- Doug Williams
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Roderic Collins has Detroit Lions golf clubs, a Lions bumper sticker and license plate frame, a closet full of Lions clothes and sends out Lions-themed cards at Christmas.
He’s had Lions season tickets for 24 years, and has traveled to see his beloved team play in Chicago, Buffalo, Nashville, Tenn., Baltimore and Indianapolis. Downstairs, his basement has been transformed into a Honolulu-blue Lions den with a big-screen TV, Lions photos, banners and logos.
Collins, 44, has been a Lions fan since his dad took him to his first game at Tiger Stadium when he was 4, and he has everything a Lions fan could want -- except the chance to see his team play in a Super Bowl.
This Sunday’s game will be the 47th Super Bowl, and the Lions are 0-for-XLVII in qualifying for the game. In the Super Bowl era, in fact, the Lions have been to the NFC Championship Game only once, in January 1992, when Collins was barely drinking age.
Sometimes even a super fan wonders if he’ll ever see his team play in the game with the Roman numerals.
“I can only hope,” says Collins, who was born in Detroit and lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Every year I say it’s going to happen. I’m 44, I figure I’ve got another 25 or 30 years left, so I’m hoping. …
“I have an 11-year-old boy and he’s as big a fan as his dad, and he says, ‘Dad, they’re going to win it for us one day. Trust me, they’re going to win it for us.’ When you’ve got your son hoping with you, you’ve got to keep the faith.”
For fans of the Lions, though, the wait isn’t years, but decades, and the waiting list includes grandparents, parents and their children.
And Lions fans aren’t alone.
Fans of teams in three other NFL cities – Cleveland, Houston and Jacksonville – have never awakened on Super Bowl Sunday, excited to watch their team. In all four cities, fans pray each season that this will be the year, yet it never is.
“Yeah, eventually it’s got to happen, right?” says Browns fan Kevin Nye. “Statistically speaking, I’m a rational man. It can’t last forever, you know?”
Adds Nye, after a pause: “I haven’t resigned myself to eternal failure just yet.”
In four regions, hope remains alive (in varying degrees). Today, a glimpse at four frustrated fan bases:
First NFL season: 1934
NFL championships: 1935, 1952, 1953, 1957
NFC Championship Game record: 0-1
Collins says he knows if the Lions qualified for the Super Bowl, he’d cry.
“It would be the third-[best] thing,” he says, “to my kids being born, me getting married and the Lions making the Super Bowl. Winning the Super Bowl, I’m taking a month off just to recover.”
It has been years of frustration for Collins, who lived through the aggravating seven-year reign of team president Matt Millen, an 0-16 season in 2008 and seasons of bad drafts and disappointing moves that had him questioning ownership’s sanity.
“OK, they hire Matt Millen, let’s see what he can do,” recalls Collins. “After two or three years, he still doesn’t do it, but you keep him for seven? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
In four decades of true-blue support, one of the worst moments was Barry Sanders’ surprise retirement after the 1998 season, just as he was poised to set the NFL career rushing record.
“The only thing I had [at the time], was Barry’s going to at least break Walter Payton’s record,” says Collins. “And he retires.”
Despite years of Lions’ woes – including 11 losing seasons in the past 12 – Collins will never turn away.
“Regardless of how long it’s been, in my case we’ve never gone to the Super Bowl, I’m going to be there every year,” he says. “Every year my wife looks at me and says, ‘Are we going to write this check for season tickets again?’ And every year I say, ‘Yup.’ ”
Of course, there are jokes. How many Lions does it take to win a Super Bowl? Nobody knows and we’ll never find out. How do the Lions count to 10? 0-1, 0-2, 0-3, 0-4 …
At least for now, Thomas Groves isn’t joking.
Groves, of East Lansing, Mich., has coped with all the bad seasons but now sees rays of hope. With impact players such as Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, he believes a Super Bowl is more likely over the next five than it ever has been before.
“I think we’re closer than ever, but maybe that’s my attitude as a Lions fan,” he says.
