A police car drove down Riopelle Street, behind the Detroit Fire Department Apparatus Division garage, and told the lone group of tailgaters within walking distance of Ford Field they had to close down shop.
“No Tailgating Allowed” signs dotted Eastern Market, which usually fills with Detroit Lions fans on fall Sundays but on this day was sparsely populated with vendors selling hats, handbags and food, and a few families looking for good deals.
As for the nine Lions fans grilling brats, sausage, lamb chops and two kinds of kabobs behind the garage, well, as they explained to the understanding officer, they had a dual purpose for their tailgate.
For most of the 18 years the Lions have played at Ford Field, this group of friends has gathered before games in the same spot, only this year, one of their group was gone.
Detroit Fire Capt. Frank Williams died of complications from COVID-19 this spring, after he contracted the virus while tending to an emergency, his wife, Shanita said, and the group that bonded over the Lions came together before Sunday’s opener against the Chicago Bears to honor their friend.
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“It’s bittersweet,” Shanita Williams said. “I got to get through it. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and the nightmare’s going to be over, but it’s not. I don’t want to start crying. I’m trying to be strong.”
Shanita and Frank met near their tailgate spot 16 years ago, Oct. 17, 2004, when Shanita said she had a few Washington Apple cocktails in her before a Lions-Packers game and began flirting with the cute fire fighter who brought some equipment in need of repairs to the garage.
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Frank took a quick liking to Shanita, and when he learned she liked football, too, he thought he hit the lottery.
They went on their first date a week later, and through 15 years of marriage attended just about every Lions game at Ford Field and road games in Arizona, Oakland and overseas in London.
“This today is not for the Lions, this is for Frank,” said Mark Bilancetti, a machinist at the garage who runs the tailgate and the man tending to the grill Sunday. “I mean, it’s what joined us together. The Lions joined us together initially, but today is something separate.”
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Bilancetti wore a Lions apron covering his Lions jersey and had a stereo with a Lions logo playing music in back. He raised a toast to Frank around 10:40 Sunday morning, and an hour or so later mused about how different the day was.
“Today was eerie, being that we were the only ones tailgating,” Bilancetti said. “Even on the preseason games, there’s more people than us here.”
Closer to Ford Field, and inside the cavernous 65,000-seat building, the strangeness of the 2020 football season was even more apparent.
The Lions did not have fans at a home game for the first time as far back as their records go. They won’t have fans at their next home game, either, Oct. 4 against the New Orleans Saints, though they’re holding out hope they can host 20,000 or so season-ticket holders for games starting in November.
With no fans at Ford Field, the parking lots directly around the stadium were largely empty, though attendants in yellow jackets still guarded each gate.
A few police patrolled the area on foot, their cruisers parked on the grass nearby. Two lonely fans in Lions jerseys circled the otherwise ghostly streets. And in one lot, members of the Fox broadcast crew visited an RV set up for daily COVID-19 testing to get their temperatures taken before entering the building.
When the game kicked off just after 1 p.m., players, coaches, officials and a few select team and NFL personnel were the only ones on the field.
The first six rows of each section were covered with blue and silver tarps, and photographers and cameramen milled about the empty blue seats.
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Piped-in crowd noise played at 70 decibels, making it much quieter than a normal game. And when time stopped for an injury, the fake noise stopped, too, leaving the stadium uncomfortably quiet.
“It was different. It was definitely different,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “I think the biggest thing was the TV timeouts feel like they’re forever. It’s just super quiet in there. We had a couple of guys get injured and every time someone got injured they’d turn the noise off in the stadium and it was crazy quiet. It’s stuff we’re going to have to get used to. Every week will be a new challenge whether the team that we’re going to has fans or not.”
Even without fans, it was easy to feel the life being sucked out of the Lions.
Down 23-13 late in the fourth quarter, the Bears sideline grew animated after Matt Prater missed a 55-yard field goal.
Mitchell Trubisky led a five-play, 55-yard touchdown drive, and after a Stafford interception, the Bears started to feed off their own energy again. David Montgomery ran for 5 yards, then a Lions offsides penalty, then Trubisky followed with the go-ahead touchdown pass.
The Lions failed to win their opener for the third straight year under Matt Patricia, and afterwards, Patricia said his team has to do a better job of dealing with the unusual circumstances it’s in.
“It definitely was different without having fans in the stadium,” he said. “The energy and the momentum was all just, the team has got to create it ourselves and we’ve got to make sure that we maintain it all the way through.”
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