Matthew Stafford refused to grant this common NFL courtesy — for a good reason

Detroit Free Press

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — There’s a common courtesy in the NFL: When a reporter from a player’s former team travels to his new city in order to get a one-on-one interview for a few minutes, the request is almost never denied.

But Matthew Stafford said no Wednesday. He turned me down.

He also turned down at least one other reporter. He declined a conference call with Detroit beat writers. A couple of reporters who cover the Los Angeles Rams told me they couldn’t believe Stafford did this.

So why am I telling you this? Sure, I flew 2,000 miles to L.A. and the Free Press is spending thousands of dollars for my expenses. (Sorry, boss, but you know it’s a first-class flight and a Hilton suite or else I’m not going.)

I’m not telling you this as any form of retribution. I didn’t take Stafford’s decision as a personal slight or even much of an inconvenience. I’ve been a reporter long enough to figure out how to write an article without a player’s help. I covered Ndamukong Suh for years with little more than snarls, grunts and growls to go on.

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I’m telling you that Stafford didn’t talk to me because the lengths he went to in order to avoid delving too deeply into his past with the Detroit Lions illustrates how important Sunday’s game against his former team will be for him.

I have a strong inkling Stafford chose to limit his availability in order to keep his weekly routine the same and to try to avoid outside distractions. Granting me or other reporters one-on-one interviews to rehash his time in Detroit, and why it never worked out, would only be a distraction.

As a reporter, I’m disappointed I didn’t get more time with Stafford. As a human, I completely understand it. Either way, I don’t hold it against him.

As it was, Stafford did his normal news conference Wednesday and answered everything. He fielded five questions related to the trade, Jared Goff and the personal difficulty of facing the Lions before he was asked his first football-specific question. Of the 12 questions he got, only four had nothing to do with issues related to the personal difficulty of facing the Lions.

“I’m extremely happy to be here,” Stafford said. “I pinch myself getting the opportunity to play for this team with these players and these coaches. As far as comparing it to Detroit, I’m not going to do it.”

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By this, he meant he wasn’t going to compare the two organizations. But he spoke at length about how much he appreciated his time in Detroit.

“I could see how it’d be very easy for people to feel the other way,” he said of fans’ continued support. “For people to take some happiness in any kind of success that any former players having away from their building is a really just a testament to them as well.

“That’s the kind of people they are in Detroit. Great people both in the organization and in the city itself.”

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From covering Stafford, I understand he doesn’t like to get personal, speak for other people or speculate. I knew I would get nowhere asking him to compare why the Rams are run so successfully under owner Stan Kroenke and why the Lions aren’t under the Ford family. So I only asked him to speak about why the Rams’ organization is run so well.

I never asked him to compare the Rams and the Lions, or Kroenke and Sheila Ford Hamp. But Stafford made that inference on his own and said he didn’t spend much time thinking about the higher echelons of the Rams’ management structure.

“So I don’t want to sit here and compare my time in Detroit to my time here,” he said. “I’ve only been here a few weeks. I am just trying to make the most of it and play as good as I can.”

I spent a long time thinking about questions to ask Stafford. And then I remembered an interaction I had with him several years into his career with the Lions. I approached him at his locker and asked if I could interview him about something colorful I had learned about his past. I can’t remember the details, but I think it had something to do with his college days.

“Yeah,” Stafford said, “but I won’t give you anything juicy.”

We always had a cordial relationship. We could shoot the breeze, if he was in the mood. But he was never going to give me — or anyone else — anything juicy. He knew better than to stir the pot with a headline.

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As I paced around my hotel room Wednesday morning, I realized I was wasting my time trying to solicit a good answer with a great question because Stafford has always been as adept at dodging hard questions as is at feeling a pass rush and escaping the pocket.

And yet, there was something different about Stafford on Wednesday. He stood in front of a microphone for 10 minutes and fielded every question. Even when he had taken the final question, he lingered for a moment and scanned reporters’ eyes for any last queries before he walked away and started talking football with a teammate.

But there was an anxiety I sensed about Stafford’s demeanor. It was similar to the way he answered — or more accurately didn’t answer — questions in Detroit when something bad happened, like a coach’s firing or a teammate being traded. Wednesday felt similar to those circumstances, as though he just wanted it to be over.

It’s understandable. Stafford knew this day was coming the minute he was traded in January. All the questions about the Lions and the awkward nature of his departure, when he agonized over his meeting with Hamp and president Rod Wood to ask for a trade, would surely come. The stark differences in each team’s fortunes this season — the Rams are 5-1; the Lions are 0-6 and 14½-point underdogs for Sunday’s game — only underscore the pain Lions fans are feeling watching their former star flourish as his replacement begins to wither.

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He knows Sunday’s coming, too, when he will see a lot of familiar faces on the field before the game. And I’m not just talking about the players. I’m talking about the trainers who patched him up, the public relations staff that propped him up, the equipment guys who gave him everything he needed, and Ford Hamp, who gave him her blessing to find his future elsewhere.

There will be countless hugs and handshakes before the game, which will be its own distraction. I suppose Stafford didn’t need one more from me.

It’s OK, though it’s a shame. I’ve been critical of Stafford at times over his career, but I never got the chance to really sit down with him and get his side of things. I never got to ask him about all the good stuff he did for his teammates and the community. As more time passes, Stafford’s time in Detroit will look more and more like a wasteland of abject failure with a 5,000-yard season and touchdown passes to Calvin Johnson sprinkled in.

In Detroit, we all know it was more than that. A lot more. Maybe in time, and especially if he finds sustained success in L.A., Stafford won’t mind telling the other side of his story in Detroit. The good and the bad.

In the NFL, 12 years in one city is a lifetime. Because of that, Stafford will never be forgotten in Detroit. His story as a Lion deserves to be told thoroughly and, to be honest, it would be more than a courtesy to every Lions fan who supported Stafford. It’s a right they have earned.

[ Mitch Albom: Matthew Stafford’s last Lions interview: How hard it was for him to say goodbye ]

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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