Ex-Lions, from nothing to everything
Once part of Detroit's 0-16 team, these guys are now in the Super Bowl
NEW YORK -- The view from the Westin Hotel overlooks the Manhattan skyline, and the food is scrumptious and the beds are soft. This is what it must feel like to be a king: Everywhere the Seattle Seahawks go, there are police escorts and fawning fans hanging to their every word. Their sendoff in Seattle last weekend was a scene out of a movie, with tens of thousands of well-wishers lining the streets and overpasses during their route to the airport. They passed by boaters holding up a sign. "GO HAWKS," it said. "Everything was done first-class," said Seahawks receivers coach Kippy Brown. "It's hard to put into words."
Perhaps no one appreciates these moments more than Brown. Five years ago, Brown, along with Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon and Denver center Manny Ramirez, were in a much darker place. They were part of a Detroit Lions team that played 16 games and lost every one of them.
The odds of making a Super Bowl are long, but what those 2008 Lions did was unprecedented. No other team in the history of the NFL has gone winless since the league went to a 16-game format in 1978. It's a topic, not surprisingly, that none of them wanted to focus on this week. You play a season and you move on, Brown says.
But the fall of 2008 was hard to forget. The country was deep into a recession, and Detroit was one of the hardest-hit cities. Unemployment soared as the auto industry collapsed, and soon, many in the Lions' organization would be looking for jobs, too. It became popular for fans to hold signs at Ford Field requesting a government bailout for the Lions.
"I didn't realize how bad it was until the offseason," Avril said, "and not wanting to tell people that I played for the Lions at the time. It was crazy, but we're here at the Super Bowl [five] years later, and everything happens for a reason."
Last month, the Detroit Historical Society ran a photo on its Facebook page commemorating the five-year anniversary of Dec. 28, 2008, the day the Lions closed the season with a 31-21 loss to the Packers. In photos from that day in Green Bay, many of the players have their heads down.
"Every time we went out," Brown said, "I thought we were going to win."
Brown had started the season with a promotion to assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. All his life, he'd been surrounded by successful people. He worked with Peyton Manning during his freshman year at Tennessee; he coached under Tony Dungy and Jimmy Johnson. Brown knew talent, and at the start of 2008, his receiving corps seemed promising with Roy Williams and a youngster named Calvin Johnson.
Problem was, the Lions didn't have a quarterback. They tried Jon Kitna, who was injured in Week 5, and Dan Orlovsky. They pulled Daunte Culpepper out of retirement. Orlovsky was the poor soul responsible for one of the signature plays of 2008, running out of the back of the end zone for a safety against the Vikings in a game the Lions lost by, of course, two points. Orlovsky called himself an idiot after the play.
"The thing I remember is how hard the players worked," Brown said. "When you're not winning, sometimes you press and it just gets harder and harder. With these guys, the ones who finished, they never quit. They practiced hard; they prepared hard. They were really a joy to be around. We didn't win, and that's no fun. But as far as the players that hung in there and went the distance with us, I was very proud of them."
Not everyone hung in there. Brown didn't want to talk about that, but the players knew who they were.
"I'll say this," Lenon said. "When you're in a situation like that, you have a certain amount of guys that pack it in."
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Lenon wasn't one of them. His career came too hard for him. He was cut by the Panthers, cut by the Packers, and worked for a while in the mailroom of the U.S. Postal Service, from 11 at night until 7 in the morning.
At one point, early in his career, he thought about leaving football and using his degree for something more realistic. He talked to his mom about it, and she asked if he quit, would he have regrets? Lenon knew he would. So he kept playing football, in NFL Europe, in the XFL. He kept going, even after 0-16.
"When you go through difficult situations, it makes you stronger," said Lenon, who at 36 is the second-oldest player for the Broncos.
"I wouldn't know what to do if I didn't have a chip on my shoulder. I think I've had a chip on my shoulder since I came into this world, honestly. It's been beneficial."
All of them are motivated by previous slights. Ramirez was cut from the Lions in 2010; Avril bolted for Seattle last year when he didn't get a big contract despite producing 39½ sacks in five seasons.
"It's a business. I understand it," Avril said as he addressed reporters Sunday upon the Seahawks' arrival in New Jersey. "I'm here at the Super Bowl talking to you guys. I can't complain at all."
Avril didn't realize how bad it was in Detroit because he was a rookie. He saw the fans wearing bags on their heads, heard the boos and read the signs, but Avril always thought things could've been worse. At least the fans were still coming. At least they still cared.
He wouldn't trade his time in Detroit for anything, he said. He learned humility, the kind that comes when opponents are laughing as they're running up the score. And those who stuck around learned about change.
Ramirez took a step back, evaluated himself, and made adjustments. Now he's snapping the ball to Manning, and preparing to play on the biggest stage. Ramirez, who's Mexican-American, was surrounded for a solid hour on Tuesday during Super Bowl media day, shifting from English to Spanish, posing with a Mexican flag. At one point, he asked a reporter to take a picture of himself with the flag for his cell phone. In some ways, Ramirez still can't believe he's here.
His wife, Iris, whom he's been married to since college, was a rock for him during those days in Detroit. He tried not to take his work home with him. But that was impossible.
On Sunday, he will look for Avril, and maybe for a moment, they'll remember old times. They weren't the worst.
"You take your positives and negatives out of it," he said. "But you don't wish that on anybody."
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