Detroit Lions are lifting their fans in ways they haven’t in decades. Can they keep it up?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions had just taken the lead and the Jets were driving and the clock was winding down and oh how all that history was too much for my friend who took off for her basement rather than watch the final 60 seconds.

We’ll call her “Amy.” We’ll also call her a life-long Lions fan. Which means she, like so many thousands of others, was conditioned to believe that the Jets were going to tie the game with a 58-yard field goal.

I mean, of course, right? It almost felt preordained. Like when the struggling quarterback completed a fourth-and-18 to give New York a chance at the field goal. Like when Elijah Moore caught that 18-yard pass and hit the turf with one second left in the game, enough for the Jets to call a timeout.

One second?

A converted fourth-and-18?

Tell me that doesn’t sound like the dastardly doings of the invisible hand. No, not the invisible hand of economics, but the one that’s obviously kept this franchise down for decades by doing things like guiding record-setting, 66-yard field goals through the uprights and mind-tricking coaches into taking the wind in overtime.

My friend didn’t see the fortune beginning to settle on the Jets. Or maybe she did and blocked it out.

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Either way, she spent time in the basement when the game was on the line. She wasn’t the only one to look away on Sunday. She wasn’t the only one to grab her phone and text someone she loved when the 58-yarder sailed wide.

“Hey, guess what?” she texted her dad. “The Lions won five out of their last six games … hell hath frozen over.”

She would know. She’s a science teacher when she isn’t obsessing over the Lions, and she understands that oxygen liquefies at minus–183 degrees and that fire is hard to ignite at that point.

It wasn’t that cold in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday, nor was it that cold back in Detroit, but somewhere it must have been. How else to explain what’s happened the last two months?

Amy has an idea. She told her dad she’d name her next child Dan Kneecaps Campbell if she were still young enough to have more children. But then having a little age on you is partly what’s made this turnaround so satisfying.

The best kind of joy is borne of misery. No wonder talk of the Lions surge is dominating the region. Everywhere I go, I overhear conversations about them. Or I’m asked directly about them. Or fits of joy are related to me — about them.

A brother-in-law laughed like he hasn’t in years when the Lions pulled off the fake punt early in the second half against Minnesota a week ago Sunday. And when Penei Sewell laid out to catch the fourth-down pass to essentially ice the game?

“I started weeping,” he said.

He goes by Dan. He’s been a fan for 6½ decades. We watched the Lions beat the Cowboys in the playoffs in 1991 together. That’s the last time I saw the sports fan in him that elated.

In some ways he doesn’t know what to do with the winning, with the turnaround, with the coaching staff and general manager who all look like they might be here for a while in a way no coach and front office combo have in recent memory.

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Heck, in any memory.

“I’ve had trouble controlling my emotions,” he told me.

He isn’t alone.

The emotional toggle from 1-6 to 7-7 is profound, mostly because it’s rare, but also because the whiplash happened in the larger context of this franchise. Even some of the players have had to adjust.

Jared Goff has ridden the unpredictable wave of the NFL for almost seven seasons. He played in a Super Bowl and got shipped off because he was told he wasn’t good enough. He’s seen a few things.

But this?

How could he have? Only one other team in the history of the league has done what the Lions have the chance to do in starting 1-6 and making the playoffs. And as much fun as the praise has been lately, he remembers what it sounded like back in October.

“It was just as loud the other way,” he told reporters Tuesday.

He hasn’t forgotten. How could he? And if the players haven’t forgotten the fans haven’t forgotten, either.

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Which is why the win against the Vikings felt significant. And why the win against the Jets, at the last second, felt even more significant.

“That was a big swing,” Campbell said Tuesday. “We were in the sewer … and then all of a sudden … we have an opportunity here.”

For this season, absolutely, but also to build something beyond it. That possibility is what’s driving so many to howl and shriek and jump and cry as they watch the Lions these days.

This doesn’t feel like a fluke, even though it could be; the NFL remains the ficklest of leagues. Nor does it feel like the last time the Lions looked like a legitimate — and potentially dangerous — team.

The 2014 squad had a superstar receiver (Calvin Johnson), a star quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and the best interior defensive lineman in football (Ndamukong Suh) and a handful of other solid players. But talent didn’t line up — in age or in contract — and when Suh left for Miami after the Lions lost to the Cowboys the team was never the same.

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These Lions don’t have that star power — yet. But they have youth, and the timeline appears more sustainable. That’s part of the buoyancy this region is feeling, too.

It’s different, for sure. And it’s new. And if nothing else the buzz that’s settled over southeastern Michigan — and wherever Lions fans reside, for that matter — is showing what we’ve all known forever: nothing moves the heart and soul of a sports fan around here like the Lions.

And whether someone hides in the basement during the game-deciding drive or weeps when a 320-pound man flies, they know that their passion is connected to millions more who feel the same.

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

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