DETROIT, Mich. — Calvin Johnson tried to keep his emotions in check.
As the former Detroit Lions receiver was being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, he recognized those who were instrumental in his journey.
Among those mentioned: Lions fans.
“Lions fans and the city of Detroit, when we were 0-16 you never stopped showing up,” Johnson said. “You were disappointed, but you never stopped showing up. And this motivated me to do the same thing for you.
“You loved me and my family unconditionally over these 15 years,” he added. “I want you to know Michigan is our home, Detroit is our city and Lions fans are our pride.”
The Lions have one playoff win (vs. the Dallas Cowboys in 1992) in the Super Bowl Era — the fewest of any team during that span.
However, the long-suffering, die-hard fans continue to support the team, maintaining hope they will someday see a football title in Motown for the first time since 1957.
“I know it’s hard, but they have been able to endure. They have been able to keep the faith. There’s hope in another year, hope in a new season,” said first-year Lions coach Dan Campbell, who was a tight end on the team that finished 0-16 in 2008. “I think they are resilient. I think that’s what makes them unique. I know it hasn’t always been the way you had hoped it would have been as a fan base, but you know what, I think they are always holding on to hope.
“It’s coming. Here’s the time it’s coming because when that time does come, it’s going to be special unlike any other community.”
The Lions fan base is starving for success. And if general manager Brad Holmes and Campbell are able to produce a winner, Motown would erupt in celebration.
“Football is big,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Jim Nagy said. “Think about it, you get 113,000 in the Big House every week, you get another 80 or 90,000 or whatever it us up in East Lansing and people love football and I hope this is the group. I hope Dan and Brad are the group that brings them the winner and nobody would be more excited than me and my 75-year-old dad up in Traverse City.”
‘Yooperman’, ‘Crackman’, ‘Macho Mane’ and ‘Haha’
The Sunday routine was like clockwork for Megan Stefanski and her father, the late Donnie “Yooperman” Stefanski — hit the road at 2 a.m. to arrive at Detroit’s Eastern Market tailgating lot by seven.
The Stefanski’s made the five-hour trip countless times, driving from Goetzville, Michigan — located in the Upper Peninsula — to root on the Lions.
For them, the trips were a chance to bond.
“You know, five hours in a vehicle each way with anybody, you get to know him, but really when it’s your dad,” Megan said.
“Yooperman” developed a reputation as an ironman among the fans and was honored by the Lions organization with a video tribute at Ford Field after his death in 2019. He was inducted into the “Ring of Honor” of the Pro Football Ultimate Fan Association — a group whose mission is to to promote the fellowship of all fans — in 2020. In 25 years, he never missed a home game.
He attended 200 consecutive contests, driving 365 miles each way to follow his beloved Lions, dating back to the Pontiac Silverdome days and then to Ford Field.
Megan continues the tradition. She joined one of her dad’s closest friends, Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, another lifelong Lions fan, for the Aug. 27 preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts, and he roared from the stands as if a title were on the line.
“Excuse me, Mr. Crackman, you’re a legend,” a fellow fan yelled to Crachiola, as he strolled through Ford Field. “Go Lions!”
Crachiola, 69, says he has had season tickets for more than 44 years. He comes to games wearing an autographed Lions hard hat, his customary worker bib, and a personalized jersey underneath. To complete the look, the retired electrical lineman rocks team-colored argyle socks and black boots.
“That’s what this city is, we’re blue-collar fans,” Crachiola said. “We’re dedicated. Sure I get upset, but I’ll never quit on them. Even the 0-16 season, I’ll never quit.”
Even through all the down years, Gary “Macho Mane” Campioni and his group of friends, “The Blue Mane Group,” are like Crachiola, they keep showing up. His crew — Jeff “Motor Head” Hossink, Tim “Den Defender” Palomaki and Jerry Evans — dress up in Lions gear and sport matching pinky rings with chrome Lions heads as a form of brotherhood.
Local artist James Honeycutt is another staple at Lions games. Honeycutt sketches caricatures of popular figures within the Lions organization, like Holmes and Campbell.
“Usually you start watching the game, and by the end of the game, it’s like nap time if it ends up bad because I take it to heart man,” Honeycutt said. “Like the 0-16 team when they did that, I had a little bet at work and he gave me the buyout in the middle of the season and I didn’t take it. I’m like they’ve got to win, but the buyout would’ve been better than what I had to pay him.”
Comedian and social media sensation Carlos “Haha” Davis uses comedy to cope with the frustration being a Lions fan brings.
Davis, who has seven million followers on Instagram, posted a video in November captioned “when you waiting on your team to win the super bowl” in which he aged himself from present day to the year 3020, still waiting for them team to win. Others find these funny, but for Davis, a native of Detroit, he uses humor to hide the pain of his favorite team continuously losing.
“When you lose so much, all you want to do is see them win,” Davis said. “We’ve been losing since I’ve been a fan. It’s like we’re the laughingstock of the league. All people want to do is play us, beat us and make us go 0-16. If we get six games, that’ll be a great season, but I’m a die-hard fan and I’m from Detroit so I’ve got to always ride with the home team.”
‘I couldn’t be more excited’
Before he was named general manager in Detroit, Holmes received an impromptu education on the fan base from his uncle, Luther Bradley, immediately after his first round of interviews for the job.
“I’m telling you, these fans up here, through all the ups and downs, they’re packing that place every week and every week they’re packing the house. Regardless of what’s going on,” said Bradley, who played defensive back for the Lions from 1978-1981.
That isn’t something Holmes is taking lightly as he and Campbell look to change the narrative around the franchise.
“The losses, I understand the frustration of the fan base. This fan base is so passionate and I couldn’t be more excited,” Holmes told ESPN.
“[Bradley] broke it down to me how passionate the fan base is, and that’s all I’ve seen so far and we haven’t even kicked off a game yet. But I’m loving the excitement that I’m hearing and feeling and I’m looking forward to it.”
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