When I was a child, my father put two stuffed animals in my crib with me. One was a Lion, the other a Tiger.
Most fathers do similar things, and you'd think nothing of it. But my father had ulterior motives; those particular choices had double meanings. He was prepping me for a lifetime of Detroit sports fanhood.
On my walls were pictures of old athletes donning various Detroit uniforms and pennants of the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, and Wolverines.
See, my dad grew up outside of Detroit and lived through the glory of the Tiger greats in the '60s and '70s. In the '80s, he saw Alan Trammell and Sweet "Lou" turn double plays as routinely as we all stop our vehicles at stop signs.
He was born in 1957, the last year the Lions won a championship. He heard about their greatness but never saw that same success in his 50-plus years afterward.
He talked to me about Adrian Dantley and Dave Bing, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio, Rudy Tomjanovich and Cazzie Russell, Anthony Carter and Rick Leach, Al Kaline and Norm Cash; and so on.
By the time I came into the world in 1981, the majority of those players were long gone. I grew up with Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Steve Yzerman, Chris Osgood, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Federov, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Maurice Taylor, "Tractor" Traylor, Charles Woodson, Brian Griese, Tim Biakabatuka, Jack Morris, Chet Lemon, Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, Chris Spielman, etc.
Growing up, I played sandlot games with my friends and mimicked the stars mentioned above. Despite playing quarterback in Pop Warner football, my practice number was No. 20, in honor of my idol, Barry Sanders.
To this day, besides my father, Barry Sanders is still my greatest hero. Not just for his greatness on the field but for how he conducted himself with class in general.
I remember scoring a long touchdown one game and doing a little end-zone celebration. On the ride home after the game, my dad sternly told me to never do that again, to have some respect for the game and the opponents, and "to act like Barry!"
It's not hard to see the greatness that existed in Detroit sports. I had some great experiences watching those teams and spending time with Dad.
We watched Dennis Rodman (pre-craziness) cry on stage at the Palace after winning back-to-back NBA titles.
We went to an autograph signing where I embarrassed my old man by telling Matt Nokes that "My dad says you're slow." Matt laughed it off, but Pops wasn't too happy I said it.
In dad's defense, Matt Nokes was slow, but I digress.
In 1989, my family moved to Orlando, Florida. Still, my dad and I would go to the closest sports bar that had a satellite to catch all of the Lions games. We'd also watch as many Tigers games as possible and head down to Lakeland to see some spring training.
Now, the only chink in my "fanhood" armor would be that I am no longer solely a Pistons fan. I still like them, but my favorite NBA team is the Orlando Magic. When we moved to Orlando, the city was giddy with the prospect of the expansion franchise they'd just won. We couldn't help but get sucked into that excitement. From that time forward, I've been a Magic fan.Like most other Detroit fans, I've been through more lows than highs rooting for my teams.
I've suffered through the Tigers' teams, including a couple that challenged the record for futility before recently getting better. I was ecstatic when they made the Series in '06 only to have my heart ripped out by the Cardinals and, strangely enough, someone I know.
David Eckstein was the MVP of the Fall Classic that year, and he went to my high school in Sanford, FL (Seminole High). His father was my American History teacher.
We suffered through last season; preseason projections had us a lock to win it all, but instead, we performed well below expectations.
Life as a Lions fan has actually never been good, and the pain came to a nigh-unberable peak with last year's 0-16 run. I'll always be a fan, but man, was that tough to watch.
The Michigan Wolverines' basketball and football teams have taken me on an emotional roller coaster, for sure.
I saw the "Fab Five" capture the nation with their brash play and black socks. I saw some decent teams in the late '90s before scandal mired the program in sanctions and mediocrity. This season, the team has officially jumped out of that hole, earning their first NCAA tournament berth in 11 years.
In football, the overall outlook has been positive. They won a championship in 1997 and were in contention most years. Most of the time, we could count on a New Year's Day bowl game.
Of course, last year was different. It hurt to see the worst season in Michigan football history under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez. Luckily, I'd braced myself by half-expecting a bad season, so it wasn't so bad. Besides, things appear on the verge of getting better soon.
The Red Wings have always been the city's saving grace. Detroit has been dubbed "Hockeytown, USA" because of that team, and they have been one of the most consistent organizations in all of major pro sports.
I've thoroughly enjoyed the past decade or so, in which they've cracked the 100-point mark for an NHL-record nine consecutive seasons. Over that period, I've witnessed four Stanley Cups, five Conference Championships, and eight Division Titles.
Finally, I'll say that Detroit is a great sports city and that Michigan is a great sports state. Other cities like Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia have similar stories of ups and downs, but this story is mine.
I love Detroit sports, I love my teams, and I love my Dad for raising me to be a fan, even if the Lions can't seem to get it right.