One of the best parts of being a Detroit sports fan is the way the teams and athletes represent the city and state.
Detroit is a blue-collar city where most of the people work hard, often with physical labor. Time not spent at work or asleep often revolves around the Lions, Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers.
The majority of sports icons from the Detroit franchises have been completely embraced by the fans, not just because of their athletic prowess, but because their values and demeanor are as blue-collar as the fans.
The Tigers over the years have had guys like Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Al Kaline, George Kell, Willie Horton and Trammell & Whitaker represent the Old English “D.”
The Red Wings have been led by Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuck, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
At The Palace, Pistons fans have cheered guys like Joe Dumars, Grant Hill, Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton.
But the most blue-collar stars have worn the Honolulu blue.
The Lions have had more struggles than any of the other Detroit franchises, struggles that blue-collar fans can relate to. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch a team go 0-16 or watch the drought of getting a playoff win grow each season.
With all of the disappointments and perpetual hope, Lions fans have had their best players reflect the blue-collar nature of its fans. They aren’t flashy and just go about their business.
Barry Sanders is the most beloved and iconic example of this. Sanders never did a dance after a touchdown — even after a ridiculous run where he reversed field three times and broke six or seven tackles to score. He was more interested in winning.
The more spectacular moves on the field, the more Sanders remained an even-keel personality in the locker room and a fan favorite. While plenty of NFL stars had a lot to say, Detroit always appreciated the humbleness and quiet nature of their best player.
But it wasn’t just Barry Sanders.
The Lions have had plenty of blue-collar stars back to the glory days of Bobby Layne. Charlie Sanders set a new standard at the tight end position a generation before Barry Sanders, and did so with a quiet grace.
Chris Spielman played with Barry Sanders and was a gritty, blue-collar inside linebacker that is exactly the brand of player the Big Ten has always tried to produce.
Herman Moore caught plenty of touchdown passes, but always had time to talk about his teammates and use his platform to help the community.
Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford had that, too.
It is almost hard to believe that two stars in the social media era could be so reserved and the opposite of flashy. Like Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson could fill a highlight reel with the amazing catches he made on a weekly basis. Stafford, Detroit’s all-time leading passer had dozens of perfect throws to Johnson. Their chemistry kept them feeding off of each other, but also kept each them from become bigger than the other, and more importantly, the team.
Even without Johnson, Stafford continues that today. After big victories, even when he is the obvious star, he credits the defense, the offensive line and the guys catching and running the ball.
Icons like that keep Detroit fans hopeful and give them someone to identify with. It is what has kept the Lions relevant even in the dark times, and what separates Detroit from other sports cities.