Let's start with 16 reasons I wish didn't love the Detroit Lions. It's best to get the distasteful 2008 season out of the way as quickly as possible.
Each game of the 2008 campaign—all 16 of them—made me wish I wasn't geographically bound to follow the Honolulu Blue and Silver. Each game was more painful than the previous.
But, somehow, loyalty proved stronger than nausea.
You see, there were only 16 reason to leave the Lions. But there are 20 reasons to love them. Three times 20, actually. Three No. 20s in my lifetime make an otherwise unmemorable 48 years of Lion-rooting worth remembering.
Lem Barney, Billy Sims and Barry Sanders. Each wore No. 20, and they came at different seasons—not only NFL seasons, but seasons in my life.
I remember laying down in the family room of my family's house just west of Detroit. Shoes kicked off, stocking feet propped up on the wooden ledge upon which our TV rested. The black-and-white, rabbit-eared boob tube (there really were tubes in it then) was all we could muster.
It didn't really care what kind of TV we had in the late 1960s. It what was on the TV that mattered. It was Sunday afternoon and I was eight years old, it was 1968. The Lions were on and Lem Barney—in his second season—was in their defensive backfield.
He was the only one on the field with taped up shoes, masking magic feet. Cornerback was his position, but his abilities made him a magician.
I remember hoping all during that game against the New Orleans Saints that Archie Manning would throw in Lem's direction. I didn't mind if my hero gave up the occasional bomb, because the same risks that sometime cost him also enabled Barney to make interceptions.
And then run. Zig-zagging, eye-popping, jaw-dropping interception returns that brought me off of the family-room floor and shrieking until my mom came in for fear that her oldest son had lost his mind. Fifty-six times from 1967-1977 he brought that reaction, one yelp for each of his career interceptions.
Barney's punt returns were even more fun to watch, if you could follow them. Later in life, I remember wishing they would have had a Telestrator during Barney's day. I wonder what kind of pattern it would have made trailing Barney around. I should have tried it with my Etch-A-Sketch.
There was no zig-zagging for Barney after is career. He took a route straight to the Hall of Fame.
After several more years of aging for me and seasons of stagnation for the Lions, another No. 20 came to entertain once more. I was in my early 20s and Billy Sims made the leap (often, quite literally) from Oklahoma University to my Detroit Lions.
Barney offered a zig and a zag; Sims gave a kick and a blast. He somehow mixed flaunting moves with daunting power. I had season tickets throughout his career and I remember sitting in the third level, watching Sims blast his way around the Pontiac Silverdome synthetic surface.
It was the very surface on which he gained much of his yardage that cut his career short. Sims blew his knee out in the Silverdome. I was there. His knee was torn; my spirit was broken.
Still, in just five seasons, Sims ended his career in 1984 with 5,106 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and finishing with 42 touchdowns. I can't tell you how many "I wonder what could have been's" I and a ton of other Lions fans have asked ourselves.
Then, just when I thought there was no more magic in No. 20, along came the greatest of all. I was 29, and along came a wizard.
In my mind, he was the greatest running back in NFL history. Perhaps I’m biased by the jersey he wore, or the team for which he played. But I’m more swayed by the runs he made, the defenders he embarrassed, the class he exhibited, and the amazement he induced.
He never went to the Super Bowl, but that’s more of that Lions tradition coming into play. He rushed for 15,269 yards in from 1989-'98, but his teammates couldn’t keep up.
I don’t remember deriving such enjoyment out of watching a player in any sport. Entertainment is the name of the game, and no one can argue that Sanders was among the best gridiron entertainers who ever lived.
He was a championship calibre back playing for a franchise laden with decades of mediocre play. It has continued since he retired after 10 seasons, and it reached a low point in 2008.
Game after game last year, I had to tear myself away from the present and take a daydream to the past.
Sixteen times I called upon history. And 20 times, I came back smiling.