Matthew Stafford never has had to worry about football on his birthday before this year, but celebrating his 34th on Monday, the former Detroit Lions and current Los Angeles Rams quarterback is preparing to play in his first Super Bowl.
In an ideal world, Stafford would have been taking part in the day’s festivities as a member of the Lions. But after falling short of that goal for more than a decade, the franchise acquiesced to a trade request last offseason, ultimately shipping him to the Rams for Jared Goff and a trio of draft picks.
So while Lions fans continue to wait their turn for their team to play for the NFL’s biggest prize, they’re left to live vicariously through the quarterback they cheered for since he was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.
And while there’s no such thing as a unanimous opinion when it comes to sports fandom, it’s clear Stafford still has the support of many Detroiters. Look no further than when the Rams and Lions played each other in the regular season, where there were far more Honolulu blue No. 9 jerseys in the stands than his current Rams duds.
Similarly, a number of Stafford’s former teammates have taken to social media in recent weeks to express their support. None of that is lost on the quarterback, who understands a Super Bowl victory will mean a lot to people extending far beyond Los Angeles.
“If we sit here and say we’re not a product of our experiences, or we haven’t learned from some of the things that we’ve had go on in the past, picked up things from great teammates or coaches along the way, we’d be lying to ourselves,” Stafford said. “I think we all are playing for, not only the guys in this locker room, but those who helped us get to this position. There’s so many people in Detroit, important people in my life, that have helped me get here.
“…I do appreciate, so much, just everybody’s support and I know that when I’m out there playing, whether it’s this week in the Super Bowl or any other game, I’m a representation of those experiences that I’ve had with those people. I feel like every time I step out there on the field, I’m playing for not really myself, but for everybody that’s helped get me there.”
Stafford said he’s still in touch with the Ford family and has maintained regular contact with them. He also noted he’s heard from several of those former teammates, including longtime top target Calvin Johnson, who Stafford supported during the former Hall of Fame enshrinement last summer.
“He was such a big part of my success in Detroit,” Stafford said. “(He) was such a great learning experience for me to watch a guy that’s the greatest at his craft at that position at the time and just the way he went about his business, the way he treated people. The way he did everything really with such great class and work ethic and all that. It was so fun for me to be around that and see that.”
As for the fans of Detroit, Stafford described them as loyal and passionate, explaining the thing he valued the most was how the community’s support extended well beyond the football field.
“All the things you want fans to be,” Stafford said. “Unbelievable to me and my wife and my family, how many times we were out to eat or playing with our kids in the park, whatever it was, and the support that we felt from them, not only when the times were good, but when my wife was going through some of the things that she was going through health-wise.
“They were always supportive and people that cared about not only the Lions and me, but my family and us as people,” Stafford said. “So always gonna have a soft spot for Detroit in my heart and just appreciate it.”
Stafford never got the job done in Detroit. Whether that was an individual shortcoming, the fact he was never supported with sufficient talent, or a little bit of both will be a debate that will linger for years. But his experiences with the Lions — from the disappointments to the countless comebacks — it’s all shaped the quarterback Stafford has become, culminating in this championship run with the Rams.
“We had a tough stretch in our season this year, in the month of November, where we didn’t win a football game, lost three in a row there,” Stafford said. “I didn’t play particularly good football, but we just continued to work. We continue to trust each other, continue to understand that the process of us going to work every single day is what’s going to get us out of that.
“I’m hoping that if I bring that attitude and if I helped turn one guy’s attitude on this team, maybe it helped us get to this point,” Stafford said. “But that’s things that you don’t really learn unless you go through some tough times, some tough adversity, and there were some times in Detroit that really taught me that and I’ve carried it with me.”