By David Fleming
They hand out security badges now for visiting media at the Detroit Lions practice facility. But my first day in town I didn't bother to wear mine because, honestly, it's been my experience that no one in their right mind would actually want to sneak into a Detroit Lions function. In fact, the last time I was back home to cover the Motor City Kitties was 1999 when some of the finest gentlemen in the game -- Bobby Ross and Barry Sanders -- were desperately trying to escape from the team.
I'll never forget sitting with Ross out on the practice field that day. The cold, empty Silverdome loomed in the distance. The sky was turning inky and ominous. And Ross was about to begin his daily ritual of jogging loops around the stadium parking lot to help relieve the stress of coaching this team. As the sky grew dark and the field emptied, I joked with Ross that with the kind of stress he was dealing with I half expected to see a moat worn into the pavement surrounding the stadium.
He didn't laugh. At the time, Ross was the latest coach hired to coax the Lions to their second playoff win since 1957. During that stretch the team had been so consistently disappointing that the marketing folks were able to keep their 'Restore the Roar' campaign going for, oh, four full decades. (Trust me, in high school I put one of these bumper stickers on the back of our yellow Ford LTD station wagon -- the model with the sweet faux wood paneling on the side for the ladies.)
Restore the Roar in ... '64 (nope).
... '74 (darn it).
... '84 (doh).
.. '94 (almost).
And last week, as the 2-0 Lions prepared to face the Eagles, the vibe in Motown was all about how Steve Mariucci had finally -- yep -- Restored the Roar in ... 2004.
The networks were all there. The facility was packed. Shoot, I even saw uber agent Drew Rosenhaus lurking around in the parking lot most of the day Thursday. Later I heard someone talking on the radio asking whether or not the much maligned Matt Millen deserved a contract extension. A what? I screamed. Former Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg, now on the Eagles staff, even predicted that, get this, "2004 to 2008 would be some of the very best years in Detroit Lions history."
Catching a Harrington pass in the open can be hazardous to your health.
The poor fans in Detroit -- and one national magazine writer -- gulped down that Honolulu blue Kool-aid like it was an ice cold Stroh's. And on Sunday the Eagles turned it all to Pinto dust in about 150 seconds. With the game out of reach in the second half an exhausted Lions offensive lineman somehow lost the handle on his drawers and, without knowing it, shot the crowd a pretty hefty half-moon.
That, folks, is how it feels to be a Lions fans.
But (sorry, I couldn't resist), really, this is what the mad scientists at the NFL have always envisioned: not just an equal division of talent but supaparity to the point that, believing they might have a chance, even fans in places like Arizona, San Diego, Chicago and Detroit will continue to fork over cash for tickets, jerseys and stadiums. Listen, I love the underdog as much as the next guy, probably even more, but when Denny Green takes over a team that has had one winning season since 1982 and guarantees that they're going to the playoffs, something ain't right.
Before beating the Bears and the Texans to open the 2004 season the Lions had won a league-low 10 games during the previous THREE YEARS. By the time Millen and Mornhinweg got done with them they had no identity, no playmakers and even less hope. I don't care what the marketing weenies at the NFL want you to believe it takes time and talent to fix those kinds of problems.
The thing is -- and even as I tap the keys I know I'm going to regret this -- I saw some promise in this team, I swear.
Mmm ... Honolulu blue Kool-aid. Tastes good.
They have a tough schedule, sure. And I'd be real concerned with Joey Harrington's development to this point. Receivers should not be flinching and taking stutter steps after catching passes from a franchise QB like they were on Sunday. After three years guys should trust that Harrington won't put them in situations where they might get their heads torn off.
And being so young the Lions don't have the kind of depth to withstand even a handful of injuries. But, man, Mooch has done a lot in just over a year. He's cured them of the losing 'tude that had infected this franchise. He has a young, talented roster that is giving off the kind of collegial feel that almost always proceeds a dramatic turnaround. (When I was there guys were killing cornerback Dre' Bly, saying his bobblehead doll had a melon that was built to actual size.)
I also look at special teams in places like Detroit because it's a pretty good barometer of not only young, raw, hungry talent, but also the attention to detail of the coaching staff and the level of camaraderie in the trenches. Last week, the Lions were ranked second in the NFC in kickoffs, third in kick returns and they had already returned one blocked field goal for a TD. And after years of misfiring in April, the roster is now dotted with young promising playmakers like explosive wideout Roy Williams and earthmover defensive tackle Shaun Rogers.
Forget about X's and O's, Steve has this team thinking they can win.
One theory is that you rebuild a team right up the middle, starting with defensive tackle, linebacker and safety, then add speed as you fan out to places like defensive end and corner. At least this is what Mooch told me one day after practice while sitting on folding chairs just off the Lions indoor field. (Where, for the record, I was wearing my security badge.)
