Thursday, December 1, 2011

A look back at December 21, 1997

The DTLs face off against the Saints this week, in a nationally televised night game on NBC. Rather than dwell on the cold hard facts that they'll be without two of their top defenders (Dom and Delmas), are playing an 8-3 team that's undefeated at home, against a QB on pace to break the NFL single-season passing yardage record, with QB9 having matched his jersey number in interceptions over the past three games, with the national media and Jay Leno foaming at the mouth for another opportunity to make the Detroit Lions once again the running joke of professional sports, I'll instead take a different route with this post, one that passes through memory lane.

The last time a Lions game was broadcast on NBC was in the final week of the 1997 season, which happens to be my all-time favorite Lions game. For any of you with twenty minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching the game highlights that I'll post at the end of the post. My own recollections from the fateful game can't begin to do justice to the vast spectrum of emotion captured inside the Silverdome on that day.

First off, I was very sick with the flu that day. I'm talking so sick that my mom didn't even make me go to church that morning. So sick that she actually had to come up to my room at around 4 o'clock to see if I was feeling well enough to go downstairs and watch my beloved Lions. And I actually considered saying no. I believe this to be the one and only time in my life that my mom encouraged me to go watch football. For most Sundays during my childhood, she was doing everything in her power to prevent me from watching the DTLs, like assigning a day's worth of yard work, forcing me to quickly rake all of our leaves into the Bitts's yard, say I was finished, and sprint into the living room just in time to catch Gus Frerotte's 4th and 28 heave to Germane Crowell. The moral of the story is that on this particular day, I was sick enough even to be allowed to skip dinner and watch the Lions versing the Jets while uninterrupted.

The game was important for many reasons, the first being that the winning team would clinch a spot in the playoffs (Bromos in NFC, Jets in AFC), while the loser would be automatically eliminated from contention. Secondly, Barry entered the game needing only 131 yards to reach 2000 for the season, a feat accomplished only twice before in NFL history.

The first half did nothing to help my flu. Jets QB Neil O'Donnell, about as average of a pro quarterback as one can find, methodically picked the defense apart to the tune of an early 10-0 lead. Worse still, Barry couldn't find anywhere to run for much of the first three quarters, with his chances at 2000 looking increasingly dim. Trailing 10-6, Barry finally found a crease on the final play of the third, sprinting for 47 yards, more than double his entire game total to that point. I let out my first words in hours (unless you count puking as words, which I don't), yelling in excitement as Barry brought the fans to life. Two plays later, he scored from 15 yards out, completely freezing two Jets with a move that only he could do, giving Detroit their first lead of the game and setting the stage for a 4th quarter unlike any other.

As soon as Barry scored, the Silverdome crowd stirred into a frenzy, becoming so loud that Neil O'Donnell couldn't even get a play called at the start of the Jets' next drive. He was forced to waste a crucial timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty. Then, as the play clock neared double-zeros for a second time, O'Donnell pleaded with the refs to make the crowd quiet down. The ref clicked on his microphone and asked the fans be quiet so a play could be ran, prompting them to roar even louder than before. The play clock wound down again without the Jets being able to call out their signals, and this time the ref threatened to give the Lions defense a penalty if the noise continued. Finally, play resumed. I had never seen this bizarre situation play out in a game before, and haven't seen it since. Fans in attendance that day still claim that it was the loudest environment they had even been in.

However, just minutes later, the Dome became deafeningly quiet when young linebacker Reggie Brown went down and didn't get back up.

Just six years removed from Mike Utley's tragic paralyzation in a game at the Silverdome, Reggie Brown now lay unconscious in an eerily similar scene. Lions players were close to tears on the sideline as ambulances raced onto the field to try and save Reggie. Members of both teams dropped to their knees in prayer as CPR saved his life. After nearly 20 minutes lying motionless on the field, the ambulance took Reggie Brown away from his teammates and 80,000 fans, none of whom would ever see him play football again. There was still the rest of the 4th quarter to be played. How are you able to finish a football game after something like that happens?

The Jets drove straight down the field when the game finally continued, easily getting inside the ten yard line with a chance to snatch away the lead and whatever air was still left in the Dome. Jets coach Bill Packages then made one of the dumbest coaching calls of his illustrious coaching career. The Jets amazingly ran a half-back toss/pass on first and goal, with their running back chucking a duck straight to Lions' corner Bryant Westbrook in the end zone. Replays clearly showed that Westbrook was out of bounds before gaining control of the ball, but this was before the time of replay challenges, so the call stood. The Lions caught a break and were given the interception. Suddenly there was some noise in the building again, and Barry still had a chance to get his 2000.

Barry kept finding small gaps in the Jets defense, churning away and finally reaching the 2000 milestone right on the nose after a two yard run. The ref stopped the game to hand Barry the game ball, as his teammates mobbed him and the crowd gave a minutes-long standing ovation. The announcers joked that since Barry was notorious for being tackled behind the line of scrimmage, maybe they shouldn't quite celebrate the achievement just yet; after all, he could be stopped for a loss of four on the very next play and be right back to 1996. However, on the next play, Barry emphatically raced 53 yards down the right sideline to put the game away, send the Lions back to the playoffs, and amass 2053 yards for his historic season.

In a haunting duality of life's triumphs and tragedies, two players were carried off the Silverdome Astroturf on December 21, 1997: Reggie Brown, by a frantic team of paramedics, and Barry Sanders, by a euphoric team of Lions.

Let's keep all players healthy this time around, but other than that, here's hoping for another Lions classic on NBC.

Lions/Jets 1997 Highlights part one
Lions/Jets 1997 Highlights part two

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