Danville, Kentucky -- President Reagan once said "it is better to be respected than loved." This motto was the driving force behind his administration as he restored American moral authority worldwide and brought an end to the Cold War. Reagan's timeless adage is not only true in the realm of politics; it is also true on the gridiron. But respect is earned, not given. Like many men of my generation, I learned this lesson on the football field.
In my youth, football was the sport of choice for young Danville men during the brisk Kentucky fall. Every day after school we'd head to a patch of grass near an old, abandoned bottling factory and play two-hand touch football. As a 3rd grader, I fell in love with the game of football. I fell in love with the smell of dead leaves, the feel of slick mud and grass stains on my pants, and the touch of the leathery pigskin in my palms.
But there came a day when my gridiron utopia was assaulted. Some 5th graders showed up at our favorite playing spot near the long-closed bottling factory. They took over the field and imposed their own rules. The big kids didn't want to play two-hand touch. They played tackle football, a scary idea given the size and heft of some of these 5th graders. I could've backed down that day, and found some other place to play football with kids my own age, but I didn't.
Against my better judgement and my mom's pleas to not play such a violent and dangerous game, I began to play tackle football with the 5th graders. It didn't go well initially. The 5th graders wouldn't pass me the ball. When they did, I'd immediately get decked by kids twice my size. They seemed to enjoy beating up on me. We didn't wear helmets or pads, folks; each tackle meant a mouthful of earthy muck and unsightly bruises.
I remember the day I earned the respect of the 5th graders. It was winter of 1966. The ground was damp, and cold. We had already played three or four games of football that day, and everybody was more tired and worn-out than Megyn Kelly's sorry excuse for a prime-time news show. We agreed to play one last game that day before we would all head home for dinner. My team -- a rag-tag bunch of my fellow 3rd graders and a couple of 5th graders nice enough to join us -- had trailed most of the game but had an opportunity to head home on a high note. The game was tied. It was fourth down, and we were deep in enemy territory.
I was playing fullback, because I was one of the few kids big enough and wide enough to not get totally knocked around and brutalized by the 5th graders. Our quarterback called a fullback dive. He put the game in my hands. He had faith that I could punch the ball across the goal line to give our team the win. He believed in me. But he didn't respect me. Not yet.
On that fateful final play, I scored a touchdown, but not before getting mercilessly slammed into the ground. After emerging from the mangled pile of limbs in the end-zone, I had done it. I had EARNED the respect of the 5th graders. With blood trickling from my knees and dirty grass stains on my favorite Cleveland Browns shirt, a wry smile crept across my face as my teammates congratulated me. I felt a special type of satisfaction as I ate my mother's meatloaf that evening at dinner.
Lions vs. Packers: Pride and Respect On The Line
This Sunday night, the NFC North title is on the line. But respect is on the line as well. Folks, the Detroit Lions are on the cusp of finally earning the respect of the NFL's big kids; of graduating from two-hand touch to tackle football. Having endured decades of ridicule and derision from the NFL's talking head commentators, the Lions have a chance to silence their doubters and begin a new era of football in the Motor City. All they have to do is beat the Green Bay Packers and their immaculately photogenic quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.
Folks, it won't be an easy task. The Packers are a formidable opponent, and it's no secret that the NFL would rather have playoff games hosted in Lambeau than Ford Field. The NFL has a financial stake in continuing the Aaron Rodgers iron man narrative; he's one of the league's most recognizable faces and sells a ton of jerseys. Roger Goodell and company want Rodgers to succeed, and they're perfectly willing to stack the deck against the Lions do to so. The NFL hasn't hesitated to keep the Lions down in the past. The history of the Detroit Lions is a history of questionable calls against them.
Remember the 2014 playoffs, when the refs called pass interference on the Dallas Cowboys, only to pick up the flag?
Remember the no-call on Seattle's illegal bat last season?
Remember the phantom face-mask last year that set up an NFL-manufactured Packers comeback victory?
This is but a small taste of the daunting task before the Lions: not only do they have to defeat the NFL's golden boy Aaron Rodgers, they have to defeat the officiating crew, which is typically composed of a bunch of closet cheeseheads.
Lots of folks dismiss this line of argument as conspiracy theorizing. But rigging happens all the time. Wikileaks showed us that the democratic primary was rigged against Bernie Sanders. The NCAA playoff selection committee was rigged against Penn State. What makes people think the NFL doesn't also engage in rigging, especially with so much money on the line? It's naive to suggest otherwise.
Fortunately, there may be hope for the Lions. Don't get me wrong. The Lions have their weaknesses. Their running game is weak. They are over-reliant on the passing game, and have struggled to score points in the red zone because they can't punch the ball across the goal line like I did back in '66.
But the Lions have several factors working in their favor. First, Wisconsin men are not men of their word. Aaron Rodgers promised that Green Bay would "run the table" in their final games of the season en-route to a playoff berth. Folks, I'm old enough to remember when Paul Ryan, a republican representative from Wisconsin and Speaker of the House, promised our nation Obamacare repeal, a restored economy, and high paying jobs. He's been the house speaker for a full year and we're still no closer to a return to small government principles. Men from Wisconsin often promise things they can't deliver, Rodgers is no different folks. The Packers may very well take this "L" like Paul Ryan has been taking Ls all year.
Second, the Lions have home-field advantage. Ford Field will be packed with tens of thousands of hungry Lions fans rooting for something that hasn't happened in Detroit for more than twenty years: a division championship. The Lions will be led by Matthew Stafford, an MVP candidate entering his prime. Folks, if I were a Lions fan (I'm not, I'm a Bengals fan wishing a blue collar team well from afar) I'd be encouraged by what I saw in the first half of their showdown in Dallas last week. Stafford looked like the best field-general I've seen since Douglas MacArthur. He orchestrated an excellent up-tempo, no-huddle offense that reminded me of the glory days of Jim Kelly's Buffalo Bills. Such an offensive assault may leave the defensively-challenged Packers in disarray.
That wasn't the only positive sign for the Lions last week. A legit running game option for Detroit emerged: Zach Zenner, an un-drafted free agent and former South Dakota State Jackrabbit. Folks, when I see Mr. Zenner pound the ball across the line of scrimmage, I see myself 50 years ago in that abandoned field back in Danville. This kid knows how to run. He's got more heart than all of Milwaukee. He may just help the Lions win their first division championship since 1993.
|That's Zach Zenner in the thick of that dog-pile, being gritty as heck.|