Detroit Lions team president Matt Millen is pictured at their practice facility in Allen Park, Michigan on November 28, 2005.
Every generation of fan dating back to the days of the Portsmouth Spartans has their own story of how things were when they became a fan of what is the modern day Detroit Lions franchise. Some fans grow up in the midst of golden eras, with players like Bobby Layne, Billy Sims, Barry Sanders, and Matthew Stafford playing in their primes and leading the Lions to some semblance of success. Others, including myself, were not so lucky.
Being born in the late nineties was both a blessing and a curse for Detroit sports fans. The Detroit Red Wings were extremely successful and won four Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2008. The Detroit Pistons won a title in 2004 amidst a spree of six straight conference finals appearances and even the Detroit Tigers had a World Series appearance in 2006. Everything was peachy… unless you were a Lions fan.
You could say that a dark age for Lions football began a little over a year after I was born when Barry Sanders announced his retirement from football before training camp in 1999. Sanders was the last all-time great player that the team would have, with the exception of the great Jason Hanson, until the 2007 NFL Draft.
The team had a brief period of mediocrity from 1999 to 2001 before Matt Millen was hired to put together a team that would finally get the Detroit Lions franchise to its first Super Bowl. The only remnant I have from those pre-Millen Lions is a Charlie Batch jersey that my parents got for me as a child. My best guesses as to why they felt the need to get me a Batch jersey is that the Lions had no notable players at the time and that myself and Charlie Batch share the same first name. I’m assuming that it was probably purchased off of a clearance rack somewhere.
I didn’t really follow sports religiously until 2004 when I was enamored by Detroit Pistons basketball back then. With the success of the other Detroit sports teams, it was actually easy for my young self to ignore the Lions at the time. The Lions were just the one Detroit team that stunk and always had as far as I was concerned. If you asked me who Barry Sanders was just five years after he retired, I probably would not have known anything other than he was a running back who was good and played for the Lions.
I do have some memory of watching the Lions during the early parts of Joey Harrington’s career though. I watched enough back then that my father and I still joke to this day that anytime a quarterback throws a check-down pass on third and long that it’s a “Joey Harrington” pass. Roy Williams, Shawn Rogers, and Kevin Jones are the few names that come to mind as far as “good” players that the Lions had back then, but none of them were good enough to make me actually want to pay legitimate attention to the team.
Despite not paying much attention to the team around this time, I did take notice of one thing in particular that I really did not understand as a kid… everybody was saying, “Fire Millen!”
Who was Millen? I had no idea at the time. Looking back, I understand the team was atrocious and I can see why the fan base was so angry. But I also have a different perspective now. The Millen Era laid the foundation for what my Lions fandom would blossom into. Without the low expectations earned by the team during my formative years, there’s no way that I would be as grateful for the modest amount of success that the Lions have had in recent years. Making the playoffs in 2011 really cemented my passion for the team, because I finally realized how emotionally invested that I really was.
The three playoff appearances over the last seven seasons has really been my only taste of success as a Lions fan and I have the Millen Era to thank for that. It really makes me appreciate what Matthew Stafford has done during his career and even though there haven’t been any playoff wins yet, growing up during the Millen Era has given me a nice perspective and positive outlook on whatever success that the team has. The Lions have a franchise quarterback with at least another five good years left in him and it’s now been ten years since the team went 0-16. At this point I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like for the Lions to not be at least mediocre. When the wheels do eventually fall off again someday, it’ll be a good thing that I have my roots in early 2000s Detroit Lions football to keep me rooting for the team.
With all that being said, I ask that everyone reading keep Matt Millen and his family in their thoughts as he is currently dealing with a complicated heart issue. Even though his time with the Lions was rough, he has shown me over the years that he is a very wholesome human being and I wish him and his family the very best going forward.