent his first five seasons with the Rams. The Goff-for-Stafford trade marked the first time in NFL history teams swapped quarterbacks selected No. 1 overall. What’s more, Lions general manager Brad Holmes came from the Rams too.

“The NFL couldn’t script it any better,” said Tom Lewand, president of the Lions for the first half of Stafford’s career in Detroit.

“Matthew is beloved in Detroit. Both he and Kelly made themselves a part of the community in a very integrated way. They essentially grew up here. They came here in their early 20s and left in their mid-30s.

“They started their family here. So a lot of their formative family years were in Detroit, and I think the community felt the same way about their family as the Staffords felt about the community.”

Read more: For Jared Goff, Rams-Lions game about more than himself. 'I want to be a part of this win'

Suddenly, Michigan feels like the center of the football galaxy. Six days after the University of Michigan won college football’s national championship, the Lions will try to win a postseason game at home for the first time since beating the Dallas Cowboys at the now-defunct Silverdome in the 1991 season playoffs.

Since, the Lions have gone 0-9 in postseason games, including their last attempt at home, a first-round loss to Green Bay in early 1994.

So this is an unfamiliar feeling, Lions fans still engaged after the calendar has flipped to the new year. Typically, this is the time the franchise is looking for a new head coach and/or clearing out its front office.

But this is a new day in Detroit, with the Lions winning 12 games to tie a club record and, for the first time since 1972, avoiding back-to-back defeats.

As of Thursday afternoon, the least expensive seat for Rams-Lions on StubHub was $393.

The Spirit of Detroit, a sculpture at the beginning of Woodward Avenue, is adorned with a Lions jersey.
The Spirit of Detroit, a sculpture at the beginning of Woodward Avenue, is adorned with a Lions jersey. The sculpture, which runs more than 20 miles through the city and into the suburbs, has become a symbol of the industrial city. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

“The Spirit of Detroit,” a 26-foot-tall monument downtown, features a bronze, seated human figure which this week is wearing an enormous blue Lions jersey.


Across the street, on the opposite side of Jefferson Avenue, is Mariners’ Church of Detroit, also known as the Maritime Sailors Cathedral. That’s the house of worship made famous by Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed

In the Maritime Sailors Cathedral

The church bell chimed til it rang 29 times

For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald

There, too, the memory of the Stafford era is strong. Playoff fever has gripped this city.

“Everyone is fired up,” said the Rev. Todd Meyer, senior pastor at the church. “It’s electric around here. As far as the Stafford connection — and I haven’t been here long, so I haven’t experienced it — but Lions fans are loyal. He’ll probably get a little bit of an applause when he comes out, whereas in any other city he would get booed out. That’s just the nature of this town.”

Not everyone is feeling so charitable. Thomas Magee’s, a pub in the Eastern Market area of downtown, has asked patrons not to wear Stafford jerseys to the establishment on Sunday.

Posted this week on behalf of the bar on Facebook: “PSA: please refrain from trying to enter Thomas Magee’s on game day with Lions Stafford jerseys. You’ll be turned away at the door. It’s our first home game in 30 years, use some common sense. Regards, Ownership.”

Read more: Lions fans want Matthew Stafford jersey ban at playoff game vs. Rams. Wife calls it sad

There’s some history in that respect. Two years ago, when Stafford and the Rams reached the Super Bowl — a season the Lions finished 3-13-1 — lots of local fans wore “Detroit Rams” T-shirts and reveled in their old quarterback’s win over Cincinnati.

It’s unlikely those fans will be truly conflicted this time.

“Oh gosh, no,” Lewand said. “Lions fans won’t be conflicted. Those same people who went out and bought Rams merchandise when Matthew was in the Super Bowl aren’t going to go out and burn those things. But they sure as heck won’t be pulling it out on Sunday.”

Said Stafford: “I have nothing but great memories there. Obviously didn't get it done on the field as much as I wish we could have. The people that I was lucky enough to know and grow with are people that I'm still close with today and mean a lot to me. So it's a special place for me and my family. I have a lot of great memories there.”

Author and media personality Mitch Albom, who partnered with Stafford in the creation of the community center, said the quarterback was an ideal fit for the gritty ethos of Detroit.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford reacts after injuring his hand.
Matthew Stafford had more than his share of injuries during 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions but kept coming back. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

“Around here, you have to be tough to be admired,” Albom said. “There were so many games when it looked like he had an arm hanging or a limb loose, and he would just drag himself back into the game and keep playing. Those kinds of moments make you a legend in this town.

“He also never, never came across like a prima donna or more important than the team. He was always talking up the other guys, always crediting somebody else. He just did it right.”

Feelings for the Stafford family are especially strong at the SAY Detroit Play Center, a philanthropic project launched by Albom in the wake of Detroit's hosting the Super Bowl in February 2006.

It so bothered Albom that Detroit got a temporary facelift for football’s biggest event — the persistent problems of homelessness and poverty returned when the Super Bowl was over — that he began to raise money for a “Super All Year” campaign (hence, SAY).

That included construction of the Play Center for underserved youth, ages 8-18. All services are free at the center, which features not just sports facilities — including a basketball court funded by the Detroit Pistons and a ball field provided by the Detroit Tigers — but also classes in robotics, music, art, dance, photography and the like.

Not only did the Staffords provide the football field, but also they donated $1 million to the center after Matthew was traded to the Rams. They didn’t just sign checks, either. Often, the couple would show up at the place unannounced and Matthew would throw footballs or play pickup basketball with kids, and Kelly, a college cheerleader, would give cheer lessons at the center.

“They were part of the fabric of this place and of the city,” said Marc “Rosey” Rosenthal, chief operating officer of SAY Detroit.

Eric Reed, executive director of the SAY Detroit Play Center, captured the irony of the situation.

“I’ve been a Lions fan since I was 5,” Reed said. “I’ve been through a lot of tumultuous times. And Matt’s definitely one of my favorite players, when he was here and even now with the Rams. Barry Sanders is my all-time favorite, Calvin Johnson and Matt are my two and three.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting response in the stands — I won’t be there, tickets are too expensive — but he’s going to get a warm welcome. There’s no reason he shouldn’t. But once the game kicks off, the focus is all going to be on the Lions winning it.”

Nostalgia is nice, but these are the playoffs.

Read more: Rams' Matthew Stafford prepares to be Ford Field tough: 'I’m the bad guy coming to town'

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.