Groves is only 24, but has been a fan “ever since I can remember.” He goes to five or six games a season and has helped organize fan gatherings in East Lansing.
When they win, he says there’s nothing sweeter. He recalls a Monday night win over the Bears in 2011 when the crowd at Ford Field was so loud and energized that, “It’s hard to imagine that could be replicated elsewhere,” he says.
Yet too many games over too many seasons, the Lions have been disappointments. It’s especially painful, he says, to go to the games, spend so much time, money and energy, and see the team fall flat.
“You’re really invested,” he says. “Sometimes you get this feeling like, it would be appreciated to have sort of an apology from them, the players. It would make me feel a little better if they came out and, ‘We’re sorry we played like s--- and we’ll do better next time.’ It never happens, though,” he adds, laughing.
First NFL season: 1950
NFL championships: 1950, 1954, 1955, 1964
AFC Championship Game record: 0-5
Lifelong Browns fan John Sammon, who grew up near Cleveland and now lives in Columbus, was dating a woman over the summer, when the exhibition season kicked in.
“I’m like, I’ve got to get ready for the Browns game,” he recalls saying one day. “And she’s like, ‘Why do you even watch? They always lose.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t say that! Come on.’ ”
Yet since the Browns re-emerged as an expansion team in 1999 – after the original Browns were yanked away to Baltimore and renamed the Ravens – losing has been the common theme, with only two winning seasons in 14.
He says the situation seems hopeless at times, but all he can do is roll with it. When a local comedian dubbed the new stadium “The Factory of Sadness,” he laughed. When President/CEO Carmen Policy of the new Browns tagged an annual exhibition game against the Lions as the Great Lakes Classic, complete with a huge trophy of a ship for the winner, he laughed at the ridiculousness of it.
Who needs the Vince Lombardi Trophy if you’ve got the Great Lakes Classic trophy.
“This is what it’s come to,” he says. “We all joke about it. We call it the Barge Game. It’s in some executive’s closet somewhere.”
At 33, Sammon is old enough to remember what he calls the “glory years” of the late ’80s after starting to follow the team at age 7 or 8. He knows all about the three AFC Championship Game losses to the Broncos and “The Fumble” and “The Drive” and seeing Super Bowl hopes dashed.
The Browns’ sad history is different from the Lions’ in that Cleveland didn’t even have a team from 1996-98, but the one it got back has been nothing like the previous incarnation -- which, of course, won a Super Bowl for Baltimore in January 2001 with what could have been the Browns.
“It sucks but it builds character to some extent, because you get kicked around a little bit, but the people around here are very loyal,” says Sammon. “You get hooked. That’s my team, you know?”
Nye, 26, who grew up near Cleveland and still follows the Browns from Chicago, reads about fans from franchises with multiple championships bemoaning down years and says they have no idea what it’s like.
It’s hard for him even to have sympathy for Lions fans across Lake Erie, ticking off the success of the Red Wings, Tigers and Pistons.
“We’ve got nobody to ease the pain, basically,” Nye says. “It’s all misfortune, all the time, which would be a great slogan.”
Nye knows, too, that people outside Cleveland almost feel sorry for Browns fans. Recently a clerk saw his Browns hat and told him, “Go Browns.”
“I said, ‘Are you a Browns fan?’ ‘No, not really. I just can’t root against them. It would be mean,’ ” Nye recalls him saying. “I’m like, ‘That’s just pity.’ ”
First AFL season: 1960
AFL championships: 1960, 1961
AFC Championship Game record: 0-3
Fans in Houston lost their Oilers to Tennessee in 1997, then had to wait for the expansion Texans to start play in 2002.
Ben Hines, 44, has lived and died with both – from the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers days to J.J. Watt’s sack dance -- and sometimes wonders if he’ll ever see a Houston team play on Super Sunday.
“Oh, man, I don’t know,” he says. “Every time I get a gray hair, I cut it and it seems like two come back. The Texans have a lot to do with that. The Oilers do, too.”
But on game days, he slips on his Arian Foster jersey and cheers for the Texans. He won’t ever give up on them, saying, “I’m Houston.” Whether it’s the Texans, Rockets or Astros, he’s a fan.