In Rogers, aka Big Baby, the Lions don't just have a foundation, they've got an entire infrastructure; a young, brash, loose cat who should be the team's next (first?) real star. Look at some of the recent turnaround teams -- Baltimore and Carolina to name a few -- they were all anchored by stud defensive tackles. And trust me, Big Baby (or just Baby to friends) gives new meaning to the term Immense Talent. "If Big Baby wanted to try tennis," says DE Cory Redding, another one of the Lions' under-25 crew, "he'd be the best in the world at it, that's just the kind of athlete he is."
The word on Rogers across the league is when he's on he's practically "unblockable". When he isn't manhandling double teams or blocking field goals (he has five in his first four years) Big Baby is keeping things loose by constantly making fun of Dan Wilkinson's gnarled toes; entertaining teammates at his bachelor pad townhouse known as the "Dungeon" or running off to get his momma, Gwen Hart, a Pepsi while she talks to a reporter.
It seems like I never get to say this about players anymore but Big Baby is a shear delight. I had heard rumors that the 345 pounder -- or the 300 and "whatever-he-wants-to-tell-you-he-weighs-that-day-pounder," said one teammate -- could actually dunk a basketball.
"Dunk? Naw," said the walking RenCen (sorry, old school Motown reference.) "I don't just dunk. What I can do is a windmill .. a tomahawk ... or a 360."
"Get out dude," I said, "you can not."
Before I knew what was happening, Big Baby had pushed back a table, palmed a pillow and pointed to an imaginary basket in the ceiling tiles. With his tongue wagging, he spun on his toes, elevated right past me, flying, twirling, and finally slamming the pillow home in a way that must have sent seismic shock waves down to Toledo.
By the time Rogers landed I had already come up with a more realistic team slogan.
Restore the Roar in 2004?
Restore the Floor in 2004?
FLEM GEMS -- NFL WEEK 3
Oakland Raiders fans and class. When was the last time you read those words in the same sentence?
Well, I hate to be the one to ruin your hard-earned, ugly rep but you guys really impressed me on Sunday night with the way you handled Tim Brown catching his 100th career TD in your house (er, double-wide) while wearing a different colored uniform.
You cheered. You stood on your feet and gave the man, perhaps the finest combination of talent and character the game has ever seen, the respect and admiration he deserved. You didn't fall trap to your rep. You didn't blindly follow the mean drunks who wanted to boo. You understood the magnitude of that achievement (Brown is now only the fourth player in history to reach that milestone) and you put your hurt feelings, D-batteries and Predator masks (at least I think that was a mask) aside to do the right thing: honor the guy who had caught 99 of those TDs during 16 years with the silver and black.
And for that, Raider Nation I salute you. Ya big softies.
FLEM FILE FIVE
Top Five Most Disappointing Detroit Sports Moments.
10) Denny McClain.
9) Isiah Thomas' idiotic inbounds pass in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics.
Last week, watching my older brother Bill's FBI softball team lose after giving up seven runs in the bottom of the ninth to a team of derelicts called, I swear, "I saw your sister on the Internet".
7) Bob Probert caught with cocaine in his underpants.
6) Tommy Hearns losing to pretty boy Sugar Ray Leonard.
5) Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych's seven-year comeback.
4) Hearing that my little brother's wrestling team had become the first one from Grosse Pointe North ever to lose to Grosse Pointe South.
3) TIE: Barry Sanders quitting. And, eventually, Steve Yzerman retiring.
2) The limo crash that injured Red Wing Vladimir Konstantinov after the Stanley Cup finals.
1) Getting caught between a burning car and a line of police on horseback during the post World Series celebration outside Tiger Stadium.
Caught up with our original mascot, Pats TE Zeron Flemister, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
ZFlem recently drove 27 hours (but not all at once) to Denver where he's set up with a trainer and physical therapist to rehab his mangled heel. He first stopped by Chicago to see family and friends then drove the rest of the way to the mountains, keeping himself awake by watching the first season of the Dave Chappelle Show on a mini DVD player. (We spent most of the interview exchanging Chappelle Show lines.) As always Z is keeping things in perspective. With the rehab boot on he says he's been able to "cut my sock washing in half." And because he can only wear one at a time he may finally be cured of his shoe-buying addiction.
Last week he passed his first recovery milestone when doctors took out one of the heel wedges that elevates the injured tendon. But he's still looking at another five weeks before he can even think about walking. "This is the worst part of the game," he says. "I can't do even the most basic stuff. In one second I went from a professional athlete to an invalid, it's hard to take."
