A rising pride lifts Detroit’s hopes ⋆

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Lions’ first home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

While thousands of fans at Ford Field screamed nearly as loud as a jet engine during takeoff, exchanging hugs and high fives in every direction, at the conclusion of the Detroit Lions’ first-ever home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002 on Jan. 14 — a one-point victory over the Los Angeles Rams — Michael Thomas was cheering on the team he grew up watching with his grandfather from a hospital room.

Thomas was diagnosed with heart failure after battling COVID-19 and pneumonia. He has cardiac rehab three days a week, and like many, has had to rely at least in part on a GoFundMe to try to make ends meet while incurring medical expenses and not being able to work.

But on Jan. 14, even as he was in the hospital, he had a reason to celebrate with friends and family by his side: The Lions had won their first playoff game in more than 30 years.

“It’s very emotional to see the progress of this team,” Thomas said. “Especially with what I’ve been dealing with.”

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

Fans loyal to the Lions, like those loyal to the city itself, are no strangers to tough times. In 2008, as the economy collapsed, the Lions went 0-16. Detroit became the biggest city to file for a municipal bankruptcy five years later. And that’s just the start of it. Ask any Lions fan about their heartbreak, and they’ll rattle off a list, going back decades.

But times have changed.

Detroit has largely emerged stronger after its 2013 bankruptcy and the city is set to host the NFL draft in April.

A few miles away from Ford Field, in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Michigan Central Station — once a symbol of Detroit’s growth, then a symbol of its decay — has illuminated seven stories of windows in “Honolulu blue” so that the windows spell out “LIONS.” 

The former train station, which had been left to rot for several decades before the Ford Motor Co. purchased the building in 2018, is expected to reopen to the public later this year following an extensive six-year renovation that was last estimated to cost the company at least $950 million, including work on other parts of a 30-acre walkable campus that the ornate building will anchor.

If the Lions are providing a beacon of hope, Michigan Central Station might be the lighthouse.

“With what I’m going through, it’s really easy to be scared and be worried, and feel like you don’t have it in you to beat what you’re doing,” Thomas said. “This team has been a reminder that even when nobody thinks you can do something, you can.”

Michigan Central Station, which is expected to reopen later this year following a massive six-year renovation after Ford purchased the long-abandoned building, is illuminated in “Honolulu Blue” as a show of support during the Detroit Lions’ second home playoff game on Jan. 21, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Several states away, Ryan Fraizer said in a Reddit post that his home in Pennsylvania caught fire, causing the family to lose most of their belongings.

His brother had attended the Lions’ second home playoff game on Jan. 21, a 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and brought back a hat he purchased at Ford Field. While a family friend has set up a GoFundMe to help alleviate the financial burden of replacing their belongings, the hat had symbolic significance for Fraizer as the first step in that direction.

“I’ll be honest, I broke down,” Fraizer wrote in the title of the post on the r/detroitlions subreddit. “It’s the first new thing I’ve gotten as we rebuild and I just wanted to say: Here’s to getting back up again.”

The team’s quarterback has become a sort of rallying cry at events all across Michigan, with chants of “JA-RED GOFF, JA-RED GOFF, JA-RED GOFF” breaking out at the Little Caesars Arena during both Detroit Red Wings and Pistons games, a Grand Rapids Griffins hockey game at the Van Andel Arena, a Saginaw Spirit hockey game at the Dow Event Center, the University of Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, at least two bars in East Lansing, a high school cheer competition — and even in the sky above Detroit.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell has also provided inspiration of his own, with fans revisiting several of his speeches and press conference moments since he took the job in 2021.

Among the most memorable is his first, introducing himself and his vision for the team on Jan. 21, 2021.

“This team is going to take on the identity of this city. And this city’s been down, and it found a way to get up. It’s found a way to overcome adversity,” Campbell said. “So, this team’s going to be built on: We’re going to kick you in the teeth, and 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, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.

“And we’re going to stand up, and then it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down. And, on the way up, we’re going to take your other kneecap, and we’re going to get up, and then it’s going to take three shots to get us down. And, when we do, we’re going to take another hunk out of you. Before long, we’re going to be last one standing. That’s going to be the mentality.”

Fraizer said in a Reddit comment that “I know it’s silly but as soon as I got the hat I heard the kneecaps speech in my head and it felt like things might get a little better.”

Campbell has become something of an ambassador for not just the Lions, but for all of Detroit.

“Dan Campbell is just such a perfect voice for this team, for this city. He understands that some of us are struggling, some of us are really going through it,” Thomas said. “He’s a guy who you can tell cares deeply for his players and cares deeply for the city. He has that passion for people. Not just the team, but for people.

“Just listening to the man, when he talks to his players, I’m ready to run through a wall for him.”

