Charles Thomas: We are all the Detroit Lions

Charles Thomas' daughter and fellow Watershed Voice columnist Zoe Thomas poses for a photo at Lions training camp earlier this summer. (Courtesy)

I work late every Thursday night seeing clients at my private counseling practice. I’ve been doing it for years now. But last Thursday night I didn’t stick around the office to finish notes after my last client left at 9 p.m. Instead, I immediately got in my car, drove home, and turned on the first NFL game of the season: the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs against the Detroit Lions.

For Lions fans, the excitement for this season has been off the charts. After winning eight of their last 10 games last season, including keeping the Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs in Aaron Rodgers’ final game as a Packer, the expectations were stratospheric among Lions’ loyalists as the summer grew to a close.

When I tried to get tickets to attend a Lions’ training camp practice, I had to compete against thousands of other people who had gotten online right at 10 a.m. to compete for a ticket. My daughter and I were lucky enough to score two passes and attended the practice last month. When we arrived, we were greeted by an ocean of people all wearing that familiar Honolulu Blue.

A woman I met in the stands said that until last year they hadn’t even bothered issuing tickets for the open practices because there hadn’t been demand. That was not the case this year. Everyone I met at Allen Park that day couldn’t wait for the season to begin. This could finally be the year, they said.

But I’ve heard that before.

I started watching the Detroit Lions with my pops when Michael Jackson was still making hits. The two of us would sit in the living room together and watch the Lions lose on a fussy old television week after week. Oh sure, there were little blips of excitement when Barry Sanders was at his peak or when Wayne Fontes smoked his famous celebratory cigar, but for most of my life, the Lions have been a case study in failure. 

More than any other NFL team, the Detroit Lions exemplify futility and disappointment. They have not won a playoff game since 1992 and have not won the NFL championship since 1957, when Eisenhower was president. 

It’s not designed to be that way. The NFL draft system gives first dibs on the best new players to the worst teams. Many NFL teams go from absolutely terrible to Super Bowl champions through the process of building a talented team over a number of years. But the Lions could never seem to do that even with a new crop of great players each year. It was just failure after failure, year after year.

I think most of us feel like the Detroit Lions at some point in our lives. We set goals; we’re given opportunities; we work hard, and yet somehow, we still end up losing. We stack up the Ls like the 2008 Lions who somehow managed to lose every single game of their entire season. No matter what we do, failure is all we get. It starts to feel like there isn’t even a point in suiting up and taking the field anymore. 

I know that I’ve had some exceptionally long losing streaks in my life, and I imagine that you have, too. Trying to make something of yourself can be tough, even if life gives you first-round draft picks year after year. Sometimes, much like the Detroit Lions, we measure our failures in decades rather than years. 

It takes grit and determination to persevere through times like that. It takes grit to get back up when you’re the county prosecuting attorney and get a DUI and everyone wants you to resign. It takes grit and determination to stay positive when you feel miserable during the holidays. It takes grit and determination to know that you will probably never achieve your goals but persevere for your children anyway.

As Lions coach Dan Campbell famously said about Detroit when he took over as head coach, “This city has been down, and it found a way to get up. It’s found a way to overcome adversity. This team, we’re going to kick you in the teeth; when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you, and when you knock us down, we’re going to get up, and on the way up we’re going to bite a kneecap off…and we’re going to stand up, and it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down, and on the way up we’re going to take another knee cap.”

Maybe that’s why it’s so moving when the losers finally start to win.

The Lions won that game last Thursday even though, as good as they are this year, no one really thought they could beat the best team in the NFL. 

If you’ve struggled with drug abuse for decades of your life and keep relapsing even when you try like hell to stay sober, pay attention to this football team. If your kids keep messing up year after year even though you try like hell to guide them to a better life, pay attention to this football team. And if you want to give up because you’ve been snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the past 30 years, maybe it would be a good time to get a Detroit Lions jersey and wear that thing every damn day. 

When I was a kid, the Dallas Cowboys were called America’s football team because they were winners. But today, I think the Detroit Lions are America’s football team because even though they are perennial losers, they just keep getting back up, again and again and again. Through grit and determination, the last are now first, and the Lions are finally having their moment in the spotlight. As Prince once sang, “the ride up front is better once you been in the back.” 

I don’t know what will happen during the rest of the season. The Lions may collapse like they have done many times before and finish the season with a losing record. But what I do know for certain is this: Dan Campbell has brought a new spirit to Detroit and that spirit is creating Lions fans all over the country. People resonate with the Lions because everyone knows what it’s like to lose and all of us want to be a part of a winning team someday. 

The fact of the matter is this: we are all the Detroit Lions. 

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.