Friday, September 4, 2015

New Found Pride (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lions)

Everyone—teams, coaches, fans, and every bartender from New Orleans to Anchorage—is gearing up for the season. I can feel it, that same electricity that permeates the waking hours of Christmas day before your parents get out of bed. A new year, another chance. And another few weeks of people looking at my funny when I tell them I’m a Lions fan.
Growing up, I didn’t play sports. There may have been a kickball game or some pick-up touch football I was picked last for, and sometime during middle school, I begged my folks to get me a basketball hoop for the front yard, but really, I just wanted to neighborhood kids to be my friend, even if they were only pretending. And I was happy to bribe them with a shiny new Plexiglas backboard, and unlimited cans of Surge from inside the house. 
As a family, we didn’t watch sports either. My mother and father didn’t grow up with any allegiances in their own families, and with my father’s military career taking us to various points around the country, I never had enough time to form one of my own. I remember watching Super Bowls—the earliest being Bills-Cowboys in the mid nineties—but instead of actually watching, I was busy sneaking sips of beer from uncles and making my G. I. Joes tackle each other, and kick field goals with tiny plastic footballs through cardboard uprights. The World Series played in the background sometimes, and I even cheered at the bar during NBA playoffs. Once I met Gordie Howe and got him to sign a poster, but let’s be real, I only liked hockey for the possibility of thrown gloves. 
So, how the hell did I become a diehard Lions fan?
I’ve never set foot within the Detroit city limits, not even with a layover at the airport. I’ve only driven through the Southwestern corner of Michigan on a road trip. None of my family, or friends really, are from that far north. The closest I’ve lived to Ford Field was a little town outside of Akron, Ohio. And living there, it would stand to reason I might form an affinity for the Bengals, the Steelers, or, the closest, the Browns. But, as a kid, I had no idea what any of those team names meant. The following may have resembled my feelings on those closest teams: why is Steelers spelled wrong? There should be an A in there, or, a Brown? I get called worse in the locker room, but not by much. I know the references now, but they were lost on me then. And in hindsight, if I knew what a Bengal tiger was, I may have been swayed to Cincinnati. No, I looked to our neighbors across the lake. Lions? They’re the king of the damn jungle. Now there was a name I could get behind. Still, thoughts of football on any legitimate level took up very little space in my head. 
Fast forward to my time in Oregon, a state in desperate need of a professional football team. A number of years ago, I took a bartending gig in the Northwest neighborhood of Portland. The bar itself was on the second floor of a converted Craftsman, and was wallpapered with a dozen TVs. Signs were posted behind the bar, in the men’s room, and a flag hung outside telling the anyone who was walking by that they could watch every game, every Sunday. The owners wanted me to tend a few nights a week, and all day Sunday. I thought the tips would be good. I thought I’d pour a bunch of beers, some shots, and take out a few sloppy burgers and orders of chicken strips. What I didn’t plan on, was having to “talk football,” with the clientele. 
From the first kickoff, I was bombarded with terms I’d never heard, like Pick Six or Intentional Grounding or Bubble Screen. I’d be covered in sweat and ketchup, carrying out four full pitchers of Pabst and think, what the hell is encroachment? (If I’m being totally honest now, I still don’t have a proper working definition.) But I did my best, smiling and nodding at the varying levels of anger or excitement from these droves of football fans, and on occasion, I’d even try to engage when they asked their barkeep what I thought of the last play, using terminology I’d heard along the way. Yeah, that was a total chop block throw, was one. Another, he should totally have just kept throwing to the pocket. I was hopeless, and my customers smelled blood in the water. I needed to do some homework, some serious study on this foreign language. But where does a twenty-six year old start? There were too many teams, too many rules. And far too many names to keep straight. I half considered giving my shift to someone who could keep up. 
Then, a few weeks into the season, there was a flood of blue and silver on the bar stools. All walks came into my bar. Bears fans. Ravens fans. Even a Bucs fan. The majority were Seahawks of Niners fans, but we had them all. And suddenly, I was inundated with Lions fans. The core group numbered eight—a couple, a pair of friends from the midwest, and four other random folks who made my bar their spot to watch Detroit on Sunday. Thing was, none of them knew one another, but by the end of that game, you could have swore they’d been friends since diapers. They shared something, an unspoken bond. 
Every fan, of every team, had their passion, their sudden outbursts and near breakdown inducing depression as they left the bar after a loss, but I was drawn to these Lions fans. By this point, I’d heard about Bobby’s curse. I’d always known to think of the Lions in a certain tier, to consider them of a certain caliber. This was, after all, very soon after going 0-16. On paper, they weren’t exactly the team with the right bandwagon to hitch onto, but the more I was drawn to the Lions fans, the more I found myself drawn to the team itself. 
One Sunday, maybe six or seven weeks in, I slid a pair of beers in front of the couple sitting at the far left of my bar. They both had vintage logos on jackets, and hats, and T-Shirts. The outfits were stained and frayed, and seemed to cling desperately to their bodies. I said, “I think I want to be a Lions fan.”
The bar was quiet, most of the games having reached halftime. The couple, in unison, said, “how are you with humility?”
The rest of the Lions fans nodded and watched for my answer. I told the couple that, yeah, I could handle it. 
“Then get ready,” they said. But they weren’t snobby about it. They weren’t trying to sway me either way. In truth, they were preparing me for the peaks and valleys of one of the oldest teams in the league. And for heartbreak.
As that season progressed, I looked forward to the their arrival, eager to here more about the Den, about the best stadium in the NFL, and about Detroit itself. In listening, taking mental and sometimes physical notes, I found myself picking up the lingo, and eventually utilizing the terminology (properly) in conversation.
By the end, the Lions finishing with a decent record, I’d developed a new passion, and a somewhat healthy obsession with a sports team. I began doing my own research, checking stats and even watching the moves made in the offseason. I was a officially a Lions fan, and I had a whole new group of friends to watch the games with when the next season started. And I’m not just talking about those whom I’d met at my bar. Everyone wearing that bright Honolulu blue, in every bar and restaurant from Oregon to my new home here in Louisiana, each and everyone one of them is my friend. We’re all in the same pride. 
I’m in. I’m hooked on the Lions, their history and their future, but I also love their fans. There’s a familial vibe with those in the pride, and even though I didn’t grow up with them, I feel honored, now, to count myself among their numbers. And what’s more, that camaraderie, that inclusive spirit, gave me more than a love for a team, but for the whole sport of football.

Now, all I have to figure out, is how to continue dating a Packers fan.

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