Detroit's Home Field Advantage

Posted on October 12, 2011

Kid Rock stood in the middle of the (again) victorious Detroit Lions locker room, nursed a tall can of Badass beer and tried to explain how this felt like more than just a football game.

The Lions had just beaten the Chicago Bears 24-13 to improve to a remarkable 5-0, but that wasn’t really it.

Kid Rock is no sentimentalist. He’s not one to spew the silly notion that a winning football team makes up for unemployment or foreclosure or urban decay. He isn’t one to pretend Detroit isn’t what it is.

“I love everything about our city but the truth is, there are some bad things about our spot,” he said.

He shrugged his shoulders, unsure what to say. And that actually said it all.

What Kid Rock represents, what Detroit’s upstart football team strives to follow and what the wild scene that played out downtown Monday seemed to signify is a new attitude for this oft-maligned city.

It’s done apologizing for itself.

Yes, the place is a little crazy. That’s what makes it cool. Yes, the Lions have been bad for seemingly ever. That’s what makes this even better.

Detroit isn’t just home to the NFL’s next powerhouse, a scary combination of a blitzkrieg defense and a high-octane offense. It is home to a throwback to the days when the game-day environment represented a place and a people.

There is no pastoral beauty surrounding Ford Field. No grassy spots for picnics. No views of lakes or mountains. It isn’t surrounded by vast parking lots, a setting designed for controlled tailgates and traffic and special access roads for the really rich.

This is downtown Detroit in all its rough and tumble beauty, a modern facility set up in the heart of a past-its-prime-metropolis. And it was put there on purpose. The Lions used to play on the outskirts of Pontiac, about 25 miles north of here, in a boring, empty location whose sole purpose was to be close to the wealthy. The NFL loves those places.

In 2002 they relocated down here, right into this confused maze of streets and buildings, some occupied, some long abandoned. It defied logic. It went against the trends. It isn’t just in the city; it’s in the heart of it, with almost nowhere to park, nowhere to spread out, no direct way in or out.

All around it are structures in various stages of construct, from modern offices to collections of ancient bricks about to fall over. Dive bars, humble homes, downtrodden neighborhoods and a casino ring it. The city’s meager public transportation rumbles overhead nearby, offering a constant soundtrack.

If you want to come down to a Lions game early and cook out or drink up, you have to find whatever spot you can. Some feed street meters. Others pack small garages. Grills are set up in public alleys; others smoke up the empty lot that sits in the shadow of the towering county jail.

It’s gritty. It’s grimy. And like the team they come to see, it’s absolutely, uniquely wonderful.

This is the newest, greatest and most organic home-field advantage in the NFL. In a league that’s done everything it could to replace curious old stadiums with home-field sterility and suburban sameness, here comes Detroit. It’s not the only city stadium (New Orleans, Seattle, Atlanta, etc.). But JerryWorld it isn’t.

Of course Ford Field has all the plush bells and whistles and revenue sources you need to be competitive, but it isn’t off to the side or out in a suburb or set inside some cocoon of safety.

It’s a city facility. It’s a city home.

Monday brought warm temperatures, a holiday and aDetroit Tigers playoff afternoon game on television, perfect for revelers to pack the city early. It brought a hot team and the first Monday night game in a decade. So the people were everywhere, drinking in parking garages and cooking on dirty sidewalks and even tapping kegs right by the police headquarters. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

It produced a throng of fans who would later bring the soul of the city inside and rain it right down on the Bears.

“It was electric,” quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes)said.

It was also deafening and intimidating and confusing, at least for the Bears. The combination of a crowd rowdier than the normal NFL gathering and the Lions’ “Apocalypse Now” defensive line breathing down their throats led to the Bears getting called for a ridiculous nine false starts.

“We showed what it can do to an opponent’s offense,” Stafford said. “You couldn’t hear yourself think. That’s the potential of the city. We know they can get behind us like that and wreck the game for the other team.”

The Lions aren’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine consecutive games dating back to last season and while no one thinks they are going to run the table, it’s clear many of the young pieces are in place.

There’s star power all over the roster – Ndamukong Suh(notes) anchoring the defensive line, Stafford tossing a brilliant 73-yard TD strike to Calvin Johnson(notes), Jahvid Best(notes) blistering through a gaping hole for an 88-yard touchdown.

These guys are good. Playoff good. And in the years to come they should prove to be even better, considering none of the aforementioned started the season over the age of 25.

Then there’s the coach, Jim Schwartz, 45, a Maryland native who took a gamble on this moribund franchise that had just one playoff victory to its credit since 1957. He didn’t just embrace the opportunity, he embraced the city the opportunity came in.

“When he got the job we were hanging out,” Kid Rock said, “and he said, ‘I really believe in this city and the people of this city. I want my kids to say they’re from Detroit, to say they go to school in Detroit, they root for Detroit teams.’

“I thought, ‘I love this coach.’ ”

This is about acknowledging the bad and taking ownership of it, of turning the struggle into a point of pride, of looking at the least hospitable tailgate scene in sports and declaring it perfect.

“You see what’s going on,” Kid Rock said. “It’s not just the sports teams, it’s the entire city. People really believe in the city. It’s had a black eye for so long, people want to take that away, ‘Let’s put some ice on that.’ ”

The scene here Monday wasn’t of revival, it was of acceptance. The Lions are good. Ford Field, finally with a winner to back, can be the most intimidating facility in the league.

“It’ll be like this every week now,” center Dominic Raiola(notes) said.

Here in the gated-community era of the NFL is your true urban football setting. You come into the heart of the D now and you’re in for a fight. No one is going to apologize for it either.