Sports franchises traditionally adopt the names of fearsome, majestic, or beloved creatures as a representative of the team on the field. If the Detroit Lions were to have been more accurately represented in logo form for the last six decades, they may have been saddled with the image of Emmett Kelly, the famous sad-faced clown.
The Lions were purchased by William Clay Ford (grandson of Henry) on Nov. 22, 1963, a transaction slightly overshadowed by other national events of the day, but in the eyes of many Detroit sports fans, it's something that turned out to be a sad event itself.
Decades of futility and uncompetitive teams have been the norm since, with a few notable bright spots, periods of hope, and even outright optimism; in 1980, off to a 4-0 start and led by Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims, Lions defensive back Jimmy "Spiderman" Allen recorded a Lions-specific cover version of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" for Detroit's Cue Records. (Cue was founded by producer Jack Tann, who co-produced the iconic Was (Not Was) track "Out Come the Freaks"). The Lions crumbled shortly after the release of the song, going a respectable 9-7 but missing the playoffs.
The lone playoff victory during Ford's tenure came Jan. 5, 1992, a 38-6 shellacking of the Dallas Cowboys. I attended that game in the Pontiac Silverdome, sitting in the last row, with an air duct over my shoulder so massive that it could have led to the freedom of a dozen Andy Dufresnes simultaneously. Cowboys fans who made the trek from Texas to watch "America's Team" left in tears. On the broadcast, Hall of Fame broadcaster Pat Summerall and Hall of Fame coach/video game namesake John Madden excitedly extolled the virtues of quarterback Erik Kramer and the Lions' defense. The next week, the Lions took on the Washington Redskins at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and were beaten like Sirhan Sirhan would have been if he showed up at a Gaelic League Convention.
Being a Lions fan is like being an avid gardener in a yard that is 90 percent shade: The neighbors can question the sanity, but not the commitment.
And despite the losing seasons, the premature farewells to superstars, the perceived mismanagement, and verifiably poor drafting, the Lions retain a loyal and devoted group of fans who, unlike many that clog the sports talk airwaves, stand by their hometown team.
Detroiter Kenny Caskey has been a fan "for over 50 years." His love affair with the Lions goes all the way back to the days when they shared the corner of Michigan and Trumbull with the Tigers.
"My first memory is about 8 or 9, in Tiger Stadium against the Green Bay Packers with my dad and my uncle, wishing I could take a sip of whiskey from their hidden flask."
I recall my own fan dalliance with the dynasty Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the late 1970s, a short, pudgy white kid wishing he was the graceful (he took ballet lessons, for Nureyev's sake) Lynn Swann.
Did Caskey ever have a favorite team when the Lions were continually in the cellar?
"No other team," he emphasizes. "Living in Detroit, we love our teams," he says, though I fail to recall anyone painting their face winged wheel red when the "Dead Things" Wings were worse than a proctologist strapping his colonoscopy camera to a live python.
The Lions have exuberant, Honolulu Blue face-painted costumed "super" fans at every home game. It's not as menacing as the Raiders "Black Hole" or as steeped in tradition as the Cleveland Browns' "Dawg Pound," but they're superfans nonetheless.
One of the most popular is the Reverend of Roar, an ordained minister and Corktown denizen — residing on Church Street, of course — who began preaching the gospel of the Lions in rhyme at bars, pregame, and in makeshift pulpits all over Ford Field in 2010. The Reverend delivers a sermon at Park Bar one hour before every game.
"It was in 2010, right around noon; my Detroit Lions were going to play real soon, and would you believe it was a Packers fan, my buddy Chad, he said: 'Hey, man! You're a Reverend now and your fans have been beaten down, you're the kinda guy who can bring cheer back to this town;
The next thing I know I'm standing on the bar, and I even went as far as rhyming every line, improvised! He and I were both surprised; Truth be told, the team does all the work, and to take the praise would make me a jerk, 'cause they're the ones going forward down the field, and I'm just a charging fan that will not yield!" — the Reverend of Roar
What makes him a believer in a team that had gone winless just two years before his first public sermon?
"To believe starts with having faith. In its purest form it can't be faked. Football, like family, is the ultimate team sport. If part of the family fails, you must defend your fort. You don't point fingers or assign blame, you help each other up and finish the game. We are one pride, you know what I mean ... the Detroit football Lions are our family, our team," he says. While that doesn't exactly pass theological muster, it's hard to find fault with the Reverend's commitment and enthusiasm.
