According to Detroit Lions’ lore, franchise owner Sheila Firestone Ford Hamp first saw her team play at Briggs Stadium back in the mid-1950s when she was a little girl and the Lions were a big force in the National Football League.
In a six-season segment of that decade, the Lions won three NFL championships and lost one title game. Back then, even sold-out home games were blacked out locally. Fans wishing to follow the 12-game regular season on television had to find a bar with a sign that said “All Lions Games On TV.”
That meant that the bar had an antenna at the top of a tower on the roof to pick up a snowy, black-and-white picture from Channel 6 in Lansing.
Presumably, in those days, young Sheila didn’t go to bars to watch her team. Her family didn’t yet own the Lions – her father, William Clay Ford, Sr., bought them in 1963 -- but we must assume the Fords had access to good seats for that last championship season, in 1957.
A mere 64 years later, Hamp should not have been surprised by the lusty booing which greeted her Sunday at Ford Field during halftime of a game won by Baltimore, 19-17. She is the fourth family member to direct the franchise, which hasn’t come close to another title since Ford Motor Co. was designing the Edsel.
Bravely or naively, Hamp showed up on the field to present a ring to the former Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, who entered the Hall of Fame this year but still holds a grudge against the Lions because he says they owe him $1.6 million, a portion of a signing bonus he had to return after he retired in 2016.
“Lions’ fans, isn’t it great to have Calvin Johnson here at Ford Field?” Hamp asked.
“Boooooooooo!” the customers responded.
With arm gestures, Johnson tried unsuccessfully to quiet the crowd. Then he thanked Detroit fans without mentioning the word “Lions.” Of team ownership in general, Johnson recently said: “We’re just pawns out there. We’re just numbers. They don’t see the personalities. They don’t see the people.”
Forgive Hamp her faux pas, probably an honest attempt at a public reconciliation. Although she is early in her second season as owner in charge, it was a rookie mistake, the kind Lions fans might have to endure as their 0-3 team tries yet another rebuilding attempt under yet another management team.
Consider others in Hamp’s chain of command. The new general manager, Brad Holmes, has extensive front-office experience with the Rams. But he’s never been a GM and is new to Detroit.
Learning on the Job
Dan Campbell, the new head coach, once played here and he had a 5-7 record as interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2015. But he’s never been head coach of a team from the start of a season. Like Hamp, Holmes and Campbell are learning on the job.
Campbell certainly looks the part of the rough, tough, head coach. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Campbell sports the trim beard and trim build of the bouncer you don’t wish to mess with at the nightclub. He talks tough, too about “biting kneecaps.”
But with a chance to upset the Ravens Sunday, Campbell got cautious, calling an unnecessary timeout on Baltimore’s winning drive that ended with an NFL record field goal of 66 yards by Justin Tucker in the final seconds.
Before that, Campbell made the safe choice to set up a Lions’ field goal for a one-point lead instead of trying for a touchdown. You can logically explain his reasoning for both decisions, but his calculations ended in defeat for a team that must play five of its next seven games on the road.
One of them, on Oct. 24, is at Los Angeles against the Rams, quarterbacked by Matt Stafford, the former Lion who threw four touchdown passes Sunday in L.A.’s 34-24 victory over Tampa Bay. By then, Detroit might be 0-6 and on the way to a record setting 0-17 record.
Royal family, loyal fans
Stafford’s Rams are 3-0 and Stafford might be the Justin Verlander of football, the star who got away from Detroit just as Verlander left the Tigers on his way to the baseball Hall of Fame.
Much has been said in recent months about Hamp’s attempts to humanize the Lions’ operation with feedback from employees. She’s got a prominent office in team headquarters. She participates in personnel meetings.
She is aided by Chris Spielman, a former linebacker who joined management before the season as “Special Assistant to President/CEO and Chairperson.”
That means he whispers in the ear of the inexperienced owner. Spielman participated in the hiring of Holmes and Campbell. What will he whisper if they lose more games like Sunday’s debacle?
Since her father bought and ran the team, it also has been steered by her brother, William Clay Ford, Jr.; and by her mother, Martha Firestone Ford. Bill Ford, Jr., performed many ownership duties for several years and was expected to officially succeed his father, who died in 2014.
But the widow took over instead. Six years later, she passed the power to her daughter.
It makes for heavy intrigue for Detroit’s most royal family and Detroit’s most loyal fans. Young Miss Sheila is now 70 years old. Briggs Stadium is long gone. All games are on TV.
Should the Lions improve under Hamp and her new regime, she might be cheered, some day, at some future appearance. And if she fails, she now knows there’s a lot more booing from where that came from Sunday.