PONTIAC, Mich. — In the well-ordered world of the NFL, where stiff upper lips are requisite and time is precious, the Detroit Lions thought it prudent on July 26 to call a team meeting for the purpose of grieving.
The meeting was between the time veterans reported that evening and first bed-check. As they would with any opponent, the Lions would attack this death issue as a unit, break it down, order up a schematic.
The meeting was the well-intentioned idea of Coach Wayne Fontes. When bad news presents itself, coaches usually call meetings.
At hand were the terrible truths of recent months.
On Nov. 17, 1991, right guard Mike Utley was paralyzed in a game against the Rams. The incident galvanized the team and its fans on an emotional run to the NFC Central Division title and the conference championship game. Utley's "thumbs up" sign--the gesture he made to teammates as he left the field on a stretcher--became a rallying cry.
Then, the 1-2 stomach punch. On May 8, Len Fontes, Wayne's brother and coach of the defensive backs, died in his sleep of a heart attack. He was 54. Wayne beat the paramedics to the scene and tried to revive his brother, to no avail.
On June 23, while weeding his front yard in Thibodaux, La., left guard Eric Andolsek was killed by a diesel truck that veered off the highway.
The Lions, expected to pick up where they left off the previous season, were suddenly confronted with two deaths and an uncertain emotional future.
So Fontes, at 7 p.m., Eastern standard time, stood before his troops.
"I addressed the issues," he said this week. "There were a lot of tears in the room. It was hard for me to get through the talk. . . . But it's over now."
His eyes, sullen and swollen, told another story.
Unlike itineraries and grievances, death is not resolved at team meetings.
"It" was not over.
Linebacker Chris Spielman was Andolsek's best friend.
"There is not an hour that goes by that I don't think of him," he said after Monday's practice.
Spielman lifted his left wrist.
Sweat had all but worn away the 65 Spielman scrawled with a pen on his wrist during a team meeting that morning. Sixty-five was Andolsek's number.
But Spielman will be expected, as will the others, to keep a stiff upper lip.
"I know it sounds stupid," Spielman said. "But it's that male macho ritual stuff. That's the way you're almost forced to be in this business. You're a tough SOB and you know it. So that's how you act. You're not going to show a lot of emotion."
It is not normally appropriate to rank tragedies. But Utley's accident certainly does not compare with the deaths of Len Fontes and Andolsek. Utley is alive. His teammates still talk to him, touch him.
His injury was an occupational hazard, the chance all players take when they step onto the field.
Utley is still here to describe, as he did recently to the Miami Herald, how it felt when he lost his balance on a block against the Rams, landed on his head and broke his sixth cervical vertebra.
"Imagine the hottest water, the worst burn you have ever felt," he said. "My legs burned three times worse."
Utley is still here to curse the doctors who have told him he will never walk again; here to inspire with his determination. Still confined to a wheelchair, Utley has regained enough arm strength to bench press 205 pounds. He has competed in a five-kilometer wheelchair race.
Utley is not what he was. He was reminded of that recently when he dropped a two-pound bag of M&M's on the floor. His fingers unable to respond to a basic mental command, Utley retrieved the candies, one at a time.
Utley's tragedy brought the Lion family together as never before.
The team, 6-4 at the time of his injury, won seven consecutive games before losing to the Washington Redskins in the NFC title game. The week before, the Lions beat Dallas for their first playoff victory in 34 years.
Though he was no longer in the lineup, Utley was a presence.
"There were a lot of tears shed," said Mike Mills, president of the team's booster club. "People cried in the stands. It definitely brought the fans together. We felt a lot closer to the players. There was a common bond. We felt the same hurt. The Utley emotion was extraordinary. It's probably something that will never be duplicated."
One fan, rummaging through some religious literature, found a picture of Jesus Christ gesturing with what appeared to be the same "thumbs up" pose fans were using in tribute to Utley.
The fan sent the picture to Wayne Fontes, who mailed it to Utley's mother.
"There was nothing sacrilegious about it," Mills said. "His mother thought it was great."
Coming to grips with the deaths of Fontes and Andolsek has been more difficult.
Len Fontes died without warning. Soon after, Wayne Fontes hired his other brother, John, to assume Len's position as secondary coach.
It has been easier with John, considering all the times Wayne has looked at John in team meetings and addressed him as "Lenny."
Who better to understand?