Tuesday, April 10, 2012

2001: A Spaced Out Lions Fan's Odyssey

I remember waking up on a friend’s couch, hungover, my mouth tasting like either a dirty ashtray or an asshole, take your pick, way back in the halcyon days of 2001 – yes, those space oddity days when I would occasionally look up at the sky and throw bones in the air and gibber on aimlessly to a robot named Hal – to the voice of my friend Scott, talking excitedly about the Lions first day of the NFL Draft. He liked the selection of Jeff Backus but he was really, really excited about Dominic Raiola, the Lions second round pick. As a fellow Lions fan, I agreed that sounded swell and then I probably either passed out or threw up a geyser of what was either blood or the previous night’s meatball sub (I wasn’t always a denier of animal flesh . . .) on the patio outside. Who can say for sure? There was a beautiful girl named Summer who was worried that it was blood and apparently her loving concern for my greater health triggered an argument with her and her boyfriend, who was one of my best friends – and whose couch I had violated the night before, as I had many nights before, which happens when you’re young and irresponsible but just responsible enough (or hell, just lazy enough) to know that driving home isn’t a good idea – although I didn’t know about it and had to be informed later when she apologized to me for the fight that I hadn’t heard because it never managed to penetrate my drunken haze. In the end, it was probably just the meatball sub but I appreciated her concern and I thanked her, assured her that everything was fine and went about my day and my life because I was bulletproof, I was immortal and the idea of puking up blood was actually kind of cool in that immature, macabre, fucked up way, because life was without consequence, just an orgy of the senses, filled with a sort of indefinable fuzzy manic hope which never coalesced into anything real, anything of substance or weight or direction, but resonated with a particular sort of wild energy which propelled me – and all of my reprobate friends – from one day to the next.

That was the last day before these beautiful worry free Mayhew days that I really, honestly trusted what was happening with the Lions. That’s because everything in their life was new. They had a new leader, a man with a Super Bowl pedigree whose promise seemed to reflect that of the world stretched out before us, and although his name is now only spoken with a sneer and a mouth full of bile and spit, back then it was easy to believe because hey, why not? Perhaps that is an artifact of my own place in the world back then. I don’t know. The reality is that my own football fandom was in a different place then. I was in college and my brain was elsewhere. Sure, sure, I still watched all the games, knew all the news, lived it, loved it, blah blah blah, but I’m not sure if I had any room in my head back then for any real, heartfelt opinions. It was simply easier to believe. Sure, Barry had walked out the door and there was still a pervasive sense that Things Were Not Good, but there was Hope too and I think people forget that. Matt Millen was not “Matt Millen” yet and everything that came to stand for and for a few brief precious heartbeats, I was able to smile and say “Cool, man,” and not only say it but think it and believe it when my aforementioned friend Scott – who at the time was probably slightly more of a football junky than I was, at least when it came to draft news and the like (I was more interested in pursuing the lifestyle of an actual junky – minus the crippling heroin addiction anyway. I wasn’t that far gone for fuck’s sake.) – came into the room, woke me from my wild haze and blathered excitedly about the future of the Lions offensive line. It was easy to hope because hope is what you do when Hope is all you have.

It’s weird, in retrospect, because that first Millen draft was his best – both Backus and Raiola are still playing for the Lions, for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint, your mood and your general level of sobriety at any given time – and yet no one really looks at it like a successful draft, more a relic of those bygone days when Hope actually seemed possible and Backus and Raiola were future Pro Bowlers and not just comfortable fixtures and human piñatas we smacked with baseball bats because they had the temerity to exist and to continue existing throughout that Decade of Infinite Pain. We have never celebrated them because, in our minds and our hearts, they have never been worthy of celebration. What does it say about what we went through as fans that while we eviscerate the legendary failures of yore – Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, Charles Rogers’ hollowed collarbone where he stored his weed, Roy Williams, Joey fuckin’ Blue Skies – and burn them in effigy before the altar of our despair, we also deride the few who actually made it, those souls who cooked in the fire for a decade and somehow lived to tell about it? We bitch about Backus and Raiola in the same vein as Harrington and his gang of fools. To us, they are all part of the same nuclear wasteland of the soul, that same era that can be summed up in one ugly, charged word: Millen.

That last paragraph is actually kind of a digression from what I meant to talk about. The truth is that I am just kind of writing and seeing what comes out, with only a loose idea of what I actually want to talk about, but sometimes those things happen and if I wander in my journey, forgive me. Hopefully, I am compelling enough to humor. Anyway, I suppose my larger point is that Hope can be a weird and ephemeral thing and history can twist it in weird ways into something ugly and perverse. But I think I was reminded of my earlier story about my friend and the couch and blood geysers, etc. because it was the last time I felt this loose, this carefree about the whole Draft. In a weird way, Hope can make you let go a little bit. The worse things got in those terrible Millen years, the more I – and I suspect many of you – clung to the notion that every little thing was important, that it was necessary to obsess over every little detail because who even knew what in the fuck could go wrong next? And more than that, it was necessary to look to the Draft, to the future, for a sign – any sign – that we could begin to hope again. Somewhere in there, there had to be a savior, and if we looked long enough and hard enough and argued amongst each other enough, somehow we would find it. It was all kind of absurd, and yet it was a coping mechanism, a necessary evil that let us somehow survive those strange and all too terrible times.

But now, we find ourselves believing again, and for the first time probably ever in my lifetime as a fan, we don’t just believe in Hope – in that ephemeral concept which exists only as a possibility, as potential and an idea but little more – but in Reality, in the realization of those wild hopes and silly dreams. Our Lions are on the verge of something special and we all know it, we all recognize it. And with that belief comes confidence, comes that ability to just let go a little bit and let things play out without obsessing over every little detail. We don’t have to argue about this shit because we know that Mayhew, Schwartz and company have got this. We trust them, and that’s the important thing, the thing that separates the Hope of the past from the Belief of today – Trust. They have it in a way that Millen never did, in a way that Millen never even came close to earning, in a way that frankly, no figure in the Lions organization has ever had or earned, at least in most of our lifetimes.

