Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hope in a Hopeless World

I can't tell whether this guy looks noble or retarded. Which, I suppose, is fitting.

I was all ready to watch the Lions get the shit stomped out of them by the Steelers. And, perhaps surprisingly, I was kind of okay with that. At least it would be over with, quickly and brutally and then we could all get on with our lives. A 45-10 route where Daunte Culpepper played like ass and everyone just sort of ducked and covered and then regrouped the following week would have been tolerable. Look, I know that is some ridiculous shit, but you learn to calibrate your expectations appropriately as a Lions fan. If you don't, you will just end up in the fetal position, naked and afraid, growling at anyone dumb enough to try to help you. Either that, or you will be found staggering naked through traffic, snarling like some mad beast at frightened motorists who just want to get home to their families. Don't ask me why people are always naked in these fucked up scenarios, it is a strange world and these things happen.

Anyway, there is a sort of strange serenity that comes with the acceptance that your team is going to be beaten and skullfucked. That's a terrible image, brutal and cruel, but these are the realities of being a fan of the Detroit Lions and we have come this far, there's no use turning away from the ugliness of it all now. You get used to it or your brain withers and dies underneath the harsh light of failure. It's a survival instinct.

But that all went out the window as soon as Calvin Johnson started limping around, apparently tweaking the knee of the same leg that was banged up last weekend. As soon as that happened, the fantasy of a quick and painless death was exposed as the dumb and foolish hope of the weak and the sad. Yes, I count myself in that group because I wrote this game off because of all of the above gibberish, foolishly thinking that I could just act like this was some meaningless bullshit that wouldn't mean anything for the rest of the season. After all, Matthew Stafford wasn't going to play, the Lions aren't going anywhere, the Steelers are the defending champs, and the future can be put on hold for a week. Those were my thoughts and they were dumb and without merit.

Something had to happen. Something always happens. Unfortunately, that something was our gamebreaker, our superstar, limping off the field with a knee injury and not returning. The good news, I suppose, is that along with Stafford, St. Calvin spent the rest of the game standing, so it must not be all that serious, but still, man, you never want to see your best player standing there with his helmet off for the entirety of the game, a grim and terrible scowl on his face.

It was bad medicine, and I hated taking it, but maybe I needed to. It just slammed home, brutally, that I had no choice but to care. I could tell myself that it was alright, that they were just going to lose and so no one needed to get all worked up about it, but man, real fandom doesn't let you off the hook so easily.

And then the Lions proceeded to both hang in the game and play like shit. It was an astounding dichotomy. The Steelers could never quite pull away despite Daunte Culpepper being, well, Daunte Culpepper. The most ridiculous moment was when Culpepper fumbled after faking the handoff, saw that no one else was around, managed to pick up the ball, saw the rushers coming, thought OH SHIT, and then chucked up a terrible pass to no one in particular that Ryan Clark intercepted for the Steelers. It was almost awe inspiring, really, the sheer ineptitude of the whole sequence. It was pure Culpepper, just one long brain explosion that left me shaking my head, jaw on the floor, both sad and amused at the same time. I hated it, but at the same time I had to appreciate how brutally funny in a very mean way the whole sequence happened to be.

I figured that was it and for a few minutes I tried to mute my disgust by flipping over to some bullshit on the History Channel about bike gangs. After hearing some impressive stories about cold killing dudes and group sex, I headed on back to the game, once again safe in the knowledge that the Steelers were going to run away with the game and just get this brutal execution over with. But, down 28-13, hanging by a thread, the Lions just wouldn't go away. It was inspiring really, to see this gang of half dead cripples struggle along, crawling on their bellies, rabidly gnawing on the ankles of the Steelers, keeping them from running away. Inspiring and a little sad all at the same time, but fuck it, I was proud of these dudes.

And then, somehow, Culpepper led the Lions down the field, threw a touchdown strike to Dennis Northcutt, and after the extra point made it 28-20 with 5 minutes left, I began to feel, what's that word? Ah yes, hopeful. I couldn't believe that these dudes were still in the game. Culpepper had been Culpepper, Kevin Smith couldn't run the ball and St. Calvin had been martyred. It was a terrible confluence of events and, yet, there they were, down by one score to the defending champs. If they stopped them on the ensuing series, they would actually have a chance of forcing overtime. How the fuck did that happen? I still don't know, but I wasn't going to look that gift horse in the mouth. I figured if I did that he would just bite my head clean off and then a million tiny Greeks would come pouring out and burn and pillage everything dear to me. And so I decided I would just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Somehow, some way, the Lions actually stopped the Steelers on the next series even though Rashard Mendenhall ran for nine yards on first down. Holy shit, this was really happening. Fuck you, gift horse and all your tiny Greeks. It didn't matter how it happened, or why it was there, just that it did and it was. Now all we had to do was take advantage of this miraculous opportunity. It was then that Derrick Williams rose from the grave and snared a couple of tough catches, and it was then that Daunte Culpepper decided to make some plays for the first time in five years. Were we really down to the Pittsburgh 20 with over a minute left to play? Holy shit, we were! GO YOU BEAUTIFUL BASTARDS, I BELIEVE, I BELIEVE!!!

And then Dick Lebeau laughed out loud, Lamarr Woodley said no you don't and Daunte Culpepper was swarmed by all those little Greeks as they poured out of that gift horse and sacked Troy, Ford Field, and Culpepper. It was a terrible moment. Three straight blitzes, three straight sacks, and as Culpepper stepped up to throw a Hail Mary on 4th and 168, it was already over. He and the Lions, for a brief moment, flew high, soared with the eagles, and then when they got too close to the sun, their wax wings melted and they plunged back to Earth, horribly and cruelly. And all that was left for idiots like me to do was to sift through the wreckage.

It was a strange game, a whirlwind of emotions both jaded and naive, of hopes and thoughts both stupid and wonderful. It has almost no bearing on the future. Culpepper is Culpepper and with him in the game it felt like this whole strange new journey into the land of joy and happiness was put in a holding pattern. But even though it didn't feel like it mattered in the larger sense, it mattered in the moment, and sometimes it feels like that's the essence of sports fandom. The moment. It's all that really means anything. Yesterday is gone, just a memory, either good or bad, and tomorrow doesn't exist. Not yet anyway.

The Lions lost, and they lost in a way that was both more noble and more painful than if they had just been blown out. They played hard, they played tough, and for once this season, they played better in the second half than they did in the first. I hope that's a good sign. It may have just been a strange fluke. Maybe the Steelers really aren't the Steelers that everyone sees in their head. But it felt like we were at least in the same building as them, and no matter how many times they tried to throw us out and no matter how many times our dudes were beaten and left for dead, enough of our dudes got back up and swung back, and even though they ended up beaten and bloody, outside of the building while the Steelers celebrated within, they knew that at least they landed a couple of punches, and that at the end of the day they could be proud of the bruises and the broken bones because they actually earned them. They didn't just curl up and lie there, whimpering while the Steelers beat the shit out of them with pool cues, which is what they have done so many times in the past. They tried, and for now, that's enough. The future wasn't on display, but so what? The future is the future, but today is today, and today, the Lions fought back.

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