Detroit Lions: 10 Cult Heroes in Team History

Chris Madden@@christomaddenAnalyst IIJune 1, 2012

Detroit Lions: 10 Cult Heroes in Team History

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    The phrase cult hero is often used in sports to describe a professional athlete who has endeared himself to a group of people for perhaps unconventional reasons.

    Tim Tebow has been described as a cult hero because of his faith and the horde of fans that worship—no pun intended—the ground he walks on despite his mediocre quarterbacking. 

    Ex-Celtics bench-stalwart Brian Scalabrine is still considered a cult hero in Boston. Why? Because despite his limited athleticism he worked hard and had a positive impact on the team. That, and his presence on the court usually meant the Celtics had already won the game.

    In MLB, the eccentric closer for the San Francisco Giants, Brian Wilson, is a cult hero. He's a great closer, but he's beloved because of his unique personality and his bizarre facial hair.  

    The Detroit Lions have had their share of cult heroes over the years too.

    You won't find Barry Sanders or Matthew Stafford on this list though. No Calvin Johnson either. There is nothing "cult" about those heroes.

    This list contains players that may have been very good or even great payers, but their notoriety extended beyond their football skills. Personality for instance is a big factor in developing a cult following.

    Here are the 10 biggest cult heroes in Lions history.

Zack Follett, LB

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    Drafted in 2009 in the seventh round, Zack Follett immediately made an impact on the Lions. He electrified fans with his all-out style of play and bone crushing hits on special teams.

    His style of play certainly endeared him to Detroiters and he gained a loyal following because of it.

    In 2010 he was to be given more playing time at linebacker and fans couldn't wait to see how his play would impact the defense.

    Unfortunately his career was cut short by a neck injury in the fifth game of the season. He missed the remainder of 2010 and was eventually let go during the next offseason, despite a valiant attempt at a comeback.

    Follett's story really illustrates just how fleeting a football career can be.

    A cult hero isn't known for his/her longevity though. That's part of what makes one so popular. Follett's short career won't effect his cult hero status. He will always be remembered for his fearlessness and those big plays on special teams.  

Eric Hipple, QB

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    Many people forget, but when Eric Hipple first joined the Lions he had great success. I should restate that. When he finally got playing time he had great success.

    As the third-string quarterback he didn't play at all his rookie year of 1980. He got his chance the following year when starter Gary Danielson was injured and second-stringer Jeff Komlo was ineffective. His first appearance was on a big stage and he didn't disappoint.

    As this article from sportsillustrated.com retells, he did what very few quarterbacks have ever done. In his first game he defeated the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. The following week he beat the Green Bay Packers.

    That's right, Detroit actually played prime time football before 2011.

    Hipple led a mini-renaissance in Detroit and was a big part of why fans got excited about Lions football again. The '70s had been miserable and fans went away in droves. Hipple was an unlikely hero on the field and fans latched on to him.

    He went 6-4 as a starter in 1981 and started every game in 1983 when the Lions won the division title.

    Hipple certainly endeared himself to the fans for his exciting performances on the field. However, his life after football is certainly reason enough to consider him a hero, if not a cult hero.

    After suffering his own personal tragedy, he's dedicated his life to educating others about mental health awareness and suicide prevention. 

Mel Farr, RB

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    Mel Farr is not a legendary Detroit Lions player. Although he did earn the Rookie of the Year award in 1967 and was a two-time Pro Bowler, his numbers put him at number eight on the Lions all-time rushing list.

    Being a Lion was only part of his cult status though. Farr and teammate Lem Barney sang backup for Marvin Gaye on the hit song 'What's Going On,' which raised his cool-factor sky high I'm sure.

    After his playing days were over, Farr, originally from Texas, stayed in Michigan and became a fixture in the Detroit community. It was in this time of his life that he really became a cult hero.

    Farr opened several Ford car dealerships which were hugely successful. He was considered royalty in Detroit and his timeless commercials were on every channel.

    Unfortunately he faced his share of controversy in 1999 and in the wake of economic turmoil that devastated the city his businesses eventually went under.

    That won't change his cult status though. As long as you can view his commercials on the internet that status will be safe.

