Forward Down the Field

by by by Nick Catoni

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Motown legend Marvin Gaye released his landmark single What’s Going On in January 1971.  Everyone knows the smooth report of Gaye’s voice, but most won’t recognize the voices in the background.  And they wouldn’t be expected to. Gaye enlisted two unknowns, his friends and former Detroit Lions players: Lem Barney and Mel Farr.  The year before, Gaye began training in hopes to try out for the Lions.  Never playing organized sports before in his life, he bulked up almost 30 pounds, aiming to play wide receiver.  However, the Lions’ head coach Joe Schmidt rejected Gaye over fear of putting him in harms way, stating that, “If I could sing like you, I certainly wouldn’t want to play football.”  But everything seemed to work out fine for the legendary Gaye in the long run.

Yet the same can’t be said for the Lions, who have been far from legendary for more than 50 years.  The franchise began in 1929 as the Portsmouth Spartans.  They moved to the Motor City in 1934 and changed their name because, according to a team spokesperson at the time, “the lion is the monarch of the jungle, and we hope to be the monarch of the league.”  The Lions attempted to merit this title, creating the Thanksgiving Day football game their first year in Detroit.  But the Lions have yet to come close to the team’s early ambition.

Some call it “The Curse of Bobby Layne:” after trading Layne in 1958, he allegedly cursed the team, saying they would “not win for 50 years.”  Prior to his trade, Layne brought the Lions three NFL Championships.  During those 50 years, the Lions had the worst winning percentage in the NFL.  But now, Layne’s curse has become an understatement.  It’s been 53 years now without an appearance by the Lions in the Super Bowl, reaching no closer than a 41-10 blowout in the NFC Conference Championship in 1991.  And more recently, in 2008, the Lions became laughing stock of the league by becoming the first team in NFL history to go a perfect 0-16 in the regular season, losing every one of their games.  Other teams have experienced prolonged periods of failure: the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908.  Yet, to their fans, they’ve become known as the “loveable losers.”  The Lions, on the other hand, would be better named Detroit’s “hateable losers.”

Nobody wanted to be a Lions fan after 2008.  This may be changing.  The Lions are currently undefeated and a hot pick amongst some observers to contend for the Super Bowl.  I can’t see it this way just yet.  The history of my family and the Lions tells me to be on my guard.


Back when my grandfather began watching the Lions, I don’t think he could’ve imagined the train wreck the Lions would become.  He witnessed what one could call their “Golden Age,” watching the Lions win three NFL Championships.  But his children weren’t so lucky.

“That’s it. I’m finished. I’m done. I will never watch these bums again.” Those were the defeated words of my Uncle Jimbo following the 1980 Thanksgiving Day game.  After watching the Lions collapse and surrender the lead late in the 4th quarter, he stayed true to these words, never watching or supporting the Lions again until he passed away.

His younger brothers had long since given up on the Lions: Ron hopped on the Miami Dolphins bandwagon in the ‘70s and John has been a fan of the Rams since they played in Los Angeles.  Likewise, my Aunt Judi began following the Minnesota Vikings in the ’60s, citing their “toughness and defense” but more so the fact that “they always beat the Lions.” For her the decision was simple: “If you live in Detroit, you always gotta have a backup.”

My father, on the other hand, doesn’t have a backup: he has always stood by the Lions. He lived through the mediocre ’70s and ’80s, sharing in the defeat of that 1980 Thanksgiving Day.  In the ’90s, he saw the greatest years in recent Lions history: the Barry years.  Arguably the greatest running back of all time, Barry Sanders carried the Lions to five playoff appearances in the ’90s.  Barry brought the Lions their only playoff victory since winning the 1957 NFL Championship: a satisfying blowout of the Cowboys in the opening round, 38-6.  But these successes only made the subsequent failures hurt more; unable to carry the Lions to the Super Bowl, Barry retired in 1998 saying, “the culture of losing in the Lions organization was too much to deal with.”

When I came into the picture, I gave my father a companion in misery as we watched arguably the worst decade for any team in any sport.  From 2001 to 2010, the Lions had no winning seasons, with an overall record of 39-121.  Through 2001 to 2003, the Lions lost 24 consecutive road games and surpassed their own record in 2010, with 26 consecutive road losses.  From 2002 to 2006, they had six first round draft choices, five in the top ten overall. But none of these picks are still on the team, and only a few are still in the NFL.

Through all this, I’ve watched my father whip numerous items at the television – hats, stuffed animals, etc. – out of disgust for the Lions.  My family bought him a set of small foam footballs, for the T.V.’s sake.  Needless to say, they’re used every Sunday.  And it’s not just fans that the Lions curse, it’s anyone that gets close to the franchise: no Lions head coach has ever gone on to be a head coach again.  Horrifically, the Lions have even been morbid: late wide receiver Chuck Hughes is the only player in NFL history to have died on the field and two Lions players have been paralyzed on the turf, Mike Utley and Reggie Brown.

During these years of failure, my father and I haven’t questioned our dedication to the Lions.  We dream of a Super Bowl victory, but he doesn’t think the team will ever win one in his lifetime.  I’ll ask him what he would do if this ever happens.  He always answers: “I’d run up and down the street naked.”


And this season, things seem to be different.  The Lions are winning, on the cusp of a 5-0 start, all of the misery of the last 53 years seems to be in the distant past to fans and sports analysts. They’ve ignored the Lion’s history, predicting a playoff berth and, in some cases, a trip to the Super Bowl.  As diehard fans our entire lives, it’s been funny to watch. We’ve been trained to expect the worst, even when the Lions are winning.  Yet the other day, we talked about the Lions optimistically for what must have been the first time in my life.  Our team hosts the Packers – division rivals and defending Super Bowl Champions – on Thanksgiving Day this year.  Both teams could be battling for the division title, if the Lions continue to win.  He said that, since he was a child, the joy of Thanksgiving Day hinged on the Lions: turkey just doesn’t taste as good when they lose.  The turkey might taste good this year.  But even with these four wins, we’re not letting our hopes get too high.  Nothing came of a 4-0 start in 1980.  We’re just happy the Lions have already won one game: at least there won’t be another winless season.

Nick Catoni ’14 bleeds Honolulu Blue and Silver.