Any true Lions fan can tell you the Lions have had one of the best on-field entertainers in the league for a long time: Theo "Gridiron" Spight, the baritone of beefcake responsible for singing "Gridiron Heroes," the Lions theme song more commonly known by its opening lines of the chorus "Forward Down the Field":
"Hail the colors blue and silver, let them wave.
Sing their song and cheer the gridiron heroes brave,
Fighting for fame, winning the game,
Dashing to victory as they go.
Forward down the field,
A charging team that will not yield.
And when the blue and silver wave,
Stand and cheer the brave.
Rah, Rah, Rah.
Go hard, win the game.
With honor you will keep your fame.
Down the field and gain,
A Lion victory!"
Gridiron's Lions fandom dates back to the "Another One Bites the Dust" days, and he was locked into the Honolulu Blue tribe for life when "Billy Sims was kung fu fighting the Houston Oilers" (who, coincidentally had their own popular fight song).
For most fans, the lowlights have outnumbered the highlights and have made them either cease to follow the Lions — it's not uncommon to see the term "Lions Free" on social media, as though they were part of an unhealthy lifestyle like cigarette smoking or rabid dog taunting — or watch only to rip them to shreds on sports talk radio.
But both Gridiron and Lions fan Clayton Abram of Clinton Township allude to the Lions nadir when discussing their favorite moment. If you are a Detroit sports fan and were mercifully taking soil samples in Madagascar in 2008, the Lions did not win one single regular-season game (after the brutally unlikely happenstance of teasing their title-starved fans by winning every game in the preseason).
"My top moment would probably be when they broke the losing streak following the 0-16 season," Gridiron says. "They showed a lot of heart and toughness in that game."
Abram concurs: "My personal best moment was the Lions' first win after the 0-16 season. I was at that game, against the Redskins. The way the stadium reacted, you'd have thought we won a playoff game."
But, alas, the Lions didn't win a playoff game. Some Lions teams couldn't make the word playoffs in their alphabet soup. But then they do make the playoffs, and hence what I consider one of the greatest atrocities in professional sports happened: Lions vs. Cowboys on Jan. 4, 2015. It was a rematch of the two teams from the Lions' last playoff victory, when rotary dial landlines flourished. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens is flagged for interfering with the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew. Two separate actions by Hitchens constitute pass interference when judged on their own. The penalty flag was thrown. And then it was picked up as if to say, "can we just forget this little disagreement and move on?" Mike Pereira, the Fox Sports' Roger Ebert of officiating, was still stating that the officials screwed the Lions while he waited for his post game flight at the airport.
If radio and social media are a true barometer, it's a general consensus among Detroit sports fans that, after dozens of coaching changes and more than a handful of front office shakeups, the fault for the team's malaise can only rest with the Ford family. Caskey disagrees: "The Ford family? Martha rules!"
William Clay's widow, Martha Firestone Ford, chairwoman of the Lions, has repeatedly stated that she has no intention of selling the team.
So what fate awaits the fans this season? Playoffs? Futility? Cinderella-esque glory? (Vegas currently lists the Lions at 100-1 odds to win the Super Bowl.)
Stafford is without Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. There are no marquee running backs. Coach Jim Caldwell has the respect of his peers, but that's like citing how many plush Homer Simpsons you've pulled from the crane machine on your construction company application.
But to Caskey, the Reverend, Gridiron, Abram, and their ilk (there are eight or more Lions Fan groups on Facebook at a cursory glance), no matter the tally in the W column at the end of the season, they are not abandoning their team.
"I'll sip that Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid until I die," Abram says.
Quoth the Reverend, evermore: "It's gotta be smiles on faces my friend, no matter what, smiles on faces until the end, on the faces of the players, the skeptics, and the little fans too. Don't matter how long you've done it, we all bleed Silver and Blue."
Adds Gridiron: "Lions fans need faith. That's the most important ingredient. Through thick and thin, good and bad, the Lions fans are the best in the NFL."
So will they roar this year? If they don't, the Tears of a Clown are more closely associated with Detroit than a sub-Saharan mammal anyway.
Jimmy Doom is a frequent Metro Times contributor who acts, writes, and screams at TVs during sporting events. He most recently wrote "Silent screeners: How to become that actor in the background" in MT 46.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.