Jerry Ball, DL

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    Jerry Ball was blessed with one of the most appropriate surnames in sports history. Just like a ball, when he got rolling everything in his way usually fell down.

    At 6'1" and 330 lbs, Ball's unique body type—paired with amazing athleticism—made him an immediate fan favorite. His gregarious personality helped too. He had a great sense of humor and was always ready with a good quote for the media.

    As this SI.com article points out, he wasn't just a funny guy though. He was ultra competitive and it showed on the field.

    Lions head coach Wayne Fontes nicknamed him "the Mayor" one year and "the Governor" the next because of his bigger-than-life persona and his vocal leadership. 

    He was also an elite nose tackle. For six seasons he was the anchor of the Lions defensive line and had some impressive numbers too: nine sacks and 73 tackles in 1989, three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro Team.

    Ball was a great player, but his personality really shaped those teams he was a part of. That was his biggest contribution to his team, the fans, and the city.

    For that, "the Mayor" of Detroit will always be a cult hero.

Cory Schlesinger, FB

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    I'll say it: Cory Schlesinger was one of the most underrated players of his era. The fact that he never went to the Pro Bowl—he was an alternate three times—is a travesty. It's no fault of his that his primary job was to block for Barry Sanders and not score touchdowns (like Mike Alstott).

    Blocking doesn't tend to garner a whole lot of attention and being overlooked certainly played a part in his popularity in Detroit.

    I'm sure Barry would've loved to pass some of the attention his way though.

    To his credit Schlesinger never complained. He was a hard nose player who gladly did the dirty work with no concern for accolades. He laid people out and made big tackles on special teams. He also protected the Lions' most important weapons: the quarterback and running back.

    Just like the blue collar fans that watched him play on Sundays, he went to work and quietly did his job exceptionally well. The rest of the NFL didn't notice, but Lions fans surely did.

    Interesting fact: According to detroitlions.com, it's estimated that Schlesinger broke over 200 of his own face masks due to his intense style of play.

    Kind of explains why he'll always be a cult hero in Detroit.

Charlie Sanders, TE

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    In today's NFL, a tight end who can't run and catch is a tight end that probably will be out of a job.

    In Charlie Sanders' NFL, tight ends were basically an extra offensive lineman. They blocked.

    Sanders didn't fit that mold and that's why he was a cult hero in Detroit. He was viewed as a secret weapon because of his athleticism. Sure, he could block with the best of them, but he was also an elite receiver.

    This was unconventional back in the 1970s. He had a skill set similar to Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, just 30 years earlier than them.

    Needless to say, the Lions had a player that was way ahead of his time but offenses weren't built like they are today. It was hand-off after hand-off with an occasional pass mixed in to keep defenses off balance.

    Even so, Sanders' numbers are impressive when you keep in mind what era he played in. His talents didn't go unnoticed either. He made the Pro Bowl seven times and All-Pro Team three times. He was finally elected into the Football Hall of Fame in 2007—which seems way to long to have waited for such a dominating player.

    For Sanders it was the trend-bucking way he played the tight end position that really made him stand out and that made him a cult hero. His hairstyle and fu manchu probably helped too.

Billy Sims, RB

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    Billy Sims joined the Lions in 1980 as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and the Heisman Trophy winner. The Lions had a miserable season the year before and the expectations for him were every bit as high as when Barry Sanders or Matthew Stafford came to town.

    Sims certainly didn't disappoint. His numbers are a testament to that. A dominating rusher, both powerful and nimble, the Lions immediately improved with Sims carrying the ball.

    He was also one of the most entertaining athletes to ever don the uniform. He didn't just dominate, he did so with style. He high stepped into the end zone before it was the norm and he ran down the sidelines high-fiving the crowd after touchdowns.

    He also famously karate kicked an opponent during a run which earned him the nickname "Kung Fu Billy Sims" by Chris Berman.

    Unfortunately Sims' career was cut short after five seasons by a devastating knee injury. That injury might have been the first time the dreaded Lions' curse reared its ugly head and the Lions suffered years of futility because of it.

    Needless to say, his dynamic persona and the "what if" aspect to his career is what cements his cult hero status in Detroit.

Alex Karras, DL

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    Unlike others on this list, Alex Karras did have recognition on a national level. In fact he might have been the most recognized Lion of his time. He went to four Pro Bowls and was named to the All-Pro Team four times as well.