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit event venues, including the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and the Little Caesars Arena, are illuminated in “Honolulu Blue” as a show of support for the Detroit Lions during their first-ever home playoff game at Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Lions’ first home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit event venues, including the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and the Little Caesars Arena, are illuminated in “Honolulu Blue” as a show of support for the Detroit Lions during their first-ever home playoff game at Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Lions’ first home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

The Detroit Youth Choir perform during the halftime show on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Detroit Lions’ first home playoff game at Ford Field since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Lions’ first home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Lions’ first home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

The Detroit Youth Choir perform during the halftime show on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Detroit Lions’ first home playoff game at Ford Field since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit event venues, including the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and the Little Caesars Arena, are illuminated in “Honolulu Blue” as a show of support for the Detroit Lions during their first-ever home playoff game at Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

A corgi wears a mane and a Detroit Lions shirt outside Ford Field during the Lions’ second home playoff game on Jan. 21, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Lions’ first home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Local businesses saw lines down the block and hit capacity hours before the start of the Detroit Lions’ first-ever home playoff game at Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit event venues, including the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and the Little Caesars Arena, are illuminated in “Honolulu Blue” as a show of support for the Detroit Lions during their first-ever home playoff game at Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit event venues, including the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and the Little Caesars Arena, are illuminated in “Honolulu Blue” as a show of support for the Detroit Lions during their first-ever home playoff game at Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s first playoff game victory in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, 2024, after the Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams 24-23. (Andrew Roth/)

The Detroit Youth Choir perform during the halftime show on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Detroit Lions’ first home playoff game at Ford Field since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

A corgi wears a mane and a Detroit Lions shirt outside Ford Field during the Lions’ second home playoff game on Jan. 21, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Lions’ first home playoff game since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

The Detroit Youth Choir perform during the halftime show on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Detroit Lions’ first home playoff game at Ford Field since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans pack into Ford Field on Jan 21, 2024, for the Lions’ second home playoff game, in which they took on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

Event venues like The Fillmore Detroit display signs of support during the Detroit Lions’ second home playoff game on Jan. 21, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

Detroit Lions fans at Ford Field celebrate the team’s second playoff game victory on Jan. 21, 2024, after the Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23, advancing to compete in the NFC Championship game. (Andrew Roth/)

 

The team wasn’t able to realize Campbell’s vision at first, regressing during his first year as coach from a record of 5-11 in 2020 to 3-13-1 in 2021. The Lions were last in their division, a title they held every year from 2018 through 2021. Attendance at Ford Field hit a decade low that year.

They started their 2022 season in a similar drought, going 1-6 in their first seven games with Campbell’s future in Detroit becoming the topic of much discussion among spirited sports fans. But they turned things around, winning eight of their next 10 games and finishing the season 9-8 overall.

Three years to the day since Campbell gave his introductory speech, the Lions won their second home playoff game in as many weeks after having previously not hosted one since 1994 and not won one since 1992. The event was the hottest ticket in town, with resale tickets having the highest average price of any of the four games in the Divisional round at around $1,080.

“When Derrick Barnes made that interception last week, I actually walked away from my living room with everyone in it, because I broke down and started crying,” Thomas said.

He called his uncle in Florida, who was also crying, reflecting on the memories they both had watching the Lions with Thomas’ grandfather.

Now, the team is one win away from the Super Bowl.

The Lions will face the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 28 to determine the NFC champion – and which team will get a spot in the biggest game of the year.

The Lions haven’t won a road playoff game since 1957. But the last time they did, it was in San Francisco, against the 49ers.

The Detroit Youth Choir perform during the halftime show on Jan. 14, 2024, for the Detroit Lions’ first home playoff game at Ford Field since the stadium opened in 2002. (Andrew Roth/)

The Super Bowl is so close that Lions fans can practically taste it. Yet for fans who have struggled through so much — the Lions are one of just four teams that have never made it to the big game — it remains hard to imagine.

“Oh, man,” Thomas said when asked what it would feel like if the Lions become NFC champions for the first time in his lifetime, punching their tickets to Las Vegas. “What a beautiful thought.”

If the Kansas City Chiefs win their AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, it could set up a Super Bowl rematch of the Lions’ season opener, in which they beat the Chiefs, hot off their own Super Bowl victory the year prior, 21-20.

Should history repeat itself, and the Lions were to win the Super Bowl, Thomas said his uncle would come to Detroit from Florida.

“If they were able to get to the Super Bowl and win that game, when they throw that celebration, when they have that parade, the amount of people that are going to bring ashes of their loved ones that stuck by the team through their whole lives and didn’t get to see it. … Woodward’s going to definitely be a special place.” 

General Motors updated the logo displayed on Detroit’s Renaissance Center to include a lion tail during the Detroit Lions’ second home playoff game on Jan. 21, 2024. (Andrew Roth/)

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authored by Andrew Roth
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2024%2F01%2F28%2Fa-rising-pride-lifts-detroits-hopes%2F

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