He remembers watching Earl Campbell run at Texas and being so excited when the Oilers drafted him No. 1 in 1978 – then watching Campbell run into the Steelers’ brick wall in consecutive AFC Championship Game losses in the 1978 and ’79 seasons.
“He ran over the league in the regular season, but when it came time against the Steelers, we couldn’t get past them,” says Hines. “I remember [coach] Bum Phillips’ speech. What’d he say? ‘Last year we knocked on the door, this year we banged on the door, next year we’re going to kick that son of …’ You know the rest.”
Like Hines, Oilers/Texans fan Jason Walker thought 2012 might be the year. An 11-1 start will do that.
“I dreamed about it this year, but to be honest, it made me nervous,” says Walker, 30, who was 6 when he became a fan. In the end, the dream turned sour and left him wondering if the team will ever get to a Super Bowl.
“You kind of wonder if this is as far as we’re going to get for the next 50 years,” he says.
Walker still remembers what it was like, too, to see the former Oilers go to the Super Bowl as the Tennessee Titans in January 2000.
“It hurt,” he says. “Not just losing them, but losing them to have nothing. And then to immediately, after they left, see them obtaining this success, it hurt really bad. Kind of left a bitterness.”
Equally frustrating as the flops by the Oilers and Texans in promising years has been the rise of other franchises. The Saints (once the Aints) and 49ers quickly went from bad to good in recent years, and even the Arizona Cardinals and expansion Carolina Panthers made the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, relatives on his mother’s side of the family root for the Cowboys and his father’s side roots for the Steelers. That can make Sundays hard.
One thing he’s sure of, though: Of the four cities that haven’t sent teams to the Super Bowl, Houston will get there first.
“We’ll be there before Jacksonville and all those other teams,” he says.
First NFL season: 1995
AFC Championship Game record: 0-2
Jaguars fans are the new kids on the block, having endured only 18 seasons of non-Super existence. By comparison, the Jets and Chiefs have longer droughts at 45 and 44 years, but they went to the game (Super Bowls III and IV) and have their trophies.
Jags fans stil wonder when their time will ever come. They are grateful, though, that they haven’t had to wait as long as the folks in Detroit, Cleveland and Houston.
“They’re true warriors,” says Jacksonville resident Jason Love, 27, who jumped on the Jags' bandwagon their first season. “We’ve only been here since 1995. That’s short term compared to some of those AFL, NFL teams that were pre-merger and have been around forever. Detroit, I mean, my goodness. I cannot even imagine. The Chicago Cubs of the NFL.
“I don’t know, what do you tell your kids? ‘Don’t expect to win, it’ll never happen. It didn’t happen for me, it didn’t happen for your grandfather, it’ll never happen for you.’ ”
For an expansion team, the Jaguars opened strong, getting to the AFC Championship Game in their second and fifth seasons. That second loss, to Tennessee in January 2000, is one of the low points for Love and many other Jags fans.
The team played 18 games that season and won 15. All three losses were to the Titans, including the AFC title game.
“How miserable is that to lose three times to the same team,” says Love.
Since then, the franchise has gone through mostly hard times, with some bad drafts, deals and hires. The team plummeted to 2-14 this season.
“It’s constant ineptitude,” says Love. “The Twitter phrase that all the people do when something happens with the Jaguars is #becausejaguars. Because it’s always like, ‘Did we really do that?’ Well, it’s the Jaguars. Of course we did.”
Daniel Lago is only 22 and lives in Atlanta, but moved to Jacksonville with his family in 1994 and grew up in a family that roots for the Jaguars. He says the past few years have been frustrating but is optimistic things can change. Time is on his side. He says someday he’ll see Jacksonville in the Super Bowl. And like Love, if the Jags are in it, he’ll do anything he must to get there.
“Yeah, that’s how I feel and I think,” he says. “But you look at some of these other franchises and I’m sure everyone felt the same thing, that we’ll turn it around eventually, but …”
It’s never happened.