A Son Bemoans This Author's 'Ancestral Burden of Being a Detroit Lions Fan'

Brooklyn writer Taylor Plimpton brings personal pain and insights to a New Yorker magazine essay with a headline sure to resonate here: "The Ancestral Burden of Being a Detroit Lions Fan."

"Why would you willingly impart your love for a team like the Lions, who seem bound, above all, to break your heart?" he wonders before providing his family's explanation.

Taylor Plimpton with his dad many seasons ago.

His dad, the late George Plimpton, was a pioneer of participatory journalism -- reporting on daring personal experiences. In 1963, the elder Plimpton joined the Lions for preseason training -- and didn't stay on the sidelines. The team let him into scrimmages as a quarterback, as recounted in "Paper Lion," a 1966 book and 1968 movie starring Alan Alda. (Plimpton died in 2003 at 76.)

Fast-forward to this week, when the noted writer's 41-year-old son describes a recent New York scene:

The other day, in the park, my son was sporting his little Detroit Lions winter hat with a pompom on it when a man wearing a Jets jersey turned to me, nodded at my boy, and said, "Lions, huh? Poor kid. My dad did the same thing to me with the Jets: got me hooked early on a losing team."

I laughed and said, "Yeah, my dad’s to blame, too."

It's a fine fatherly tradition, passing your favorite teams down to your children, but it's not always the nicest thing to do, especially if one of those teams is the Detroit Lions, who haven't won a championship since 1957—yes, 60 years—and, in all that time, have emerged victorious in only one playoff game. ...

My sisters and I never had much of a choice with any of our other teams, either—whomever my dad had played for and written about, they were it. ... But somehow it was his team that never seemed to win—"those poor old Lions," as my father referred to them—that bonded us closest together.

The Lions' "last-string quarterback" at the 1963 training camp.

Now, with a two-year-old of his own, Plimpton reflects wistfully and amusingly about that "ancestral burden:"

The question is, should it fill me with pride, seeing my little guy in Honolulu blue, or guilt? Would it be better fathering, for instance, to simply abandon my old, fruitless loyalties and become a fan of the Patriots (who look like they’re headed for seventeen straight winning seasons) or the Dallas Cowboys—you know, for the child’s sake?

I’m not so sure. Because there’s something honorable about committing one’s self to a hapless team. It "builds character," which parents like to think is important for a child.

Indeed, devotedly watching the Lions compete—especially the last few years, when so many games have come down to the wire—can be a near-physical activity: your whole body tenses up, you let out groans, grunts, and occasional birdlike cries of delight. At the end of a game, you emerge battered and bruised, wiry and strong-hearted.

And this is what you’re really passing on to the next generation: good old-fashioned suffering, yes, but also loyalty, dedication, spirit. And, surprisingly, joy! It’s great fun being a Lions fan, especially if you have a sense of humor about it, which you have to.

The best-seller was reissued in 2011 on its 45th anniversary.

This season's 6-5 record "hasn’t really made watching the Lions any easier," says the die-hard fan, whose essay was posted Thanksgiving morning -- a few hours before the Vikings won by 30-23 at Ford Field.

Since they've become a "winning" team, the games have become even more excruciating, somehow. After all, now we have something to lose.

Part of it, perhaps, is simply that this is unfamiliar territory for Lions fans: we’re much more at ease with disappointment and defeat. Victory unnerves us—we're always waiting for the other cleat to drop.

-- Alan Stamm

Read more:  The New Yorker

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