It’s hard to know how to proceed in this new environment. It kinda feels like we should be doing more, like we should be arguing or writing more or obsessing about dumb shit, but whenever we try – or whenever I try anyway; forgive my egotism in speaking for the collective – it just feels kind of forced, doesn’t it? It’s more natural right now to just want to sit back and see how this all unfolds. I’m conscious of all the names being bandied about, all the Mock Drafts and all the various scenarios and I’m aware that there are still people out there breathing into a paper bag and gibbering wide eyed about the need for a franchise left tackle or a brand new, shiny cornerback but it’s all just so much noise right now, noise which I have no real desire or need to penetrate. That’s because I believe, because I trust, and I know that in the end, when it’s all sorted out, that my dudes with the offices in Ford Field will do the right thing. Because that’s what Trust means, that’s what Belief means. Will I still have questions and thoughts and opinions (oh so many goddamn opinions) once it all shakes out? Of course I will. But lying beneath all of those questions and thoughts and opinions will be a core of Trust and Belief, a stabilizing force that will shape and guide everything else. That’s definitely different, which is kind of a ludicrously hilarious understatement given the horrors of the past and the explosions in the sky that have occurred on this here blog courtesy of yours truly, and yet it’s the place we find ourselves in today. It’s different, but I think it’s interesting and compelling in its own way.

I once lived like a savage Viking riding on the edge of a storm, and as long as I stayed out ahead of that storm, Hope was all that mattered. It was wild and stupid and carefree and without shape or texture, just a visceral force propelling me forward. It nodded and laughed and hi-fived because the Lions drafted dudes like Backus and Raiola and it assumed the future would eventually take shape the way that it needed to because that was just what happens, that was manifest destiny. And then the storm caught up and everything was chaos, man. Everything blew apart. Every assumption, every hope, every fantasy, every stupid and childish belief, born of equal parts innocence and arrogance, disintegrated in the heart of that storm and all that was left was either to let that storm blow me apart with it or to fight back, to rebel, to scream and spit into that storm’s vile heart in a desperate attempt to hang onto something, anything, even the tiniest particle still floating around from that childish Viking stormride.

Now, I’m a little bit older, a little bit wiser and I usually wake up in my own bed now and not on some filthy couch in someone else’s place. My heart is still wild and on fire, but it is cooled in the ice bath of experience. The storm came and it blew everything apart and then Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz found us floating in the wreckage, clinging to debris, on the verge of drowning, and they pulled us into their boat and they have sailed us to dry land. This is calmer, quieter and not nearly as frenetic as either the Viking stormride or the storm itself, but in its own way it is more self-assured. It is Hope made real, the gathering of all those different parts and particles that were blown apart, all those wild and discordant thoughts and ideals and beliefs, into something new, something whole and harmonic, something solid, and most importantly, for the first time, something real. This is where our journey has taken us, where time and experience and heartache and frenzied manic joy and sorrow have brought us and now I’m just ready to watch and to smile and to know that we not only survived, but we have thrived and no matter what happens during the Draft weekend (or week, or month or however fucking long ESPN decides it’s going to be from now on) when it’s over, deep in my heart, I’ll look at my friend Scott and I’ll say “Cool, man.” And this time, I probably won’t throw up.


CJ said...

Lovely to read your words again.

What's been especially painful about being a Lions fan up until now to me is that the Lions failings seemed to closely mimic those of the area, the car industry, the post-industrial America..blah blah blah. I probably sound so full of it and maybe I am...but mismanagement, bureaucracy, corruption and thundering dumbness have been problems eating away at the state for forever. That the Fords owned the Lions was just horrible icing on the cake.

Growing up here, anxiety over the future was inescapable in a way that seemed to only have become part of most of the rest of the country very recently. I think part of the reason I came to care so weirdly about the Lions, was because of a very misguided need to feel part of the solution. Changing the political structure or car industry practices feels too big especially when you're younger, but the nature of fandom lets you feel that figuring out what precisely should be done at linebacker is somehow the first step in saving America. Nothing could be more ridiculous or misguided than this, but that's kind of how I felt.

Now, through the miracle of competence, the Lions are more football team than metaphor, and my fan duties are reduced to jumping around going "Yay! Stephen Tulloch!". I could not be happier or more relieved.

That doesn't mean I'm not really looking forward to your philosophical musings on them though...because I really, really, *really* am.

I apologize for all the rambling, but not posting it felt wrong.

Neil said...

Thank you, CJ.

And yeah, sports fandom is a weird thing. It can mean both everything and nothing at the same time, and in that, I think there's nothing quite like it. It is completely ridiculous but at the same time people tend to be far too dismissive of the visceral emotion it generates, emotion rooted in something that's forever out of grasp. It's stupid and it's Shakespeare and sometimes - hell, usually - both at the same time.

Matt said...

We are on the same page, Neil. After the agony and bitching of the playoff loss, I said "Let's get the band back together. I would like to see what these guys can do with another season.". Obviously, salary cap concerns aside, Mayhew and Co feel the same way.

If we're all wrong and have to endure the pointed fingers and bleeting sheep, then so be it, we've been through worse. But if we're right, then, OH THE GLORY. Absolutely and totally beyond our control, but we believe. I love sports fandom for the possibilities. If/when you reach the nexus (i.e. Red Wings), it will ALL have been worth it.

Neil said...

Exactly, my dude. Exactly.