An Englishman in…Detroit? Of course.

An Englishman on his way to a football game

Tea? On the odd occasion, but I’m more of a coffee drinker. Crumpets? Yep. Damn right. With butter and cheese, or maybe strawberry jam. Football? Wait. Do you mean “football”, or “football“? You see, in my house “soccer” is a dirty word, same as for any Englishman, and football relates primarily to the Detroit Lions. Round my way, people look at you as if you’ve gone out when you say that. “Football” in Britain is supposed to mean Premiership soccer, and the market for the NFL – while growing – remains tiny in comparison.  I personally know two other football fans, one who’s a moderate/casual Lions fan and one who’s a Bengals fan, having worked in Cincinnati for the best part of the ’90s. We’re only a small island here, and as it’s a niche sport here we have a commensurately small NFL community – but while we don’t often bump into one another on the street, we have a half-decent university league, a few local teams (shoutout to my local Nottingham Caesars) and regularly sell out the 60,000-seater Wembley stadium, year on year, when the NFL International Series pays a visit. What follows is my personal introduction to the NFL, and the origins of my Lions fandom…

When I was a kid in the early eighties, we had three TV channels: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV – the latter being a commercial channel set up to rival the BBC in an attempt to satisfy the monopolies commission. In 1982 to national fanfare, we saw the launch of Channel 4, the UK’s second commercial TV station, which heralded a new type of independent broadcasting, refusing to ape the staid, austere officialdom of the BBC or their more tabloid-esque ITV counterparts. These new rebels on the block took it upon themselves to bring the NFL to this green and pleasant land, and many an Englishman’s first introduction to the sport (mine at the age of 8) came courtesy of once-weekly evening highlights show that used Prokofiev’s Dance Of The Knights from the ballet of Romeo and Juliet, coupled with some gripping visuals. Sadly due to copyright laws where the soundtrack is concerned there’s nowhere hosting a video I can share with the original sound and film, but believe me when I say that to 8-year-old me it was inspiring stuff!! The NFL stars of the day who were known in the UK were the likes of Dan Marino, and William “The Refrigerator” Perry. As a child I heard the names but had no notion of how the game worked or even that it was, at that time, played at least 3,000 miles from where I lived.

Channel 4 takes an Englishman to Super Bowl XLVIII

Fast forward some 26 years (nothing like reminiscing to make you feel old!) and I found myself browsing Reddit, in particular an /r/askreddit post asking if the forthcoming Super Bowl was getting any coverage overseas. At this point I’d never watched a full game of football, and certainly had no idea about how it worked, but that one post piqued my interest. So I waited the few weeks until the big day, sat down and watched Super Bowl XLVIII – Broncos vs Seahawks. Bear in mind my knowledge of the sport at this point can be summed up as “the guy in the middle throws the ball back to the quarterback, he throws it to another dude who tries to get to the other end”. I had never heard of a tight end, or a nickel defense, or Aaron Rodgers. So ignorance isn’t all bad – but my point is that I was a total noob, thus when the first snap of the game cleared Manning’s considerable cranium and led to a safety, I realized that

A) Some serious shit just went down

B) I don’t understand quite what

C) This all looks incredible and I need to learn more

It took me 2 evenings on the trot after work to watch that game, and I was buzzing – until I realized shortly afterwards that the Super Bowl was the last game of the season and I had to wait roughly another 8 months or so for any more football. As I didn’t know preseason was a thing, that meant waiting until September 8th, 2014 – when good old Channel 4 had an entire damn game for me to watch.  It was the New York Giants vs Detroit Lions at Ford Field. I’d waited a long time to get my fix of football, and at last I could sit down with a beer and breathe out. The show’s announcers, Nat Coombs and Mike Carlson basically told a story depicting the Giants in the role of Goliath, the visiting marauder who was going to crush the Lions in their role as the peasant David, who was going to die in the giant’s shadow – although David had a sling in the form of the Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford,  a relatively  young up-and-comer who had a knack for pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. The build-up to this game was quite something to a new UK-based viewer, and all expectations were set for a Giants win.

Intro to the Channel 4 American Football Show from 2015

But that didn’t happen. The Lions were 14-0 up by the end of the first quarter, a lead which was never overcome as they romped to a 35-14 victory over the visiting New York team. In this Englishman’s first ever Lions game I got to see Calvin Johnson make seven receptions for a total of 164 yards including a 67 yard bomb from Stafford which give him one of his two touchdowns. That TD play, coming after Stafford escaped pressure to create a huge pass had me out of my seat. I still get shivers when I see the replay of that play, with Calvin positively prancing over the line. Joique Bell put up some reasonable running stats including a TD of his own and the Lions gave a solid performance on all three phases of the game –  I had no reason to expect any of that after the game’s preamble. So with that, there was me hooked. At the time the closest I could get to a game was hoping for a highlights reel on the channel 4 midweek show, which I watched religiously hoping for a rare glimpse of Detroit football. I followed closely on the /r/detroitlions sub, and scoured the internet for ways to watch games on my 1.2mbps rural broadband connection. Seriously, there were times that the quality was so bad that you couldn’t even read the numbers on the players’ jerseys, and the ball was an invisible, ethereal thing lost in a sea of 2-inch square pixels. That didn’t dissuade me though, and two years later having made the pilgrimage southwards to Wembley twice to see the team that picked me, here I am – blathering my way through live post game shows and editing articles here like I know what I’m talking about. Which in fact, I kind of do, else I wouldn’t still be here – I’m still on a learning curve, but it’s one that’s shallowing off a bit –  and thanks to the antics of Stafford and CJ late one September night it’s one that I have a feeling I’ll be on for a very long time to come.

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