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The Lions are building something real

CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Detroit is a tough town going through tough times, but Lions have been there, done that, and now they're a team a city can love, whether it's Motown . . . or Pasadena, home to an actual Lions hangout.

October 22, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • A Lions fan roots for Detroit during their season-opening game at Tampa Bay.
A Lions fan roots for Detroit during their season-opening game at Tampa… (Reinhold Matay / Associated…)

You've got to give it to Detroit, one of the last places in America that actually makes something, including — so far this season at least — some pretty Teamster-friendly football.

Tough town, tougher defense.

These days, all our Cinderellas seem to be in therapy, or doing court-ordered community work, but not these Lions. This is what a Cinderella's supposed to look like: young, clear-eyed and sporting a Herman Cain-like charisma.

Not so long ago (2008), the Lions couldn't win a single game. This year, they looked capable of going 16-0 till the almost equally surprising San Francisco 49ers slipped by them last Sunday. Like the New Orleans Saints of two years ago, they are becoming America's Team.

Let's recap.

I located that most elusive of things, a Detroit Lions hangout, in a fluffy stretch of Old Pasadena, which is like Pasadena, though somehow older — if that's even possible.

Anyway, I found a Barney's Beanery with Detroit fans lining the bar — a doctor, an architect and an off-duty bartender, and some blogger named Josh who was taking things a bit too seriously, so I mostly kept my distance.

There was another patron with a black eye hovering around me, very Detroit-like. What I love about my job is the sense of impending danger. Not to mention the existentialist overtones. And the company card.

I know what you're thinking: "If it's Sunday, why aren't these folks in church?" No one had the answer, though there was a barmaid with a tight I ? JESUS T-shirt. You know, if you're into religious iconography. Or hearts.

Turns out these Lions fans are all originally from Michigan, or dating someone from Michigan, which is the doctor's excuse. Her name is Amy. She is the chatty cousin of Cal Coach Jeff Tedford, so she knows a little football. And she knows heartbreak, because she's dating a dude who's been following the Lions almost since conception.

Now, name the most toxic franchises in America — Pirates, Cubs, Red Lobster — and the Lions have to be near the top of that sad heap. They've had some excellent players through the years — Lem Barney, Joe Schmidt, Bobby Layne, a jackrabbit named Sanders — but plenty more bad ones, and a front office that seemed an inept extension of the auto industry itself. Indeed it was . . . Fords everywhere.

Silly us, giving up hope.

See, while teams like the Philadelphia Eagles paid for solutions far and wide, the Lions bought domestic. In the last few years, they've been harvesting high draft choices — Ndamukong Suh, Gosder Cherilus and Matthew Stafford, a deadly but fragile young (22) quarterback who has made fellow first-rounder Calvin Johnson the most feared receiver in the game.

More than ever, the NFL is about pitching.

"You saw that they were building this team, but there was always something that would go wrong," notes longtime fan Josh Kushner, citing Stafford's glass shoulder.

So in retrospect, this Lions resurgence all makes sense, but also in retrospect, they won a mere six games last year with a defense that ranked 21st in the league.

And three autumns ago, the Lions went 0-16 — a season-long joke on Leno.

"Lot of good games this weekend," went one of Leno's spiels. "Ravens are playing the Titans, Chargers are playing the Steelers, Lions are playing Guitar Hero."

The consensus is that the Lions' current turnaround began with the 2008 removal of team president Matt Millen, responsible for more busts than Ludwig van Beethoven. And that — after a series of flops such as Mornhinweg, Mariucci, Marinelli — they can never again hire a coach with a name starting with a certain letter.

"We've had a bad run of coaches whose names started with M," says Johnnie Braden, the off-duty bartender.

"We used to have to huddle around the small TVs in the back," architect Mike Kareti remembers of those tough years. "Now we're up here on the main screen."

"It felt like we had a bull's-eye on our backs," says Braden.

"Come on, you've got to catch that!" yells a fan who can't eat a french fry without dribbling ketchup down his shirt.

"Sober is overrated," says the guy next to him nursing a Coke.

So now what, gearheads?

Can Stafford stay healthy an entire season?

Will the Lions fold against stronger teams, after a relatively mild early schedule?

Me, I've never had an easy time distinguishing between real life and cartoons, but this Lions team sure seems like the real deal, though the leaden weight of history looms over them.

"It's not like we haven't suffered a loss before," says Braden the barkeep after their first loss last Sunday. "It's almost a comfortable feeling."

Don't get too comfortable, pal. Motown is rising. Cinderella won the toss.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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