Mitch Albom | Detroit Free Press
Matthew Stafford goes all out. If he plays football, he plays to the dying breath. If he’s with his kids, he’s totally with his kids. If he vacations, he truly vacations. And if he talks, — really talks — he’ll talk about everything.
We had one of those talks last Monday, when his four daughters were put to bed and his house was quiet and he could focus on the whirlwind path his life had taken since word got out that he and the Detroit Lions had agreed on a departure.
Since then, he’d gone from a certain Lion to a maybe Colt, maybe 49er, maybe Washingtonian and a definite L.A. Ram. By last week, he’d already taken an exploratory trip with his wife Kelly to find a new home out west.
And together, they’d decided to make a parting gesture to Detroit — a $1 million donation to build a new education center in one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods as part of SAY Detroit’s SAY Play Center at Lipke Park.
He was happy. He was sad. He was nostalgic. He was optimistic. What follows are excerpts of a long, winding conversation in which Stafford, 33, looked both forwards and backwards after 12 years in the NFL, all of them with a team he says he will always be a part of.
When you first got here, even though Detroit wasn’t a successful NFL town, did you want to play your whole career here?
Yeah. I never thought I would ever finish my career anywhere else. That was one of the things that made it difficult to go the route that we went. I mean, I saw myself having a retirement press conference with Martha Ford and Sheila Ford … and a bunch of ex-teammates and local people I know.
To me, for the longest time, the true sign of a guy who had success in my position was somebody that stayed in the same place. Now, it changed a little bit with Brett Favre going to a couple different places late. And I know Joe Montana did that as well. But for the most part that was, to me, a baseline for success. Being able to stay in the same place. And could I have done that? Yeah, probably.
But, you know, I wanted to shoot my shot. As much as I’m moving to a place that’s got some pieces that are ready to go, I’m also betting on myself, betting that I’m the person that can take them there. So this is a big challenge for me.
But I’m gonna miss the hell out of this place.
Were you encouraged by what happened in the Super Bowl, where a new veteran quarterback took a previously mediocre team to a championship?
Absolutely. I mean, Tom Brady’s an incredible player and what he’s able to do is second to none. But it did give me a little boost. And also knowing that the guys that really affected that (Super Bowl) weren’t even on the roster last year. So you can add a couple guys here and there, it can make a big difference.
And it was also cool to see that the home team can make it to the Super Bowl! (Next year’s Super Bowl is in L.A.)
Did your age and career years convince you this was the time to take the that chance?
Yeah. You know, I’ve always wanted to play in those big games. I always feel like I will excel in those situations. And sometimes it’s not the perfect storybook ending in the same place. … But I can also leave here knowing that I gave this place every damn thing I had.
At the same time, obviously, I’m gonna miss the people, man, people who were such a big part of our life.
I guess an obvious question then would be, since you love it so much here, why did you initiate the move to leave?
The biggest thing for me was just seeing where we were as a team and how long I thought it was going to take for us to be where we needed to be to compete for a championship — truly compete for a championship, not make the playoffs or any of that. And you know, I just felt like we were a ways away.
To be honest, Kelly and I probably started talking about it before last season. It was one of those things where, you know, we were hoping that, golly, let’s go, I hope this thing takes off, and we play great and I’m here for the next 10 year and we win two Super Bowls. But if it doesn’t, you just knew what was going to happen. They were going to tear it down and rebuild.
And anytime you switch GMs and a head coach, they’re going to want to bring their own people in, and that’s going to take time. And I, frankly, didn’t feel like I was the appropriate person to oversee that time.
Were you worried about being stuck in “the middle,” where the team is neither really good or really bad and you can’t draft your way out of it?
In my mind, I felt like I was going to be able to help us go win six, seven, eight games, because I wasn’t gonna let us lose more than that, you know? But I probably wasn’t good enough (by myself) to help us win more than that. And maybe we don’t ever get those top picks that we needed.”
What was the meeting like where you told the Lions you felt this way?
