Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not only is it a great place to learn and be amazed by a spectacular game, it's perhaps the best place on earth for a Detroit Lions' fan to dream.
Fans currently making this trip won't be greeted with lavish displays touting the history of their Lions, nor will they find many artifacts from Detroit legends of the past. There's a few nice areas discussing the Portsmouth Spartans and Dutch Clark, along with Bobby Layne and Doak Walker's great teams of the 1950s. As modern history goes, however, there isn't much, outside tributes to Barry Sanders' nearly forgotten superhuman exploits in the 1990s. For a team that's never won a Super Bowl and has enjoyed little playoff (or regular season) success, the lack of Lions representation wasn't surprising.
Amongst the scores of national revelers proudly wearing their favorite jerseys (the usual suspects, Steelers, Packers, Giants and Cowboys, all the "good" teams) I didn't figure I'd encounter a single Lions fan on a lazy Saturday afternoon who had made a similar trek to Ohio. However, suddenly, one appeared out of nowhere. He was wearing a white shirt with the familiar redesigned "bubbles" logo, transfixed by the same giant display I was, which showcased team records across time. Oddly, he looked equal parts Jessie Ventura and Hulk Hogan.
"From Detroit too, huh? You think they've got 0-16 listed up here?" I asked.
"I heard they've got something on it. What year was that again?" he responded quizzically, looking almost pained at the mere mention, as if I was suggestively exhuming the corpse of a loved one who had once died a painful death.
"It was in 2008. Let's find it. There it is right there."
"Yep, man…" he said, shaking his head while slowly edging away.
Anyone who cheers for his team could forgive him for not placing the year, or wanting to linger around this particular discussion in a place where football royalty is celebrated. After all, who wants to remember Dan Orlovsky running out of the back of his own end zone for a safety, the slaughter on Thanksgiving Day against Tennessee and Rod Marinelli, especially when you've got legends like Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath and Reggie White hitting you in the face and great moments like the "Immaculate Deflection" to recall. I'll stop depressing you now.
As the lone Lion fan walked away from the board, I remained and was struck by other numbers. Yes, the Lions had gone 0-16 in 2008, and in 2009 they weren't much better at 2-14. The next year, however, they were 6-10, and last season, 10-6. That's a 180 degree turnaround in three years. From that moment on, I was in a pure dream state as I saw Lions' legends appear across displays. I began to think of the next wave of players, their potential place in the hall and the role each would have in returning Detroit's glory. Following the end of the "Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Experience" exhibit, I designed a ring for the 2017 Super Bowl champion Detroit Lions, and allowed myself to wonder just how many current faces we'd see morph into busts in Canton one day. Below are the key contributors, and which current Lions' hall of famers they closely resemble:
Matthew Stafford as Bobby Layne: Stafford's record setting 2011 season was merely a springboard to all his future greatness. From 2012-16, the quarterback makes the Pro Bowl each year, and challenges for the league MVP honors, taking them home in 2014 and 2015. He becomes the first quarterback in history to pass for 5,000 three times in a row, and ensures he is enshrined with the 2017 Super Bowl title, where he earns game MVP honors with his fearless gun slinging. Despite attending the same high school, Stafford also is the polar opposite of Layne off the field, becoming known as one of Detroit's most gentlemanly and responsible athletes instead of notorious.
Ndamukong Suh as Joe Schmidt: Though Suh's primary position is not linebacker, he becomes the first successful versatile defensive linemen in NFL history, terrorizing opponents from multiple angles and positions. He rebounds from a sophomore slump in 2011 to surpass the single season sack record of 22 three times, and makes the Pro Bowl routinely. With equal parts of Schmidt's tenacity and teammate Alex Karras's infamy, Suh also remains a throwback player in that he's an aggressive rogue in NFL circles. He sustains several more fines and tough moments, but it doesn't prevent him from becoming a hall legend ala "Mean" Joe Greene.
Calvin Johnson as Charlie Sanders: Sanders played and was inducted as a tight end, but Johnson's out of this world ability and numbers will get him in the hall of fame as the next great Lions' pass catcher. He continues on his path as an all-pro, Pro Bowl wide receiver shattering plenty of NFL records in the process and winning championships. Best of all, Johnson will replicate Sanders in the classy way he carries himself and makes sacrifices for the good of the franchise.
Jason Hanson as Yale Larry: With the same "youthful luster" that Larry is described as possessing by the hall, Hanson is the next Lions player with special teams ties inducted, especially after he astonishingly continues to kick well into his 40s with great success. At 46, he becomes the oldest player to participate in a Super Bowl, blowing away Matt Stover's once miniscule record of 42. He boots the game winning field goal through the uprights in Super Bowl LI with five seconds remaining, sending Lions' fans into a frenzy. He retires as the NFL's unchallenged all time leading scorer, and is remembered as the game's best kicker.
These hallucinations were probably delusional and a wee bit stupid, but they weren't completely impossible. After all, who would have imagined the Immaculate Deflection could actually occur, or that a 22 year old kid would guarantee victory in Super Bowl III and be right? That's why Canton is special. It not only houses unique artifacts like a piece of the Silverdome roof; it houses the dreams of future greatness. Those other fans had their current glory to revel in, but Lions' fans at the hall are free to fantasize about a bright future while celebrating a tiny bit of the past. That creates a wonderful experience for fans of all teams, but especially ones who've watched their team fail repeatedly.
At the end of the tour, you'll find your way to a gift shop chalk full of items bearing the signatures of legends, logos of the hall and even team gear. Tucked in a corner display, there's a few Lions souvenirs to be had, but not nearly as many as most other NFL teams enjoy. That's fine. Let them have their Snuggies, dog collars and cocktail glasses. I'd rather exit full of hope, anyway.
When all is said and done, you can't put a price tag on the exciting dreams of a brighter football future. For Lions' fans, there may be no better place to envision this tangibly than in Canton, Ohio.
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