Detroit Lions have always been a family heirloom, passing down pain. But what about joy?

Detroit Free Press

Not quite 13 years ago, I stood on a third-floor parking deck housed inside the former Michigan Theater, looking up at the remnants of the once-grand movie palace on the corner of Cass and Bagley, a few blocks from Ford Field.

It was December, and snowing, and the Detroit Lions were limping into an early Sunday afternoon game against Green Bay with a 2-10 record. Still, Ford Field would soon fill up, in part with hundreds of fans encamped before the game on all three levels of the glorious relic.

Plumes of smoke rose from the grills wedged around the cars and all manner of music bounced off the cavernous walls, mixing in with the human chatter from eternally hopeful tailgaters.

The scene was pure Detroit, a party on a parking deck that muscled into a theater, and a theater built over Henry Ford’s original garage, where he fashioned his first car from four bicycle wheels and a two-cylinder engine.

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Cars that made way for movies. Movies that made way for cars. An innovator whose name would eventually become intertwined with an NFL franchise for six decades, not that Ford could’ve imagined his garage would become a site to celebrate a team his great-granddaughter would own.

Nor, I’d wager, could the fans that squeezed into the site back in late 2010 have imagined the state of the team now, replete with a savvy general manager, a promising coach, a coveted offensive coordinator and — gasp!a foundational offensive line.

In December 2010, the Lions were wrapping up the end of another dismal season, coming off a decade of historic losing. That was soon to end, mostly: The team won its last four games under first-year coach Jim Schwartz that month, then made the playoffs in 2011, for the first time in the 2000s … before it all fell apart — again.

In those days, save for the odd playoff year, it wasn’t uncommon for fans to send letters and emails pouring out their Honolulu Blue-and-Silver hearts, often praying their grandmas and grandpas, their aunts and uncles, even their mothers and fathers, would live long enough to see a change of the franchise’s fortune.

Sometimes, handwritten notes arrived from the most elderly of the fanbase, expressing their near-dying wish to witness glory once more, preferably surrounded by those they’d help raise — indoctrinate? — into Lionhood. (After all, a baby dressed in a Honolulu Blue onesie faces long odds of loving an NFL team of different colors.)

Last week, I thought of that cold December day on the corner of Bagley and Cass. My brother had sent me a text that ended with a sad and tearful emoji. He was thinking about the Lions, and his son, Matthew, and how it would be much harder to watch games with his boy since he’s due to leave for college.

“The Lions finally get good, and my son moves off to college so we can’t enjoy it together,” he wrote. “He will watch with his buddies … or study (insert sad emoji).”

I did my best to remind him that while kids want and need their independence, some traditions never need take a break, and that there’d be opportunities to share Sunday afternoons once more. Besides, studying isn’t a bad alternative, right?

Still, what he left unsaid remains: The upcoming Lions’ season holds a different kind of weight, mostly because it offers the chance to soothe the sting of so much losing.

It may not happen, obviously. It’s kinda ridiculous to even write that sentence; Lions fans are familiar with the franchise’s woeful history.

Which means they understand — in their bones — that their love for this franchise is akin to a family heirloom, passed on regardless of its shape, its state, its ungainliness, giving descendants little choice but to accept it.

Not that Lions fans push back. At least, not until later in life, but even then, it’s rarely a clean break.

The heirloom is so powerful that it leads some to snowy December days in a parking deck built within a dilapidated theater, to dress in a Honolulu blue parka and knit cap, to build a Lions-centric encampment — complete with firewood, meat, a table doubling as a finger-football field and a blue and silver-tinted candelabra — that would make Vegas-era Elvis blush.

Bob Szukala lit two candles that day, flickering prayers for a Lions victory. A séance, if you’ll allow, and isn’t what bestowing so much faith in a group of strangers playing catch really is?

I’ve never forgotten those candles, or that grimy but joyful tableau, a singularly Detroit creation layered with all that history. Nor have I forgotten that Szukala, who was a math teacher then, shared his tailgate with his pops, known as “Big Bob.” Or maybe it was the old man who shared all that history with his son.

Either way, these are the stories behind the anticipation building in Allen Park the past couple of weeks. Shoot, the past nine months, beginning around the time last fall when Lions coach Dan Campbell and his team pried themselves out from under a 1-6 start.

Campbell got the chance to meet with some fans a few days ago when training camp opened to the public. They showered him with love, because they see — no, they feel a fellow traveler, someone who might have cracked open a beer and tore into a side of brisket with them on Sunday afternoons, if he hadn’t developed an NFL-worthy 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame.

He is one of them. And even if he isn’t, they think he is one of them, and, for now, that’s what matters. Winning matters, too, of course, and Campbell will have to keep winning to keep connecting to this story, to this history.

If he does, perhaps he’ll be a little more at ease with the love flowing his way.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said Saturday. “It makes me a little uncomfortable only because … I’m no different than you. I’m really not. I’m just coaching this team … I’m not real polished with — I would say the fans are more polished than me.”

He appreciates the love, he really does. He said it a couple of times before veering back toward humility:

“You’re not meeting some superstar. I’m not a movie star.”

No, he’s not, but he has the chance to be so much more — to become part of a family heirloom, to connect with the fans who show up with their families in the snow to cheer 2-10 teams, and with the fans who shed a tear (electronically, at least) because their son might be too far away when things finally get rolling.

“Humbling,” Campbell finally said.

Trying to change the course of history usually is.

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

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