As I was going in, I actually texted Kelly and was like, ‘Well, here I go.’
You were by yourself.
You just walked in with you and Rod Wood —
Me and Rod and Sheila (Ford Hamp) was on the speaker phone, she was taking care of her grandkids. And I kind of said how I felt. I wasn’t really expecting anything. I just needed to say what I needed to say. And there was so much respect coming from me towards the organization.
And then I said where my vision for this team was five years from now. And who that involved and who it didn’t involve. It was tough for me to say because, I mean, I had so much pride putting on the Lions uniform every Sunday and going out there being something the city could be proud of and the Fords could be proud of.
So Rod was in the room with you?
But were you wearing masks?
So it’s kind of hard to see how somebody is reacting when they’re wearing a mask. And you can’t see Sheila because she’s on a box, right?
Which was tough, you know? I’m just kind of staring at this phone. I’ll never forget it. But she was incredible. And Rod was great. There’s a lot of respect there from both parties. And I think that’s, you know, what made this one of the rare instances where it was amicable. I can’t give them enough credit, the way they’ve handled it, and I hope they feel the same way about me.
Was there ever an awkward moment where you finished stating your position and there was silence on the phone for a second? Like, you weren’t sure how they were going to take it?
For sure it was. I can’t speak for Sheila and Ron. But I can’t imagine that they were 100% surprised. I think at some point, it had to probably cross their minds, just knowing where we were as a team and where I was as a player.
I shared my disappointments in not being able to bring them what I ultimately wanted, a championship. It was a tough conversation, probably the hardest one I’ve ever had, but one that I walked out of, frankly, blown away with their support and their understanding.
Did you call Kelly from the car afterwards?
I think I texted Kelly and was like, “Well, that went as well as it possibly could.” And I called her on the way home. She knew how hard it was for me.
You didn’t have any seller’s remorse? Like, “Oh, wait, what did I just do?”
No, I didn’t. It was not something that was spur of the moment. You know, I want nothing more than to be able to come back to this place 10 years from now, and everybody welcome me with open arms. And that was one of the biggest things that was weighing on me as I went in there. I don’t want anybody to ever feel like I’m giving up on this town, or this city, or this place. I gave it everything I possibly had here and I just wanted the opportunity to see if I can do it somewhere else.
Still, there was no guarantee they were going to agree with you.
No there wasn’t. They had every right to go, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. But you’ve got two years left on your deal. So you’re going to be here next year.”
But the way the team has handled it, I think it’s worked out for everybody, and I think it will in the future. I cannot express how much gratitude I feel towards them.
Were you surprised at how understanding Lions fans have been?
It’s been incredible. Kelly and I were at breakfast the other morning after we dropped the girls off at school, and a woman came up and cried. Cried. Not just for me but for Kelly, too. You know, I don’t see hardly any of the Instagram stuff that she puts out there, but I know she’s made a big time connection with the mothers here in Detroit. And, you know, this woman was just pouring her heart out to us.
And today, we were at lunch at J. Alexander’s up at the (Somerset Collection) and we had four people come up to us who were like, “Thank you for what you did, not only on the field, but in the community. And hey, man, we’re gonna be pulling for you every time the Rams are playing as long as you’re not playing the Lions.” It’s such a fun thing for Kelly and I. And honestly, with all of our hearts, we can say the feeling is mutual.
Where did you think you would we end up once a trade was agreed upon?
When it started I thought all the places that everybody else thought. Indianapolis. San Francisco — although you didn’t know what was gonna happen with Jimmy (Garoppolo). Washington, but we obviously didn’t know what was gonna happen there.
What about L.A.?
It was a longshot. I just didn’t know how they would ever be able to (pull it off.). I’m not a salary cap guru. It kind of got to a point where I’m like, OK, I can’t sit there and go crazy. I just tried to let it happen. And LA aggressively jumped into it.
Is it accurate that you told the Lions you did not want to go to New England under any circumstance?
