I didn’t expect to write this column.
I didn’t even expect to work on Saturday — I was supposed to be on vacation. But I got an email that Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams was scheduled to do an autograph signing at DC Sports at Lakeside Mall in Sterling Heights.
I thought: Well, that could be interesting, just to see Williams interact with fans. He is one of the most charismatic athletes I have ever met. Funny. Engaging. Authentic. Incredibly likeable. Just so dang personable and enjoyable to be around.
So I decided to check it out. But on the way there, I started to question myself: Will anybody show up? For a free agent? I mean, there is no guarantee Williams will return next season.
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To make it worse, the weather was miserable — gray skies and light snow flurries.
I walked into the mall about 30 minutes before the signing, and there were about 30 people in line. Almost all of them were wearing Lions gear. Hmm. OK. Not bad. Expected more. Then I looked again. All those Lions fans were in line at a pretzel place, which suddenly looked like a concession line at Ford Field.
So I kept walking, and what I found was stunning. More than 500 people were waiting in a line that snaked through the mall. It started at DC Sports, curved around one end of the mall, went down a long hallway and back, snaked through the middle of the mall, down another walkway, around the front of Lord & Taylor and back again.
I shot video of the crowd, walking from one end to the other, and it took me 2½ minutes. And I didn’t even get to the end.
“It’s one of our biggest signings — ever!” DC Sports owner Steven Graus said.
DC Sports has done more than 500 signings in the past 30 years, and this was easily in the top five.
Right up there with Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson. Miguel Cabrera after his Triple Crown. Or even a young Justin Verlander.
Which says several things:
- Clearly, the Swagg Kazekage, “the leader of the Hidden Village of the Den,” is beloved by fans;
- Lions fans got one taste of winning — six of eight to end the season — and the excitement around this team has skyrocketed;
- Williams has strong crossover appeal with the Pokemon crowd. Yeah, that’s part of it, too.
Which all lead to one overwhelming thought: The Motor City is gonna go berserk if this team ever starts to win consistently.
“I think what this shows you is just the tip of the iceberg if the Lions ever become successful,” Graus said.
So loveable they brought him gifts
Williams, being Williams, had wonderful conversations with countless fans.
No. He had warm conversations with darn near every single fan, asking questions and starting conversations.
“Love your hair!” he said.
“You played great this season,” somebody said.
“Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate you.”
Williams scored 17 rushing touchdowns during the 2022 season, setting the Lions’ single-season record (ahead of some Sanders guy).
“Congrats on the touchdown record,” somebody said.
“Oh, thank you,” he said.
When somebody brought up how he was fined for his, um, dancing moves, Williams begged for help.
“You gotta talk to the NFL and tell them not to fine me,” Williams said. “Please. Please. I need a petition.”
“I’ll start it off,” the guy said.
Williams was personable and funny and engaging, taking time to have real conversations, brief though they were.
Dozens of fans brought him gifts. Books. Pokemon cards. More Pokemon cards. Stacks of Pokemon cards. Far more gifts than any of the workers at DC Sports could ever remember another other athlete receiving. Clearly, I was watching something special.
This was Lions fever, and it’s spreading.
“I just want to give him a hug and tell him not to leave,” said Riki Maruszczak, 30, of Detroit, who got in line four hours before the signing was supposed to start.
Maruszczak brought Williams a book and said, “I love Jamal Williams. I think he is an exemplary addition to the Lions and the identity that they’re trying to build. He is what I consider to be a shining beacon of character that has always existed in Detroit. Resiliency and character are what the city is, and he matches so well into what we are.”
When Maruszczak approached Williams, he tried to tell him that. Wanted him to know that.
“You are so very loved,” Maruszczak said. “I grew up in the city and there is nobody who exemplifies the city more than you.”
“Thank you so much,” Williams said. “I appreciate you.”
Countless fans encouraged Williams to return to the Lions.
“You coming back?” somebody asked.
“I don’t know,” Williams said. “Hope so.”
So do these fans.
But should the Lions bring him back?
It’s a tricky question. If they can work a deal that makes sense for both sides, yes, of course. But I wouldn’t break the bank for him. From a football standpoint, there are other running backs who can perform behind this fantastic offensive line.
But on a personal level, I hope they bring him back.
Because he’s just so dang personable — a true gift for reporters.
And he is invaluable to the team. He exudes everything this team is trying to build.
He’s tough and determined, full of grit and resiliency, while demanding respect for the Lions — yeah, that’s why fans love him. That’s easy to like.
Best of all, he has embraced Detroit.
Just as Detroit has embraced him.
Williams has a great presence in the Lions’ locker room. The same presence he had at the mall. For hundreds of fans.
On a gray, snowy Saturday afternoon.
This was Lions’ fever, snaking through a mall. Out in the open for everybody to see. And it was seriously cool.
Just the tip of the iceberg of what could be.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.
To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.