Detroit Lions’ Sheila Ford Hamp shows her inner swag with the start of rebuild, NFL draft

Detroit Free Press

Credit Sheila Ford Hemp.

Not that I have any idea whether the Detroit Lions owner liked Onwuzurike expletive-laced description of what he intends to do as one of the team’s newest defensive tackles. But she is the reason he will be wearing Honolulu blue.

Oh, I understand it was general manager Brad Holmes and his staff that identified the defensive tackle from Washington — he was taken in the second round. And I realize that head coach, Dan Campbell, was in all, too.

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But Onwuzurike personality is, in part, a reflection of the men who drafted him. And Holmes and Campbell are a reflection of Ford Hemp’s inner swag. Which means she had her hands all over the last several days.

Again, not in who was selected, but in the freedom Holmes and Campbell were given to select.

When she fired Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia last November, it wasn’t simply because she wanted someone else to eye talent and someone else to draw up plays. No, she sought something more elusive: a different vibe.

The first clue came after the first game the Lions played under interim coach, Darrell Bevell — a win at Chicago — and Ford wrote an internal memo laying out what she wanted in the next front office and head coach:

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“As we were leaving the Bears stadium after last week’s win,” she wrote, “we heard thunderous applause and laughter flowing out of the Lions’ locker room, something we have not heard for a long time. And even after a hard-fought loss to the Packers (Sunday), it was evident the team played with heart and never gave up.”

Yes, the locker room sounds different after a win. And, yes, winning is what drives everything in the NFL.

And yet?

She mentioned laughter. That she hadn’t heard it in a long time. That to remake the franchise, players had to feel free to laugh, and staff had to be able to smile.

Please don’t confuse this with softness. Or with non-seriousness. The NFL, more than any other professional sport, romanticizes stoicism.

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Blame the success of the New England Patriots, and their forever frowning coach, Bill Belichick. His mantra: Do your job. The problem is there are lots of ways to do your job.

You can act like a human being and do your job. You can actually enjoy playing football and do your job. Ford Hamp saw a lack of mirth when she took over and decided she could no longer abide.

That memo led her to Holmes, and to Campbell, and to biting kneecaps and bear-hugs in the draft room and a parade of draftees vibing on Zoom with reporters the last several days.

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The Lions are aiming for a little personality. Maybe a lot of personality.

Will it lead to more wins?

Who knows?

Talent and execution still matter more than anything. Just don’t forget that culture matters, too. Despite football’s sales pitch that centers almost everything on measurables and strategy and technique.

Chemistry and connectedness are critical. Wanting to play for a coach still matters. In fact, Holmes likes to say that the difference in raw talent between players — and therefore teams — isn’t all that great. That those intangibles separate who succeeds and who doesn’t.

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He is talking about instinct, of course, and about feel and work-ethic and the ability to quickly process information. But he is also talking about a defensive lineman’s penchant to say what he thinks, to drop expletives and chuckle about the damage he intends to do in the trenches.

As Holmes said Saturday evening, looking back on his first draft:

“We are getting not just talented football players, but football players that have talent.”

Actually, Campbell said that to Holmes, and Holmes credited his coach when he relayed it to the media. Though he would balk at the phrase his coach.

Because, to him, it’s a collaboration, which brings us back to Ford Hamp, who used that word plenty when she hired Holmes and again when she hired Campbell. And while it can sound like an empty word, a platitude, if you must, when truly employed it empowers.

I’d say we saw that in the footage released from the draft headquarters in Allen Park last week, where Ford Hamp got to witness in person the team she put together to run her franchise. And we heard it in the personalities of the draft picks.

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This is the vibe Ford Hamp craved. And these are the kind of voices she wants:

Bold. Proud. Impassioned. Human.

It should be fascinating to see where it leads.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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