All across Detroit, solidarity through football

In a city mired in 2024 divisions, fans find hope — for their Lions, for their communities and beyond.

Detroit Lions players make their way onto the field before the playoff game against the Rams on Jan. 14. (Emily Elconin for The Washington Post)
18 min

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — After two years of war, the Rev. Daniel Schaicoski has his Sunday routine down. He looks out into the congregation, seeing familiar dread on the new faces dotting the pews of Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church. He sees parishioners, many of them newly arrived from Ukraine, with husbands, fathers and brothers staving off the Russians back home. And he works into his homily a reason for hope.

“Sometimes you have to die to rise again,” he says. “I keep repeating that: After the ashes, my dear, a great country will be born.”

Fifty-five years old. Born in Brazil. Educated in Rome. The Vatican assigned him in 1999 to this church, built with brick and gold, in one of Detroit’s many insular enclaves. Michigan’s largest city, at once a symbol of vitality and failure, is vast and highly diverse; residents speak more than 120 languages and practice at least five major religions.

“A little America,” Schaicoski says. He was determined to fit in when he arrived, so he shrouded himself in the city’s customs, in particular its loyalty to its hapless NFL team, the Lions. He watched his team lose so often, so reliably, that parishioners gave him a T-shirt: “The Lions Make Me Drink.”

Nevertheless, Schaicoski is a man of deep faith, and this frigid Sunday will see the franchise’s first home playoff game since the 1993 season and the first played within the Detroit city limits since 1957.

In this church some five miles from Ford Field, the Lions’ home stadium since 2002, the pews are filled with so many refugees that Schaicoski delivers his mass in Ukrainian. He wants to distract them, offer a momentary break from their fear. So he tells the biblical story of Zacchaeus, a sinner who goes to see Jesus in the present-day West Bank.

In scripture, Zacchaeus climbs a tree for a better view. Jesus notices, orders him down, ends up at the man’s home. Zacchaeus begs for forgiveness. No matter the past, Jesus assures him, God’s blessings lay upon his house.

“Nashi Levy s’ohodni hrayut,” the priest says then, and this draws laughter.

Our Lions are playing today.

Schaicoski asks God to bestow His grace upon them.

TWENTY-NINE MILES FROM FORD FIELD, on the same swath of Earth where the Lions last won a playoff game, there’s a massive Amazon fulfillment center where most of the workforce is robots. An army of delivery trucks awaits dispatch. The Silverdome — where quarterback Erik Kramer stunned the Dallas Cowboys in January 1992, wide receiver Herman Moore torched Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving 1998, Barry Sanders surpassed 2,000 rushing yards in 1997 — is just another memory.

Decades have come and gone, a new year has begun, and is any city more America-in-2024 than Detroit?

In a presidential election year, Michigan is a swing state that went red in 2016, flipped blue in 2020, could go either way in 10 months. President Biden is scheduled to visit this month, an attempt at shoring up support amid the Israel-Gaza war. Along with Detroit’s 50,000 Ukrainians, the metropolitan area is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arab Americans. Not far away live the city’s 70,000 Jewish residents, and though the war is being fought thousands of miles away, the ripples of tension have reached Michigan.

This is the birthplace of American industrialism, which helps explain such cultural diversity. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler built their cars here. But then U.S. manufacturing cratered and a million residents departed, leaving churches, factories and the old train station to decay.

The rest hunkered down, establishing metaphorical walls around many neighborhoods to protect residents and their customs. There’s a literal wall that still stands in the Eight Mile-Wyoming neighborhood, decades after redlining wasn’t enough to physically separate White residents from Blacks. Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the country, with a vast wage disparity maintaining the divide.

Sports are supposed to help with that, but the football team hasn’t exactly done its part. With so many households experiencing struggle, whether global or more personal, the Lions haven’t been a reason for hope. They’re one more source of torment, a cruel birthright passed through the generations.

Rodney Wilson was born and raised here, not long after race riots of the 1960s — residents against police, neighbor against neighbor. His father, a Black Detroiter who lived on the southwest side, used to take his sons to watch the Lions on Sundays. Back then, the Silverdome felt like the one place everyone could gather, wear the silver and blue, feel united as they cheered on Eddie Murray, Billy Sims and Sanders.

Then, like everything else, the bottom dropped out. “Eddie Money” shanked a field goal in the playoffs in January 1984, Sims shredded his knee a few months later, Sanders retired in 1999 at 31. “So much agony,” says Wilson, who also followed his dad into a career at Ford and union leadership. He works at the F-150 plant and is the elected representative for United Auto Workers.

Since that last home playoff game in January 1994, Wilson has married and divorced twice and buried his dad. His 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays came and went, and so did the terrible football. The Lions had 19 losing seasons in that span, 16 with double-digit losses, 12 in which they finished last in the division. Wilson’s doctor told him he should stop watching the Lions on account of his blood pressure, but that wasn’t happening. Most of Wilson’s friends adopted a backup team, the Cowboys or Steelers or Patriots, but he couldn’t do that, either. Each of those franchises won the Super Bowl. Most other NFL teams at least got to one.

