If there was an overarching theme to Tuesday’s anticipated season debut of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series featuring the Detroit Lions it was the franchise’s budding culture under coach Dan Campbell.
Far beyond Campbell’s favorite buzzword “grit,” which earned a mention right out the gate of the 46-minute episode, it’s the camaraderie Campbell and his coaching staff have with each other and are fostering throughout the young roster that’s trying to round the first corner of its rebuild.
Although the moment had previously been reported, seeing rookie defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson perform Michael Jackson’s hit song “Billie Jean” in front of the entire team is truly a sight to behold.
As part of the rookie hazing, Hutchinson first has to introduce himself and share his signing bonus with the group, which was a whopping $23 million. From there, he immediately goes into an acapella version of the song, providing the beat before butchering the first line to playful jeers from his teammates.
But after starting over, Hutchinson found his groove, drawing approving roars from his captive audience with both his dance moves and high notes. But the climax comes when everyone in the room joins in on the chorus, a moment of pure joy and fellowship before Campbell dismisses them to their offensive and defensive meetings.
Hutchinson’s rookie hazing wasn’t the only one featured. Camp darling Malcolm Rodriguez, a sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, opted for a passionate salsa dance routine instead of a karaoke session, also bringing the roster to its feet.
Hijinks aside, the tightened bonds are displayed in emotional speeches by both Campbell and running back Jamaal Williams, which had voices cracking as each were nearly brought to tears by their own, heartfelt words.
Campbell’s speech came at the end of the team’s first padded practice, where he explained why he pushes his players so hard in those sessions.
“I swear to God I’m not a lunatic,” Campbell said. “I swear to you. If I absolutely knew we could get to where we need to get without ever putting pads on, I’d do it, I swear to you. I don’t want to put anybody in jeopardy. However, I do know this, the studies say you’ve got to get volume and you’ve got to get intensity before a season comes. You have to. If you don’t, I’m not getting you prepared, not only physically for injury, but also for us as a team to get better.
“…All I think about is you guys,” Campbell continued. “That’s all I think about, men. That’s all I f—— think about is you guys and how I set you up for the best f—— possible, the best possible advantage I can you to have a (great) season. I swear to you, men. I just need you to trust me. That’s all. Please. Let’s be better tomorrow.”
Williams, in a huddle breakdown shared on social media earlier this week to tease the episode, implored his teammates to fight harder to improve.
“Do not give up,” Williams said. “Do not feel like you’re tired. When you’re tired, think of last year and think of that f—— record. Every time I get tired or I think I can’t go no more, I think of that f—— record. That’s ain’t us.
“… Last year wasn’t it,” Williams said. “Last year got me angry, pissed. For this year, I’m trying to be better for y’all. When you see I’m tired, I’m going to keep going. Remember your why, why you play football. I want you to give everything you got, every day. Do your best. Let’s go.”
More than the players, the first episode focused on Campbell and his coaching staff, which is uniquely filled with ex-players with extensive NFL experience. And within that group, the spotlight was put on defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and running back coach Duce Staley’s friendship and rivalry.
For five minutes, a montage of practice clips were essentially narrated by the two bantering on the sidelines, reveling in their side of the ball getting a win on a given snap.
“I truly love him, but I want to f— him up between the lines,” Staley said with a smile.
The premiere nicely tied together its opening — a four-minute, welcome-to-camp speech by Campbell where he set rules, expectations, all wrapped is his trademark, free-wheeling motivational delivery, capped with a Metallica lyric from the song “No Leaf Clover.”
And as the episode came to a close, another montage, this time from last weekend’s camp practice at Ford Field was set to the track with an emphasis on the highlighted lyric: “Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel, was just a freight train coming your way.”
The five-episode series will continue to air each Tuesday on HBO through Sept. 6.