King of the jungle After 3 decades of waiting, uncaged Lions, fans let out roar to remember

January 06, 1992|By Mitch Albom | Mitch Albom,Detroit Free Press

PONTIAC, Mich. -- For one thrilling Sunday, it was perfect chaos, all these inspired men doing things they weren't supposed to do, exploding like a silver-and-blue volcano after years of bubbling frustration. They took the ball and scored, they took it and scored again, and again, and again, and again, and when that wasn't enough they sacked the quarterback, they dove on fumbles, they slammed into receivers, they roared and yelped and pounded their collective football fists until all the Dallas Cowboys could do was watch from the turf like some bully who had just been decked by a schoolkid, dazed, defeated, in awe of the fury they had just witnessed.

Who were those guys?

The Detroit Lions?

"Have you ever been involved in a more emotional game than this?" someone asked a beaming Lomas Brown, after Detroit won the biggest -- and only -- NFL playoff game here in more than three decades, 38-6, to advance to the NFC championship game next week at Washington.

"Never! Not high school, not college, not anything!" he screamed. "Everything was clicking! Everyone was so emotional. People say emotion will only take you so far, but you know what? We're all about emotion now. And look where we are!"

Yes, look. The conference championship. One win from the Super Bowl. A team with a losing record last year, a team with an injury list that has more stars than its healthy roster, a team even the fans who buy tickets here had their doubts about -- that team came out and squashed the celebrated Cowboys as if they were a cigarette butt? That team didn't allow a single touchdown? That team, at the final gun, was dancing on the AstroTurf, doing the shimmy, whooping up the jet-engine crowd noise of the Silverdome as the scoreboard flashed "D.C. HERE WE COME!"

Who were those guys?

The Lions?

"We were in a zone!" Brown bellowed as the Detroit locker room filled with TV cameras and curious reporters. "The linemen were in a zone, the defense was in a zone, the receivers were in a zone.

"And that guy," he said, nodding toward Erik Kramer, "he was in a zone of his own."

A zone of his own. What a beautiful caption for the Quarterback From Nowhere. For here was a guy who symbolized this entire raucous afternoon, a backup, a throwaway, a refugee from the Canadian Football League. You are not supposed to be afraid of quarterbacks like this, they are not supposed to beat you, just as the Lions were not supposed to beat anyone important in the playoffs. Doesn't happen, right? And so Dallas, a team a little too full of itself, stuck a chip on its shoulder, offered a defense that focused almost exclusively on running back Barry Sanders, and pretty much dared Kramer to win with the pass.

"Go ahead," the Cowboys seemed to say, "we don't think you can do it."

Well. That's a dangerous thing to tell any man, even a guy who once played in the Potato Bowl. Maybe he's tired of hearing that. Maybe, like his teammates, he's tired of seeing people wave a hand and say "Aw, it's only him." Whatever the reason, the curly-haired Kramer, who has the bemused calm of a surfer in an office building, took the challenge, stepped up to the Cowboys, knocked the chip off their shoulder -- and then popped them in the nose.

How effective? Try three out of every four passes completed. Try three touchdowns. Try franchise playoff records for yardage (341) and completions (29). Try entire scoring drives where every play came off his throwing arm -- and nearly every pass was caught. All day long, he sliced through the Dallas defense, finding Willie Green (eight times), finding Herman Moore (six times), finding Mike Farr (five times), firing the ball as if he'd pulled it from a quiver and shot it with a bow. Most of his completions were 10- to 20-yard chops, exactly what the foolish Dallas defense continued to surrender, over and over. Hey. Cowboys. We said he was a backup. No one said he was stupid.

"Were you surprised they stayed in that same defense all day?" someone asked Kramer.

"Yeah, I was," he said, grinning. "But I'm glad they did."

Is this a perfect hero for these Lions? He's so anonymous that when out-of-town reporters streamed into the locker room, they had no idea what he looked like. And since he was talking to a few local guys, away from his locker, they didn't find him -- the star of the game -- for a good 10 minutes. Perfect.

"Did you wake up feeling something special was going to happen today?" someone asked.

"You know, it's funny," he said. "Usually when I get up on game day, I have jitters in my stomach. Today, for some reason, I didn't feel anything. I got here and it was like just another day. It's kind of strange."

"Did you have any idea what you were doing as it was happening? That you were setting passing records and taking a team to the conference finals that hasn't even had a playoff game since 1983?"

"No, I didn't," he said, "but thanks for clearing it up for me."

And he laughed.

He's going to the conference finals.

Who are these guys?

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