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It is a fine Thanksgiving tradition—football fans nodding at each other conspiratorially and skulking off from the table to watch the Detroit Lions lose.
I did not choose to be a fan of one of the least successful franchises the NFL has ever known. The Lions were given to me, as teams so often are—from father to son. Actually, my dad, George Plimpton, played for the Lions. Well, sort of. He was a participatory journalist and in his most famous stint as an amateur in the world of the professional, he'd joined the squad as "last-string quarterback" in 1963. During his one scrimmage, he lost almost 30 yards in a single set of downs. Nevertheless, from his oft-humiliating odyssey emerged Paper Lion.
My dad may have been Detroit's most hapless player, but he was a truly loyal fan. He was devoted to all of the teams he had played for in his writerly pursuits—the Lions, the Celtics, the Bruins. These were my father's teams, literally, and so they were my own, and at night we'd sit in his New York City study in front of the tube and cheer them on, the two of us sharing the same angst and hope and delight. These were the days of Bird and the Celtics, Bourque and the Bruins, and so there were victories to be celebrated, pride in our teams to be taken.
With Detroit on the screen, though, a more sullen mood hung over us, and from my father's lips would emerge gasps of dismay or odd exclamations that he usually reserved for chastising himself on the tennis court: "Move your feet, you ox!" His admonishments had little effect: The Lions seemed never to win, especially when we watched them. In fact, the first game I remember seeing—it was the 1983 playoffs, we were huddled in the attic in front of a tiny TV, I was seven—was a heartbreaker: Eddie Murray missing a 43-yard field goal that would have put the Lions ahead with 11 seconds to go. Over the years there were bright spots, of course—Barry Sanders, for instance—but such glimmers of hope always dissipated into further gloom. Growing up, it was the Lions who taught me about loss. My father, in turn, taught me how to handle it.
Strangely, though, it was the team of his that continuously did the worst, the Lions, that we felt most devoted to and that brought us closest together. Part of it, perhaps, was the way my dad couldn't help but root hardest for the underdog. (Out on the field he'd been the perpetual underdog.) Long after we had ceased to discuss the Bruins or the Celtics, we still commiserated over the Lions, and the weekend before my dad died, in 2003, I asked him, as I did every year, how they were shaping up. He gave the expected response, accompanied by his usual groan of utter resignation and odd delight, "Oh, Taylor, they're just awful!" And we laughed together—the last time we ever would—shaking our heads in agony and amusement, as we always did when we discussed the Lions.
It is not easy being a Lions fan, but there is a sort of beleaguered nobility in it. Our team is something we suffer happily and enjoy complaining about, like a wife or the weather. Outwardly skeptical, secretly hopeful, we belong to that great tradition of stalwart lovers of doomed ball clubs: the Lions, the Cubs, the old Red and White Sox. Trying to make sense of inevitable loss, we have turned to the realm of superstition, of team-damning trades and insulted goats. Little surprise we Lions fans have our own black-magic legend, the Curse of Bobby Layne, the great quarterback who, upon being traded after he'd led the Lions to three championships, supposedly predicted they wouldn't win another title for 50 years.
Considering that 50 years was up three seasons ago, I was beginning to wonder if a different spell had been cast: The Curse of the Paper Lion, which has a nice ring to it and stats to back it up too (from 1963 through 2010, Detroit went 294--422, a winning percentage of .411, worst in the NFL, save two expansion teams). Had my dad's amateur presence on hallowed turf offended the football gods? No, he was far too benign a figure to instigate such witchery. But it's nice to have another curse to blame, if we need it ... which we might. Sure, we have Stafford and Suh and our 5--0 start was our best in 55 years. And at 7--3 the playoffs are in sight. But it'll take more than all this to uproot our deep-seated doubts. We Lions fans have learned not to get our hopes up: They've been dashed too many times. So what will it take to restore belief? A Thanksgiving victory against the undefeated Super Bowl champion Packers would be a start. It'd sure be nice if this year's stuffing tasted of something more savory than defeat.
Taylor Plimpton is the author of Notes From the Night: A Life After Dark.