The Lions’ primary claim to fame was becoming the first team to go 0-16. That was in 2008, the same year the U.S. economy fell apart. In the years since, the Lions kept losing, rebuilding, blowing it up (including the Silverdome itself in 2017) and starting over.

In 2021, they did it again. Their ninth full-time head coach since 1991 is an ex-Lions player who looks and sounds like a guy who used to build carburetors, not somebody who could alter the direction of a locker room, franchise and city.

Not when they’re this busted.

“This place has been kicked. It’s been battered. It’s been bruised,” Dan Campbell said when the team hired him. “. . . I can give you, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this many games.’ None of that matters, and you guys don’t want to hear it anyway.

“You’ve had enough of that s---.”

TWENTY-SIX MILES FROM FORD FIELD, Phyllis Jackson and Martin Murray just arrived after driving from Cincinnati. They’re more than Gary and Stacey Shuman’s friends, though not exactly family.

“Machatunim,” Gary says, the Yiddish word for the people whose kid is married to yours. They try to meet up every few months, and the Bengals didn’t make the playoffs this year and the Lions did, so … here they are.

“A wonderful distraction,” Gary says. And a respite from the dominant topic in West Bloomfield, Detroit’s largest predominantly Jewish suburb, since Oct. 7. That’s the day Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, initiated a surprise attack on Israel. Twelve hundred dead, at least 240 more taken hostages. Less than half have been released, and unease has spread far beyond the Middle East.

“What bothers me more …” Phyllis starts to say.

“That people just don’t care,” Gary continues.

“ ‘It’s just not our problem,’ ” Phyllis says.

Two weeks after the initial attack, a 40-year-old Detroit woman was found stabbed to death outside her home. She had been president of a local synagogue. Early media reports suggested the killing may have been a hate crime; police have since ruled that out. Still, it sent alarm through the community.

Some tucked in their Star of David necklaces in crowds or left their kippot at home. Gary, the incoming president of his own synagogue, called his rabbi at Temple Shir Shalom.

“Getting killed over this,” he recalls saying, “is a little much.”

“We’re all worried,” Phyllis says.

“The hatred that was beneath the surface,” Gary says, “you can feel it pouring out.”

“And becoming normalized,” Martin says.

A quiet moment, and Gary changes the subject. Sixteen years ago, he never watched the Lions. His son liked football and wanted to hold his bar mitzvah at Ford Field. The facility didn’t host such events, but coming off that 0-16 season, the Lions were offering partial season tickets for less than $300 each. Gary jumped at them.

They soon drafted Matt Stafford with the No. 1 pick and paired him with star wideout Calvin Johnson and fierce defender Ndamukong Suh. It seemed dawn had finally made its way to Detroit.

But the Lions lost 14 games in 2009 and 10 a season later. Suh, who starred in Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” commercial two years after the brand filed for bankruptcy, signed with Miami in 2015. Johnson retired at 30. Detroit traded Stafford to the Rams in 2021, the same year Gary and Stacey’s daughter married Martin and Phyllis’s son. Gary paid extra for his wedding tux to be lined with Lions logos.

Last week, three friends called Gary to ask for one of his two playoff tickets. That’s Stacey’s, he reminded them. Martin and Phyllis bought their own.

“Can’t you tell your wife not to go?” Gary says the freeloaders asked.

“Can’t you just get divorced?” Stacey says as everyone laughs.

A DOZEN MILES FROM FORD FIELD, locals gather at the Islamic Center of America, North America’s largest mosque, for dhuhr, the second of Islam’s five daily prayers.

Volunteer Mirvat Kadouh is here. A casual Lions fan, she made it to one game this season. But she generally tries to avoid crowds, feeling anxious and trapped amid the stares. And that was long before Oct. 7.

In the time since, Kadouh has helped with the mosque’s public relations apparatus, answering an avalanche of calls that often demand condemnation of Middle Eastern violence. There are Palestinians in greater Detroit, but most of Dearborn’s Arab Americans trace their heritage to Lebanon. That didn’t stop a Pennsylvania woman from calling Kadouh to demand a meeting with Hamas, Kadouh says, before scolding her for saying “God bless” at the end of her voice mail greeting.

This is two decades after this community, in the aftermath of 9/11, became the nerve center of American xenophobia. Activists came here to burn the Quran, shout slurs, intimidate locals. In October, shortly after Israel declared war, a Chicago woman and her son were attacked in an alleged hate crime. The 6-year-old boy died after being stabbed 26 times.

The instinct here, Kadouh says, is to draw inward. Neighbors watch out for neighbors. But venturing outside the Dearborn bubble? “Putting your life in the hands of God,” she says.

“Whenever anything happens, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re scared; we’re not safe anywhere,’ ” she says over a lunch of tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves at Country Chicken, a family-owned Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn. “It doesn’t matter. Anywhere.

Immediately after the Hamas attacks, the Islamic Center went into lockdown and hired two full-time security guards. There was an interfaith program scheduled with Detroit-area Jewish and Christian schools, and at first Kadouh wanted to cancel it.

But that could have led to more division, speculation, fear.

“We need to portray the right way,” she says.

