Matthew Stafford’s former Detroit Lions’ teammates find validation in his Super Bowl run

Detroit Free Press

Calvin Johnson said what so many Detroit Lions fans are feeling this week as the Super Bowl approaches:

“We’re all on (Matthew Stafford’s) coattail vicariously for sure.”

It’s as close as Johnson will ever get. The retired wide receiver and Hall of Famer has made the media rounds lately to talk about the Super Bowl and the quarterback who is leading the Los Angeles Rams.

[ Why Rams QB Matthew Stafford credits time with Lions on Super Bowl run ]

He isn’t alone. Many of Stafford’s former Lions teammates have expressed similar thoughts. They are thrilled for him. And they feel as if he is playing for them.

Several of them told ESPN recently that Stafford’s ride to football’s ultimate game is akin to watching a family member, including Rob Sims, who blocked for Stafford in Detroit.

“Me and (Johnson) have had many conversations about how cool it is that he’s in this position,” Sims said. “Me and (Dominic Raiola) are like, ‘What we believed in was true. This guy, he is the real deal and he’s proving it.’

“It’s just good for us, seeing somebody that came from where we came from, to go to that next level and prove it.”

Though this isn’t simply about proof. It’s about identity and validation.

As Sims noted, “seeing somebody that came from where we came from” is central to what Stafford’s playoff run has meant to so many he played with during his 12 years as Lion. Stafford understands this. He knows he isn’t just playing for his current teammates and city.

[ Kelly Stafford on love from Detroit Lions fans: ‘We hear it and we feel it’ ]

“I do appreciate, so much, just everybody’s support,” he said during media day Monday. “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.”

If Stafford is tired of the Detroit question, he didn’t let on during his 45-minute session. But this isn’t surprising. He never let on much during his time as a Lion.

He was quick to defer went things went right and quick to take the blame when they didn’t. This is partly why he’s gotten so much love the last couple of weeks. Well, that and the belief his teammates had in him even as the team struggled most years he played.

Which is why it’s best to think of this lovefest as a kind of therapy. Losing negates the self in a way, especially the kind of losing Stafford and Johnson and all the rest experienced as Lions.

It can make you crazy, make you doubt, a helluva trick if you think about it, for no one gets to the NFL without outsized self-belief. Stafford has said many times since he left Detroit — and said it again Monday — that he wanted a new beginning.

“A new opportunity,” he said.

What he hasn’t said, but what is fair to assume, is that he wanted to see if it was really him or if it was circumstance. The game he’s about to play Sunday had to feel another life away all those Decembers in Detroit.

MORE FROM WINDSOR: The Matthew Stafford experience reminds us how hard Lions fandom can be.

It felt that way for Johnson and Sims and all the others we’ve heard from since Stafford led his Rams back to beat the San Francisco  49ers a week ago Sunday. It’s why you hear giddy in their voices. Why you see smiles when they speak.

Johnson was grinning from Detroit to Los Angeles during an interview with the NFL Network recently.

“Definitely rooting for him,” he said.

Of course, he is. To not would be rooting against yourself. And while self-loathing may work for writers, it’s not so swell for professional football players.

Still, the Lions experience can lead to those dark(ish) places. Just ask anyone who loves them. No wonder so many who do feel similarly to Johnson and the rest of Stafford’s former teammates.

They are rooting for Stafford, too, for similar reasons. Stafford is one of them, for better and for worse. And if he couldn’t bring them a Super Bowl — or even a playoff win — as a Lion, then bringing them a Super Bowl as a former Lion offers its own sort of thrill.

Stafford was asked to describe the Lions fan base by a writer based in Los Angeles Monday. He described them as loyal and passionate, and mentioned that when his wife, Kelly Stafford, endured some health struggles, the community — his community — reminded him how much they cared for him.

He also described what it was like to head to the store or park with his family. That even when the team was losing, and sometimes especially when the team was losing, he felt the support.

So many Lions fans are optimistic that way. They have to be. Cynicism, or nihilism, after all, carry one just so far.

Stafford couldn’t say he would be “playing” for Lions fans this Sunday, like he acknowledged that he is playing for all of those who helped him get to this stage. But he didn’t need to. Folks know it’s true.

“I’m a representation of (the Detroit) experiences,” said Stafford.

And Detroit is represented by him. Not just Johnson and Sims and the rest of the merry band who will be living through their former quarterback during the Super Bowl. But the tens of thousands of others who wear Honolulu blue and silver, too.

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

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