He jogged toward us, his eyes piercing, his face ruddy from years of playing in the NFL. The physique was still in fine form, despite having been retired for a year as a player.
My friend, Rob Polster, looked at me after the retired football player passed us, our mouths agape as he breezed by.
“Is that Wayne Walker?”
“Yes it was,” I said.
We were both about 10 years old. We were playing some catch outside his house—the yard that abutted a sidewalk leading to our elementary school in Livonia. It was the spring or summer of 1974.
We had heard the rumors that Walker, the Lions linebacker who played 15 marvelous seasons in Detroit, lived in our neighborhood. But never before had those rumors been confirmed. Until now.
Walker had a mustache at that time, and to a 10-year-old, he looked like he could still play, despite his 37 years of age.
Rob and I just shook our heads and returned to playing catch. Rob wasn’t a native Detroiter; his folks had recently moved into town from Chicago. So Rob was a big Bears fan. Needless to say, the spotting of Walker resonated much more with me, a Detroit kid from the jump. Now, had it been Dick Butkus…
The Detroit athlete who spent 12 months of the year residing in the city or the suburbs wasn’t a novelty in 1974. Take your pick of Red Wings, Tigers, Lions or Pistons—a whole host of them stayed in town during the offseason.
Mickey Lolich lived in Washington, Michigan. Norm Cash lived in Bloomfield Hills. Gordie Howe lived in Lathrup Village. Alex Karras lived in the suburbs.
And on and on.
But as the decades came and went, there was a migration. The Detroit athlete became like birds flying south for the winter—or the summer, whatever the case may be.
The last pitch was thrown, the final gun sounded, and the men who played for our teams suddenly couldn’t wait to get out of town.
They high-tailed it for their “offseason home,” and needless to say, that place was considerably more fanciful than anything that Detroit could offer.
These days, it’s gotten so that if an athlete stays in Detroit year-round, it’s something newsworthy.
Nate Robertson, the erstwhile Tigers lefty, was among the last Detroit athletes to call the area home year-round. Robertson (a Tiger from 2003-09) kept a home in Canton. And he was very proud of having done so, despite being a Kansas native.
Bobby Higginson, the old Tigers outfielder of the late 1990s and early 2000s, used to live in Royal Oak. It wasn’t uncommon to spot Bobby in one of the trendy city’s watering holes in December.
But those guys were exceptions.
Beyond the 1980s, for the most part, Detroit couldn’t hang on to its sports stars out of season. Of course, when it comes to the Tigers, lots of those guys came from Latin America, and thus returned there in the winter. Can’t say I blame them, I guess.
The Red Wings, infused with Swedish, European and Russian talent starting in the 1980s, often bid farewell to the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov every May or June, and didn’t see them again until training camp opened in September.
This is not a bad thing, necessarily—to have athletes return to their hometowns while the games are done in Detroit. But when the “hometown” is Detroit, well then that is now something special.
The Lions’ Matthew Stafford wants to be a great quarterback. He said so, speaking to reporters after one of the team’s workouts recently.
Stafford, the franchise quarterback heading into his fifth season, is now sticking around town. He is now a 24/7, 12-month Detroiter.
No flitting off to a sunny beach somewhere. No returning to his native Texas. If he did, it was for a brief vacation.
Detroit is home now.
It’s all part of the mindset of making the Lions his team.
Center Dominic Raiola, the 12-year veteran who has done his share of pumping for Detroit, has noticed something about Stafford which wasn’t present as much during the QB’s first four years as a Lion.
“He’s kind of taken over that leadership role and assumed the role of the chief and we’re just the Indians around him," Raiola told the media last week in Allen Park about Stafford.
The Lions’ 2012 season was yet another disappointment for a franchise that has its own take on a common phrase.
Take one step forward, and two steps back.
For Stafford, whose own numbers regressed in 2012 in terms of touchdowns and interceptions, last year was unacceptable. So he decided to stay in Detroit in the offseason. No long distance relationship with the Lions in the winter and spring, this year.
“The main fuel for me is, I want to keep progressing in the right direction," Stafford said earlier this week. "I want to be a great quarterback. I want to be able to help this team win.
"The only way I am going to be able to do that is if I let nothing get in my way and just concentrate on what I'm supposed to concentrate on and get better at what I need to get better at."
Now, could a franchise quarterback do all that while spending his offseason anyplace else other than in his team’s burg?
Of course he could. Being a full-time resident isn’t a prerequisite for individual greatness.
But the Lions finally have a quarterback who has the skills to be great, and it’s not bad that said quarterback wants to stay in Detroit year-round, establish roots, and call the town home.
Stafford’s main attraction to Detroit, at this point in his career, is that Allen Park is near it. And it’s in the team’s practice facilities where Stafford has been hiding out—not in the bars of Royal Oak.
Also not a bad thing.
Raiola, who’s passed the football between his legs for some doozies as a Lion, knows a little about those intangibles that quarterbacks either have or don’t have. He thinks Stafford has the ones that lead to success.
“He’s got a little swagger about him and a little attitude about him," Raiola said. "That’s how I like it and how we like it."
The “we,” in this case, can also mean Detroit and its football fans.