I can understand people of my generation – Baby Boomers -- who grew up in Michigan maintaining a devotion to the Detroit Lions.
Those folks were raised on a tremendous NFL rivalry: The Lions and quarterback Bobby Layne vs. the Cleveland Browns and quarterback Otto Graham.
The Lions beat the Browns 17-7 in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium for the 1952 NFL title. The Lions beat the Browns 17-16 in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium for another title in 1953.
The Browns’ feelings were clearly hurt. The teams played again in Municipal Stadium in 1954 and the final was 56-10 for Cleveland. Layne threw 42 passes and six were intercepted.
The Lions and the Browns played a title game for the final time in 1957. Graham was retired and Layne had suffered a broken leg late in the regular season (in a game against Cleveland). Milt Plum was the quarterback for Cleveland and Tobin Rote for Detroit.
The Lions held Plum to 51 yards passing, Jim Brown to 69 yards rushing and blew out the Browns 59-14.
Fifty-six seasons later, the Lions have won one more playoff game: 38-6 over Dallas in the 1991 divisional round. One week later, they lost to Washington 41-10 in the NFC title game.
Even some of the Baby Boomers weaned on three NFL titles have spent their golden years ignoring the Lions.
“My grandfather, Bill Bishop, grew up near Detroit and was a big Lions fan,’’ Anthony Norwood said. “He’s retired in Florida now. We were talking on the phone recently, I mentioned a Lions’ loss and he said, ‘Do you still watch that team?’ ‘’
Norwood, 24, comes from near Detroit. He went to a Bible camp in Spicer, Minn. a few years back, attended junior college in Willmar and now lives in Spicer. And he does still watch the Lions, with a properly fatalistic view.
“When we beat the Packers 40-10 on Thanksgiving, a Lions fan and friend of mine was really excited … talking about how we were now in great shape to win the division,’’ Norwood said.
“I said, ‘We were due to win on Thanksgiving after nine straight losses.’ I had looked at the schedule. I told him, ‘I think we’re going to lose out.’ ‘’
Even a beaten-down Vikings fan could not have made a forecast so gloomy – or accurate.
The Lions had a 14-0 lead late in the first half while playing in a blizzard in Philadelphia. They lost 34-20.
The Lions came home for two games in Ford Field, and lost 18-16 on Justin Tucker’s 61-yard field goal in the last minute for Baltimore. They lost 23-20 in overtime to the turnover-plagued New York Giants.
This three-game losing streak took the Lions from being in a prime position to win the subpar NFC North to being eliminated from the playoffs as they arrive in the Metrodome on Sunday.
Norwood and a friend have tickets. This will be his first chance to watch the Lions in person. He fully exects a loss.
“I said they were going to lose out,’’ Norwood said. “Why change my opinion after what’s happened the past three weeks?’’
Michael Patch and Jason Hatch are both 28-year-old Lions fans without a Michigan connection. They are Minnesotans who embraced the Lions for the same reason: a great fondness as young kids for Barry Sanders.
“I was born in Montana, didn’t have a home team, and decided Barry Sanders was the greatest,’’ Patch said. “If I had known as a 6-year-old, watching the Lions win a playoff game, that we wouldn’t have won another one 22 years later … I would’ve chosen another team.’’
Patch went to Eastview High School. He attended St. Thomas and now lives in Eden Prairie.
“The first year I could afford to buy the NFL Ticket and watch every Lions game was in 2008,’’ Hatch said. “We went 0-and-16.’’
Patch’s wife Maria comes from a Minnesota family of Vikings fans. “She’s a good sport about my Lions fandom,’’ he said. “When she’s watching a game, she will root for the Lions … and she puts up with my sulking after they lose.’’
Hatch comes from New Prague. “My Dad grew up in Kansas, came to Minnesota but never really was a Vikings fan,'' Hatch said. "The NFL teams we cheered for in my family were sort of random. I was given a Barry Sanders’ jersey when I was a little kid and that started it.
“Being a Lions’ fan has taken a toll on my life. And this year is harder to take than 0-and-16. In my opinion, this is the most-talented Lions team since I’ve been alive. And I’ve never seen a division as gift-wrapped for a team as this one was, but the Lions had that same ability we’ve seen from Jim Schwartz teams … snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.’’
The Lions will do so again on Sunday – guaranteed – to finish their history in the Metrodome at 7-24 (including a 13-game losing streak in Minneapolis from 1998 through 2010).