Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez break down the Detroit Lions after the loss to the Vikings on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
He wore a stocking cap and an oxygen cannula, fighting for air because of a lumbering ticker in his chest. As he sat up in his bed, in the basement of a house run by a money launderer, he wanted the launderer to know he had long ago accepted death.
“It is what it is …,” said Buddy Dyker, a retired union rep and the resident sage of the Netflix show “Ozark.” “It’s like watching the Detroit Lions sucking.”
And if you’re looking for a metaphor to sum up the Detroit Lions’ season, well, it’s hard to top the wisdom of a fictional ex-UAW negotiator, played by venerable character actor Harris Yulin.
His character voiced the words on his deathbed in Episode Four of the show’s second season, released in early September. I thought about those words after watching the Lions lose to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Ford Field.
It’s a sentiment familiar to anyone who is from the region. Or, frankly, anyone who has spent any time here.
Yet, somehow, when Yulin delived his line, it was shocking. Mostly because he’d put a spotlight on what has often felt like Detroit’ silent suffering and had summed up a generations-long feeling of inevitability for a national audience.
That Yulin’s voice is a gravelly mix of baritone and scar tissue gave the line more weight: Finally. We are heard.
Well, it felt like that anyway. Y’know, ‘misery loves company,” and all that.
One reason the pain of being a Lions fans remains under-referenced on the national sports scene is that the region lacks a champion. A voice on one of the coasts who tells our story. Or at least expresses empathy for the suffering.
Another reason is the lack of a poetic story line, an easily referenced mythology of a single failure. The Red Sox used to have Babe Ruth to blame for “The Curse of the Bambino.” The Cubs had, well, a goat to blame for “The Curse of the Billy Goat.”
The Lions had “The Curse of Bobby Layne,” dating back to the team’s trade of its star quarterback in 1958, but fans could never agree on its reality, keeping it from catching on.
Even the Cleveland Browns, another team known for mostly flailing for more than half a century, had multiple near-misses to which outsiders could relate. Those failures were given names like “The Drive,” “The Fumble” and “Red Right 88.”
Meanwhile, the Lions’ lone time in the spotlight ended in a blowout loss to the Washington Redskins in the NFC title game after the 1991 season. The franchise hasn’t sniffed playoff success since.
There was no defining play. No torturous “What if?” Nothing for a poet to craft a mythology around.
Just a random loss, leaving the fanbase here to suffer on its own.
That is, until Buddy Dyker delivered a sliver of recognition earlier this fall. (Or last month. Or even last week. Ozark was released all at once to encourage binge-watching, unlike a typical, weekly series.) Maybe you didn’t hear Dyker utter the phrase until yesterday, bingeing Ozark after the holiday weekend.)
I came upon it Saturday night. The day before the Vikings beat the Lions in the last home game of the season.
Head coach Matt Patricia took the podium after the loss and did his best to act like he and the team have a future. He explained that the difference between winning and losing was “a few plays here or there.”
That’s true. But it has always been true, and no amount of Patricia praising his team’s toughness and work ethic — as he has all season — or talking about how he and his staff have to keep pushing is going to change the outcome of these games. At some point, the players must make plays, as they do so often for other franchises.
Patricia likes to talk about the grind, about improving as a coach, about teaching technique, about finding a way. He’s consistent, I’ll give him that. Of course, he isn’t the first Lions coach to hammer a message week after week.
The question is: What kind of plan does he have to change this? Or, better yet: Will it matter?
For as bad as the losing is, it’s not as bad as the absence of hope. You can numb yourself to losing, like Buddy Dyker did.
But completely giving up?
Maybe that’s where the poetry is. Maybe that’s where a mythology arises for Lions fans: The curse of fatalism.
You could hear it in Dyker’s character. He had accepted the Lions’ fate like he’d accepted his own. He knew he had just days to live. He was long past fighting it.
In fact, a few hours before referencing the Lions he had been in the hospital, after nearly collapsing, wheezing and hacking and strugging for oxygen. His heart was close to failure.
But as he lay in the hospital bed, he realized he needed to be home. Had to be home. So he stood up and left. He escaped.
If he was going to succumb to a weakening body, he was going to do it where he wanted. That much he could control.
He also controlled what he would accept as the givens in his life.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s like watching the Detroit Lions sucking.”
The misery — the mythology — has been given a voice. You are no longer alone.