Well, what’s accurate is — and this is an incredible thing by them — I asked to go to a team that was ready to win a championship. And, you know, there were a few teams on that list. There were a few teams that were not on that list. And they were respectful of that and understood completely. I had thoughts and reasons for each one of them.
You were in Cabo San Lucas when the L.A. trade went down?
Yeah, on a little vacation, and just by coincidence, some other NFL guys were there, too. And Andrew Whitworth (the Rams’ veteran offensive lineman) was there as well as Sean McVay (the Rams’ coach.) And I saw Whitworth in the hot tub and he waved at me and said, “Hey, we’re making a run at you.” And I was like, OK…
Until then you didn’t even know that they were in it?
Yeah, I mean, I didn’t even think that. I didn’t know how it would make sense.
And by the end of the day the deal was done?
Did the Lions call and say we made a deal?
Yeah. Rod. Really the whole front office, I feel like every time we talked it was, either Rod or all three of them, Rod, Brad (Holmes) and (Mike) Disner at the same time. And finally they called and said we got a deal done.
“You’re going to L.A.” And how did you feel when you heard those words?
Obviously, we were excited for a new start, excited for the whole process of being on the trading block to be over. Now we had a place. We knew where we were going. I was excited about their roster and their coaching staff and what they can bring to the table and their recent success.
But at the same time, it was a close of the door in Detroit. At that moment it was real.
How did you feel when you learned what the Rams gave up for you — Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder?
It’s humbling. You know now, wherever you go, they gave that up for you, and you’ve got a huge responsibility to go in there and do what you say (you can do) and what you want to do. So that’s a motivator.
In hindsight, if you could have ranked all the possible places you might have gone, would L.A. have been the first choice?
Hypothetically, yeah. For me. I think in the last four years, maybe besides New Orleans and Kansas City, nobody has won more games (than the Rams.) And they were in a Super Bowl a couple of years ago. So obviously I was excited to be going there.
The farewell gift
You just made an incredibly generous $1 million gift to build a new education center in Detroit. Most athletes don’t do that when they are leaving a town.
You know, we came here 12 years ago, and we were trying to figure out how we could, ingrain ourselves in the community. We learned a lot about the city and what it needed. We’ve been partnered with SAY Play for a while now (in 2015 the Staffords donated $1 million to build a football field and fund programming there) and we know how well run it is and how our money is put to good use.
So when we knew we could be leaving, Kelly and I talked about wanting to leave an impression here, and to do something that was going to last beyond our going. We wanted to do something that was gonna help people for a long time.
Why an education center?
Because we know that’s going to help the community and it just seemed like someplace we would take a lot of pride in, coming back in the future and seeing what it’s done. It’s kind of cool, we were over there today for a little bit. And seeing some of the kids (at the SAY Play center) playing basketball, kids that I remember seeing we first opened the field.
They’re big now.
Yeah, and they’ve got good jump shots!
Does this gift speak to your feelings about Detroit?
Yeah, and our wanting to be involved in future years. If this was a place that we were never gonna come back to or didn’t care that much about, this would never have happened.
But all four of my girls are gonna say they were born in Detroit, Michigan. And at some point in their lives, they’re gonna want to know more about it. So it’s gonna be awesome to bring them back and say this is where we lived, and these are the restaurants and the parks we used to take you to. But this is what we’re proudest of.
And (the education center) is also something that hopefully teaches our daughters a lesson down the road. That if you’re blessed with the ability to give back, you’ve got to do it, and you should feel great about doing it. If you’re able to change somebody’s life, even one kid’s life, you should do it.
In your 12 years here, did you come to understand the fans’ frustration with the franchise, and why they often use that “Same Old Lions” slogan?
Yeah. I mean, I understand it. I was a part of some crazy tough losses, weird ways to lose, poor finishes, whatever. As a player, my job is waking up every day, going to work, and doing everything I can to try and make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s still tough, you know what I mean? You almost want to say to the fans, “As frustrating as it is for you, it’s 10 times more frustrating for me.” And when those bad things happen, it can wear at your spirit a little bit.