    Controversy put him in the national spotlight too. He was suspended for one year, along with Paul Hornung, for gambling on football games in 1963. Many fans believe it's this incident that has kept Karras out of the Hall of Fame.

    This only helped his cult hero status though. People think the NFL unfairly banned him from induction, while Hornung was let in.

    Regardless of the controversy or what fans across the country thought, Karras was always supported in Detroit. He fit in like a native son. 

    It's a blue-collar town if there ever was one and toughness has always been a characteristic fans look for in their sports heroes. Karras had an abundance of it. As the anchor of the "Fearsome Foursome,"  he was tough as nails and excelled at bringing down the quarterback and generally wreaking havoc.

    Karras also was part owner of a local bar in Detroit and for a period of time worked there when he wasn't playing football. This brought him closer to the fans of the city and helped establish him as a blue-collar guy just like them.

    As if that wasn't enough, he did some wrestling on the side and famously took on Detroit Legend Dick the Bruiser.

    Full disclosure, I never got to see Karras play. I knew him from his second career as an actor. In fact for me, he will always be his character George Papadapolis in Webster. 

    I'll admit it, I loved that show.

    So let's review: Defensive lineman, done wrong by the NFL, bar tender, wrestler and Emmanuel Lewis' father on TV. Sounds like a cult hero to me.

Mike Utley, OG

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    For fans of the Detroit Lions, the phrase "thumbs up" will always elicit an emotional response. Mike Utley's hopeful gesture became a rallying cry for him, his team and their city.

    Utley was drafted by Detroit in Round 3 of the 1989 NFL Draft and it didn't take him long to make an impact. He started at right guard his rookie year.

    His life was altered dramatically, and his football career taken from him, in 1991 when he suffered two cracked cervical vertebrae while playing the Los Angeles Rams. The injury would leave him paralyzed from the chest down (although essentially he has complete use of his upper extremities).

    It's been over 20 years since Mike Utley's debilitating injury occurred at the Pontiac Silverdome and what unfolded that fateful day is still etched into the collective memories of everyone that witnessed it.

    As he was being carted off the field he raised his arm and gave the crowd a thumbs-up sign, as if to say, "don't worry about me, I'll be back." It was one of those terrible, yet wonderful moments.

    Utley certainly was an inspiration that day and he's been an inspiration every day since. He hasn't given up his dream of walking and continues to apply his tenacious work ethic to accomplish that goal. Following his injury he started the Mike Utley Foundation which raises money for spinal cord injuries and research with the ultimate goal of curing paralysis.

    The foundation has raised over $2 million dollars since its inception.

    Utley is a cult hero because of the "thumbs up" and the courage he displayed immediately following the injury. For me, he's transcended that.

    After 20 years, he is simply a hero and an inspiration to us all.

Chris Spielman, LB

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    I've mentioned several times on this list that certain players' toughness, blue-collar attitude and intense style of play are what endeared them to Lions fans and made them instant cult heroes.

    Chris Spielman embodied all of the characteristics I just mentioned—perhaps more than anyone else—and he was insanely popular because of it.

    True, he garnered national praise and awards—four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro Teams—but I always felt he never got the respect he deserved.

    That wasn't a problem in in Detroit though. Spielman was considered Superman, minus the tights and cape.

    Lions fans probably identified with him because of his underdog beginnings. Slow, undersized and undervalued by Mel Kiper, Spielman was drafted by the Lions in the second round of the 1988 NFL draft and was predicted to be just a "decent-to-good player".

    Not surprisingly he was motivated by all the naysayers and worked his keister off to prove them wrong. He never really stopped proving them wrong either. He finished his career as one of the greatest defensive players in Lions history.

    Here are his numbers, but they only tell half the story. Spielman played the game the right way. No one worked harder on or off the field. He was a throwback type who played with no fear and despite the fact that he was arguably the best defensive player on the field, he wasn't afraid to do the dirty work.

    That is rare for a player of his magnitude.

    Amidst the divas and egomaniacs of professional sports, his attitude and work ethic made him easy to root for. It also made him an unconventional star and that's why he's the biggest cult hero in Lions history.