His spirits have been buoyed, however, by watching the success of his FlemFile fill-in, Titans FB Troy Fleming, who scorched the Jags last week for a 12-yard kickoff return. "Oh yeah," says Zeron, barely containing his sarcasm, "that guy has no idea the power of this column."
An electronic landslide is about the only way I can describe reader response to last week's column on cups -- or the lack thereof. In a refreshing twist I received countless hate emails about the hate emails that ranged from encouragement to outrage.
First of all, thanks FlemFilers for getting my back. And I agree a lot of this stuff is just plain nasty. Typically, though, on a good week the emails run largely in favor of the work and as most of you can attest I respond as often as I can. When I get stuff like the email from the dudes in 'Fleming Hovse' at CalTech, it really does make sifting through the sewage worth it. But still, many of you asked, why do I run this stuff? Well, for starters, do you really want to read my fan mail? I include it mainly because it's pretty dang funny and it helps the rest of us 'normal folk' keep things in proper perspective.
Okay then, with that said, here goes. Trust me, you're gonna want to put on some galoshes or something first.
A fellow Fleming begins with, "I'm deeply concerned that I enjoyed your latest column. Has the affinity that I feel towards you because of your last name blinded me to the fact that your writing is boring and stale?"
Cody continues, "I don't like being the bearer of bad news, but your column is horrible ... If you would like me to take over your column I will, in the mean time I hope I can steer clear of any more of your mindless ramblings and save myself the kick in the nuts (pun intended) that is your writing."
Scott writes, "That was seven minutes of my life I'll never get back. I think I deserve an apology, you dumbass." Tim says the column deserves recognition, "Is there awards you can win for wasting my time with (stuff) about some guys nut?"
In the printable portion of Joe's email, he writes, "Wow you researched and wrote an entire article about grown men's nuts. How creepy/borderline (gay) is that?" Brad keeps the thinly veiled repressed sexual issue theme going with, "I used to think Sean Salsibury was the biggest waste of life on the planet, then I read your article obsessing over professional athletes' testicles. You know it is OK to openly admit you are gay. I am so horribly disgraced to even be wasting my time writing this I think I'll go end my life. You and Sean should follow my lead."
Mike agrees that I should seek medical help -- from Dr. Kevorkian. "I work at a hospital, and I spend most of my time helping people to live longer. When I read your column, it forces me to question the value of saving a human life. You don't know anything about sports, and your story about the roller hockey puck hitting you left me hoping that you get hit with an arrow or a spear next time. You're god awful and you should retire before anyone else has to read one of your columns."
I just re-read this stuff and, you know what?, you guys are right -- it's brutal. Ouch. But I still don't think it's as bad as something like this: Patrick writes, "I don't know the answer (to some meaningless football stat) but was hoping you could get someone there to find out for me." Sure Patrick. Just sit by your computer and wait for my crack stat staff (my 3-year-old daughter Ally) to plug the numbers into our super-stat computer (an EasyBake Oven) and get back to you.
Finally, Brian, who is an Ohio U fan (although I swear that had no bearing whatsoever on my decision) wrote in to complain that the new, safer helmets players are wearing are ugly. "I think I'd rather risk a concussion than wear one of those," he says.
When it comes to protecting their melons Brian wants football players to put fashion first. Hey, here's an idea, why even bother with helmets? It hasn't seemed to effect Brian. (Whatever his brain activity I hope Bri will get a chance to watch some real college football tonight by tuning into ESPN2 to see my Lil RedHawks slip by Marshall, oh, 78-3.)
Still, for showing, once again, that being dull-witted is a lot harder than being mean, Brian wins this week's WHYLO.
Say it with me people: Brian, Who Helped You Log on?
MUSIC REVIEW (VERTIGO)
This is more of a three-minute anthology than a single. U2's first song from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a driving, pop-infused dynamo that seamlessly combines samples from all of the band's previous masterpieces.
Edge's punch drunk, croupy arena chords seem to have jumped straight off Achtung Baby. The song's jangly two-note bells remind me of "I Will Follow." And Bono's lighter lyrical touch, including the so-dorky-it's-cool intro of uno, dos, tres .. catorce is a wink back at Pop. (This should placate fans who have grown tired of Bono's endless do-gooding -- as if the world is overrun by rock stars who actually stand for something besides themselves.)
The real star of Vertigo, however, is Adam Clayton who toys perfectly with the timing space of each beat, stringing together some of his best work in a performance that (against my liking) transforms a rock song into a get-out-of-your-seat sugary pop morsel.
Still, imagine if a painter created a work using only the best strokes from his previous masterpieces and, perhaps, that's what U2's first single tells us is in store with this upcoming album. It's enough to give you ... Vertigo.
THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: Rage Against the Machine.