But I know with the fans, it’s coming from a place of them caring, and that’s a great thing as a player to know that they do care. I understand it. Maybe I’ve only been here for 12 years and some people have been fans for 50 years, so I can’t imagine. But I think they understand the effort that we’re putting into it as well.
When did you think you had your best chance of achieving your dreams here?
I think in 2014, when we went to Dallas for the playoffs. That was probably the most complete team I’ve been on, to be honest. I didn’t think we were good enough on offense. I thought we were good enough on defense. We were really good on defense that year. And it wasn’t that we didn’t have the players on offense, because we had great players. We just didn’t click, you know, when we needed to. We didn’t play at a high enough clip on offense and it came back to get us (The Lions lost to the Cowboys, 24-20.).
Do you think that team had championship potential?
I don’t know, I think we would have needed to score more. You never know once you get into the playoffs, I mean, the Ravens that year when (Joe) Flacco hits the Hail Mary in Denver and he gets hot, late, and it’s like his team was what, 10-6, and won the Super Bowl? So you don’t really ever know.
In 2011, we had an offense that was dynamic, lights out. But we were a couple pieces away on defense.
And in 2016, I think we did a great job battling to get back in it. We’ve been close a few times.
But I think 2014 was definitely the team that was most complete top to bottom, player- wise.
What was the worst Lions’ loss for you?
The worst losses are the playoff losses, just because the immediacy of the season ending. You feel like you’re every time you get in, you had a chance to go win it.
And the best win?
There were some good ones, some fun ones. Beating Oakland in 2011, on the road, down 13, seven minutes left after I just fumbled and the No. 2 pick from my NFL draft year recovered it for Raiders touchdown. I’ll never forget Ben Graham, our punter from Australia that year, came up to me with that great accent and said, “If anybody in this damn world can do it, you can.” It kind of got me going and we went 71 yards on that drive and I think 98 on the next one to win it. And that gave us a chance at the playoffs.
And the next week we played San Diego at home. Philip Rivers. Antonio Gates. If we beat them, we were going to go to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. It was Christmas Eve and we won that game at home. Clinching the playoff berth in front of our home fans was a really cool experience.
The teammates, the coaches
Who were a few of the guys you most enjoyed playing with?
Oh, man, there’s, there’s so many. Calvin Johnson was the best player I ever played with. I mean, he was incredible. What he was able to do, the way he carried himself.
DO THE RIGHT THING: Lions should pay back Calvin Johnson every penny of his $1.6 million bonus
Were there things you could do with him that you couldn’t do with other receivers?
Quite a bit. I remember wondering every week what’s the other team’s defensive coordinator was going to try and do. There was one game in Arizona where we put Calvin in the slot and they viced him on third down. They put two guys right in front of him. And I threw the ball to Brandon Pettigrew on like a shallow cross or something and we didn’t get the first down. And I remember Calvin coming to the sideline, walking up to me and saying, “I still won.” I’m like, “What?” So I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t, because if I throw that ball into double coverage and we don’t complete it everybody in the building goes what’s he doing throwing it to the guy double covered? But the second I look away, he beats two guys. It was incredible to see what defenses tried to do to stop him.
A guy I didn’t get to play with for a super long time but I had a ton of respect for was Kyle Vanden Bosch. Just the way he works, man, I remember throwing balls in practice to Calvin and he’d be 50 yards downfield. And Vanden Bosch, after rushing me, is sprinting downfield trying to tag him. His love of the game was incredible. I remember he got his neck fused, and the next day, I am walking through the facility and he’s in an argument with our trainers, because he wants to go lift weights.
Another guy, Dominica Raiola at center. He was the guy you just love to have on your team, but if you played against him, you hated him. Because he was going to take every inch of every blade of grass. He’s an incredibly smart player, probably the smartest guy I’ve ever been around on a football field.
