Most Detroit Lions fans have been celebrating along with Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was a star in the city for more than a decade. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The Detroiter Bar stands on a street corner in Detroit’s Bricktown neighborhood, within walking distance of Ford Field.
The tavern is known as a Lions’ bar, which these days also makes it a Matthew Stafford bar. The establishment’s regular patrons still consider the former franchise player of their favorite team as one of their own, many of them watching games there on Sundays in their replica No. 9 Lions jerseys.
“You would be surprised by how many Rams jerseys there are too,” bar manager Tyler Tucco said in a phone interview this week.
Usually, after a star athlete asks to be traded, and is, fans of his old team turn on him. Their disdain intensifies if he finds success in his new home.
That’s not the case in Detroit, where people are understanding of why Stafford wanted out of the Lions. They don’t begrudge him for leading the Rams to Super Bowl LVI.
“Let’s be honest,” said Waleed Mansoob, a 43-year-old lifelong Lions fan. “The Detroit Lions organization is the worst organization in all of sports. You can bring up cricket, table tennis, whatever. They’re the worst. What can you possibly do with that team?”
Known as “Stoney,” Mike Stone is the co-host of a popular morning sports talk radio program in Detroit. For the majority of the season, he sensed most Lions fans were cheering against the Rams, but it had nothing to do with Stafford.
“Everybody liked Matthew Stafford,” Stone said.
The Rams convinced the Lions to exchange quarterbacks by throwing in their next two first-round picks; the worse the Rams did, the higher the 2022 draft selection would be. But as the Rams advanced in these playoffs, Stone noticed a shift in his callers’ attitudes.
The Rams’ Jared Goff (left) and the Lions’ Matthew Stafford after a game in 2018. The Rams won the game in Detroit, 30-16. The quarterbacks have since changed home cities. (Associated Press)
“Now,” Stone said, “I would say it’s probably 65-70% rooting for Stafford.”
Or, as the Detroiter Bar manager Tucco explained, “Whether we pick 31st or 32nd doesn’t really matter.”
Detroit’s admiration for Stafford extends beyond what he did on the field over the previous 12 seasons.
Stafford and his wife Kelly were heavily involved in SAY Detroit, a charity founded by journalist and author Mitch Albom that serves the city’s underprivileged community.
The Staffords donated $1 million to build a football field and fund after-school programs at the organization’s Play Center at Lipke Park.
“When we met Matthew, he didn’t want to just do the typical write a check and shake hands in a children’s hospital,” said Marc Rosenthal, SAY Detroit’s chief operations officer.
The Staffords occasionally dropped by the facility, with Matthew playing basketball with children and Kelly coaching the cheerleaders.
When distance learning was to be implemented at nearby schools because of the pandemic, the Play Center invited its after-school students to use its computers to attend virtual classes. Aware that not every student could commute to the Play Center every day, the Staffords personally handed out 100 backpacks with laptops inside.
Shortly after Stafford was traded to the Rams, he and his wife pledged another $1 million to build a new education center with SAY Detroit. The Staffords are expected to attend the groundbreaking, which is tentatively planned for early spring.
In Rosenthal’s mind, the story that encapsulated what Stafford was about is from a couple of years ago when the organization auctioned opportunities to catch passes from Stafford.
When Stafford threw to the auction winners, Rosenthal noticed he grunted every time he delivered a pass.
The cartilage in Stafford’s ribs was damaged.
Stafford’s threshold for pain and sense of responsibility gained the respect of Detroit. With the Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons in decline, Stafford was the city’s most popular athlete in his final seasons with the Lions.
“He always tried to play, regardless of what he was feeling,” Tucco said. “He always gave 100% instead of sitting out like most players do nowadays.”
When Detroit appreciates an athlete, the city lets him or her know. Stafford has pleasant memories of receiving encouragement from strangers when the Lions were losing or when his wife Kelly was recovering from an operation to remove a tumor on a nerve that went from her brain to her inner ear.
“They were always supportive and people that cared about not only the Lions and me but my family and us as people,” Stafford said. “Always going to have a soft spot for Detroit in my heart and just appreciate them.”
Stafford endured plenty of defeats in those years, the Lions had a 74-90-1 record in the regular season with him as their quarterback and 0-3 in the playoffs.
Asked what kept him motivated in the worst of times, Stafford pointed to his teammates and coaches, as well as the fans.
“They had an expectation of what I was going to do when I was out there, what it was going to look like when they came to a Detroit Lions game and I wanted to make sure that was their experience more often than not,” Stafford said.
The Lions have only one postseason victory in the last 65 years. Their fans don’t dream of Super Bowls. However, Tucco said, “It was like, ‘We’ve got Stafford, we always have a chance in every game.’ ”
And there were some magical seasons, such as the three in which Stafford led the Lions to the playoffs.
“I don’t want to say that’s all we could ask for, but considering the teams he was given, it was like, ‘At least we made the playoffs,’ ” Tucco said.
Within a couple of miles of the bar managed by Tucco is the sports bar Nemo, which was visited earlier this week by Mansoob, the fan who called the Lions the worst organization in sports.
Passed the phone by a bartender, Mansoob said he wanted Stafford to win a Super Bowl.
Lions fans could always depend on Matthew Stafford giving his all every week when he played in Detroit. (Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)
“I want him to win to make us look even worse,” Mansoob said.
Mansoob’s devotion to the Lions is matched only by his anger at them. Mansoob pointed to how they passed on Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald in the 2014 draft, instead selecting tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th pick.
“That Rams team could have been the Lions,” Mansoob said.
Asked why Lions fans remain so loyal to such a clown show of a franchise, Mansoob replied, “I have no idea. Maybe there’s nothing to do out here in Detroit. It sucks here.”
When Stafford asked the Lions to trade him after their 2020 season, they had a new general manager and new head coach. They were rebuilding again. The consensus in Detroit was that trading Stafford was in everyone’s best interest, even the Lions’.
But not everyone in the city is enjoying Stafford’s Super Bowl run.
Seated near Mansoob at Nemo’s was 66-year-old Ray Moncivais, a self-proclaimed “hater.”
“It hurts me that he couldn’t do something for Detroit,” Moncivais said. “But now he goes to L.A., he’s the golden boy?”
Moncivais was particularly incensed by how Stafford wasn’t punished for his gunslinging approach in the NFC championship game.
“If his jersey said Detroit Lions and he was playing in the NFL championship game, that guy would have caught the ball,” Moncivais said in reference to the errant fourth-quarter pass that was dropped by San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jaquiski Tartt.
Moncivais devised a plan to cope with watching Stafford play a Super Bowl for a team other than the Lions: He will place a wager on Stafford.
“If he wins,” Moncivais said, “at least I make money.”
Everyone wins — except the Lions, of course.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.