Detroit is a do-your-job, keep-your-head-down-and-plow-through kind of burg. Its biggest accomplishment is just getting through the day. All it wants is a cold beer at 6:00 and a game on Fox Sports Detroit at 7.
Detroit expects nothing from its professional athletes that it’s not willing to give from itself. It works hard, keeps its mouth shut, is just happy to be here, and so expects its sports heroes to do the same.
There hasn’t been much patience for the loudmouth, for the petulant, or for the ingrate. The whiner and the unhappy camper, Detroit can do without. Detroit is a “you don’t like it here, you can leave” kind of town.
So it’s highly appropriate that the greatest sports stars who have played in the Motor City in this generation have also been among the most humble and quietly dignified of their profession.
That’s how we like it here, after all.
Chest pounding is OK, as long as we get the feeling that the chest that’s being pounded is that of the team and the city, not of the individual.
We have been blessed to watch the strong, silent types.
The generation of which I speak starts in 1983, when the Red Wings, slugged by the disappointment of not being able to draft the kid from Waterford, Michigan, Pat LaFontaine, instead nabbed a scoring machine from greater Ottawa named Steve Yzerman.
Yzerman arrived with the funny name and the manners of a young gentleman. He tiptoed around that first locker room in 1983, around the likes of Brad Park and Danny Gare and Reed Larson, an 18-year-old who scored 39 goals as a rookie—a total which might have been more than the words he spoke that season.
It was early in that 1983-84 season that I, as a cub reporter, turned from the crowd gathered around sniper John Ogrodnick after a rare win for the Red Wings and spotted Yzerman, quietly dressing. He couldn’t have looked more unassuming.
I tried to chat him up, with some jocular words long forgotten by the speaker. I strained to hear him as he buttoned his shirt. He was mere months out of high school, after all.
Three years later Yzerman was a 21-year-old captain, the youngest in the league. We met up again, this time as I was set to direct him in a public service announcement for youth hockey at Joe Louis Arena that I had written.
He was three years older—a four-year veteran at that point—but not any louder, no less humble. He did take after take on the ice with the gaggle of kid hockey players recruited to be in the spot, exhibiting no impatience, acting not at all like a diva.
Twenty years later we met again, at the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. He was four months into retirement and just a few weeks into his new gig as a front office suit. Again I tried to drag some words out of him. Again he was polite, humble and soft spoken. He greeted my wife as if he was meeting the Queen of England.
The generation moved along from 1983 to 1985, when the Pistons drafted a shooting guard from Natchitoches, Louisiana named Joe Dumars. Superstar point guard Isiah Thomas took to calling Dumars “Little Isiah,” even though Joe was a few inches taller.
Dumars was another who let his play do the talking. He carried a big stick. On a team of Bad Boys, Dumars was silent but deadly. He deferred but he didn’t shrink. Dumars punched the time clock for 14 years in Detroit, content to be an Indian on a team full of chiefs.
The generation rolled along. We’re at 1989 now.
The Lions, thanks to the inexplicable draft strategy of the Green Bay Packers, fall into a jitterbug back from Oklahoma State, Barry Sanders. Head coach Wayne Fontes stands in front of the curious media and declares Sanders to be the “No. 1 running back in America,” and this time no one cares to second guess the coach.
Sanders ends up becoming the best running back in Detroit, by far, and arguably the greatest in NFL history. But in a league often dominated by the boorish and the selfish, Sanders is a breath of fresh air. He’s quiet almost to the point of strange, but we lap it up in Detroit.
A league that brought you the spike is now made retro by Sanders, who is content to simply hand the football to the on-field officials after a touchdown, as if this was 1959, not ’89.
It was in 1994, at the peak of Sanders’ aura in Detroit, that I met him during the shooting of a clothing commercial for television. Sanders was in the middle of a wardrobe change when I poked my head in the dressing room at Barden Cablevision, where I was working in management.
“Mr. Eno,” Sanders said, grinning, with a firm grip of my hand. He acted like the honor was his to meet me, instead of the other way around.
The blip on Sanders’ career, of course, was that it ended so abruptly and the silence that we thought to be endearing while he was zigging through defenses that were zagging, turned out to be maddening in his stunning retirement.
The generation keeps moving, now on to 1991.
The Red Wings’ scouting people have done it again. They drafted, two years prior, a Swedish defenseman with the 53rd overall pick named Nicklas Lidstrom. Now it’s the 1991-92 season and Lidstrom is suiting up for the first time in the NHL, as a 21-year-old.
Lidstrom puts his suspenders and skates on in 1991, takes them off nearly 21 years later, and in between, wins more Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman (seven) than the number of killer quotes he produces for the media.
On the ice, Lidstrom is the chess player of defensemen, capturing the other team’s king with angles, strategy, knowledge and a stick that he uses like a surgeon wields a scalpel. He doesn’t throw more than a handful of body checks in over 20 years. Like Sanders for the Lions, Lidstrom somehow manages to play his entire career without getting hit hard by the other guys.
Lidstrom ends up as another Detroit superstar labeled with words like dignity, humility and grace. He becomes that leader by example who prefers to do his talking between whistles.
The generation that began in 1983 is about to close. But not before one more Detroit sports superstar amazes us with selflessness, even amidst the pinnacle of personal achievement.
Miguel Cabrera, Triple Crown winner, would rather that we not bring that subject up. As Cabrera closed in on the first TC in 45 years, he appeared embarrassed of his grandeur. He was Roger Maris, though not as tormented. Cabrera didn’t want the attention that his feat naturally attracted. If he was going to talk, he wanted to talk about the team.
His preference wasn’t always granted.
There has been nothing negative said about Cabrera as a teammate, by his teammates. He is another Detroit sports superstar without the diva gene.
We’ve been fortunate to have such talented men play for our teams whose dignity and grace somehow managed to equal or even eclipse their accomplishments.
Sometimes it’s good to be Detroit, indeed.