Nate Burleson was another one with juice and energy all the time. So fun to be around.
And Marvin Jones is one of my closest friends in football. I really love him and his family. It’s been incredible to see him and his wife as parents and handle the loss that they’ve gone through (the Jones’s lost their 6 month-old son, Marlo in 2019.). I’m blown away by their strength.
I mean, Marv had his first kid when he was 18. And his kids are legitimately the best kids I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The most well-behaved, polite, worldly positive. No matter where he ends up, or where I end up, I will always pull for Marv and love him.
Tell me something about the coaches you’ve played under here.
Jim Schwartz gave me my chance. He’s the guy that believed in me, a guy who stuck his neck on the line for me multiple times. He’s a brilliant defensive mind and a guy that cared about me as a player and who I cared about as a coach.
Jim Caldwell? I still remember when he was coming in for his visit, I got a chance to sit down and talk with him. And he blew me away. I wasn’t expecting that. Just his presence. Unique. He’s a great person, and that came through when he talked and in how he treated people.
Would you liked to have played for him longer?
Yeah, I loved playing for him. I know that the Fords were trying to do the right thing they were trying to make the next step. They were shooting their shots to try and make us what they thought we should and could be. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out with really any of the coaches. Otherwise, they would still be coaching.
And Matt Patricia?
He and I had a good relationship, no matter what anybody wants to say. I could go into his office and talk to him, he could get me on the phone whenever he needed to. I think we both grew in that relationship. I have a lot of respect for him and who he is, as a football coach and an unbelievable mind.
The hardest part was not winning enough for all of them. And that’s a tough pill to swallow. As the quarterback you have a huge effect on every game. And the fact that I wasn’t able to help us win enough games to keep those guys around longer is tough.
Now that you’re done playing here, what was the actual extent of your injuries this past season?
I mean, this past year was bad. I had the partially torn UCL in my right thumb, I tore my UCL on my left elbow on the second to last play of the Houston game that nobody knew about, trying to stiff arm a guy. That’s why I started wearing a sleeve on my left arm because I had all sorts of tape underneath it, just to hold it in place.
I broke my cartilage on my eighth rib in Green Bay. I also tore something (in the back of) my left knee. And then I had a subtalar, right ankle sprain.
Yet you started every game. Why were you always so private about injuries?
Because I know there’s so many guys out there that are dealing with similar things. It was always important to me to be out there for the guys, week in and week out. There were instances where I was more beat up than people thought. But it didn’t do me or anyone else any good to know that. So it just went out there and played.
I wouldn’t have done it had I not loved all the guys that I played with and had a ton of respect for the Fords, the Lions, and frankly, the city. Just knowing the type of people that get up and go to work every day in this place. They’re dealing with all sorts of stuff, and it’s not injuries on their hands and ankles and ribs. It’s where am I going to get the money to pay the mortgage? And how am I going to get my car from here to there? How am I going to make it one more day working at the plant?
I wanted to be a reflection of who this city is, and who the people were that cheered us on Sundays.
When you knew you were leaving, who did you contact?
The first guys I called were (Taylor) Decker and Frank (Ragnow.) Those guys have put their bodies on the line for me. I felt like I owed it to ‘em. I didn’t want them to hear it any other way.
What were their responses?
They were like selfishly, I’m gonna miss the hell out of you, you know, but they both said, “Go get a gold jacket, man.” That felt good to me.
Do you think you would have been a different player, or a different person, if you hadn’t been drafted by Detroit?
I think I like to think that I would have gutted it through just as much anywhere else. But I can tell you for certain that Detroit is a place I was proud to embody on the field.
I’m excited to go play in L.A.. I’m excited to go into this brand new stadium they built. But at the same time, one of the things I loved about Ford Field is that it wasn’t all glitz and glam. It was nice, but it wasn’t all this other stuff going on. You knew that people were there for one reason, to see the game — and to make the other team’s life a living hell. To cheer on the Lions. That was awesome.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.