So volunteers made falafel sandwiches and hired a calligrapher to demonstrate Arabic symbols. They discussed the five pillars of Islam and taught kids about the hijab. Students seemed genuinely curious, she says, and open-minded.

She’s glad she faced this fear, though others remain. She would love to go downtown in a few hours, watch the Lions, celebrate a team that, Kadouh says, is soothing Detroit’s soul.

But …

“With all that? No. No, I wouldn’t,” she says, imagining it. “There are too many people. That stadium is huge. Nobody is safe; I don’t care how much security you have. How safe could it possibly be?”

She will be watching, though.

“We’re jumping on that wagon,” she says. “If the Lions can get to the Super Bowl, maybe even the Middle East has a chance.”

THE SILVERDOME WAS almost 40 miles from Allen Park, and after a loss, the drive home seemed to take hours. Ellen Trudell’s dad, Norman, took her to their first Lions game when she was a baby, and attending the team’s Thanksgiving Day game became a family tradition. Norman drove there and back in the family’s GMC Jimmy, built just a few miles away by the company that hired him in 1972.

“Why?” he asked the men on the radio, their analysis of the latest humiliation and the soundtrack of so many drives.

Norman could be a hard man, callused by years of hoisting 80-pound bumpers at the Cadillac plant. Football was his weekly reward — an escape from the assembly line and, later, economic anxiety. He got laid off a few times, and some friends lost their homes. GM went bankrupt in 2009, the second of the so-called “Big Three” plants to do so.

Regardless of what was going on at work, he could always watch the Lions. But if they were losing, he would change the channel, leave the room, grieve in silence.

Now it was Ellen who asked: Why? Why couldn’t they watch the fourth quarter? Why did he care so much? Why wasn’t the team better?

Because they’re not blitzing! he would finally say. The defense is crap! So is the blocking! Too many turnovers!

Ellen wouldn’t realize this until later, but these were therapy sessions in disguise. She was showing empathy, asking her dad to vent his thoughts and be vulnerable, and a rotten team became the backbone of their father-daughter connection.

Years passed. Losses accumulated, including nine straight on Thanksgiving. They shared it, talked about it, shrugged their shoulders season after season. Then they talked about other things. Ellen’s competitive cheerleading. Her college aspirations. Her future.

“A front-row seat to the emotion,” she says now. “I was able to understand what this means to people: The Lions get right up under your skin.”

She was 7 when her father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He was in his early 50s, but his cardiologist said he had the had the heart of an 88-year-old. Ellen was a teenager when it stopped, causing him to fall at work and hit his head. She visited him at the hospital, they watched the Lions, and afterward they could talk about how he was really feeling.

One day she called to say the Lions had offered her an internship. Then a job in their communications department. She didn’t wait to share these accomplishments, because when a parent is aging or ill, it tends to fast-track their kids’ ambitions — the experiences they want to share before the hourglass empties.

“When you’re an only child,” she says, “it’s hard not to think about the things you haven’t done.”

She kept waiting for the Lions to do their part, but in case they never did, Ellen established a new tradition: walking to Section 317 before home games to greet her parents and snap a picture.

In 2022, Norman again went into heart failure. She visited, and on Sundays she turned on the game. He changed the channel. When she tried talking about the team, always their icebreaker, he changed the subject.

That had never happened. That’s how Ellen knew it was bad.

AT FORD FIELD, with kickoff against the Rams less than an hour away, fans push in from the cold. Some are here to boo Stafford, traded three years ago before winning a Super Bowl with the Rams. Others plan to cheer him because he spent 12 seasons with the Lions and the poor guy did all he could.

Thirty miles from here, Rodney Wilson has wings and pizza and pop for his work buddies at Ford. Daniel Schaicoski, the priest at Immaculate Conception, is visiting parishioners at home in Shelby Township, ready to follow the score on his phone. In the shadow of the Ford plant on the Rouge River, Mirvat Kadouh is blanketed in safety, surrounded by family and food.

The Shumans and their machatunim are hurrying toward the stadium, maybe having ordered one too many martinis on Campus Martius Park. They’re on foot with a few hundred others. Some walk down Griswold or Clifford streets, past Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, where Samantha Woll worked.

“We come from all different parts of the city,” Gary says, wearing the jersey of the player traded for Stafford, quarterback Jared Goff. “And no one cares.”

Twenty minutes before kickoff, a woman in a bright blue dress leaves the press box and enters an elevator. It may be the busiest night ever at Ford Field, but tradition is tradition. So Ellen Trudell, who now oversees the franchise’s corporate communications, takes an escalator to the stadium’s northeast side. There they are, Norman and Karin, sitting in the same aisle seats they have occupied since 2002.

“This is a big night,” Norman says. He spent most of 2022 in the hospital, but after his medication changed a year ago, he did something that told his daughter he would be okay. He asked about the Lions. They started 1-6 last season before players bought into Campbell’s gruff-but-emotional message, winning eight of their final 10 games and narrowly missing the playoffs. This season they went 12-5, won their division and earned this home playoff game.

Ellen removes her phone. The family smiles as she snaps a photo of a scene they had long imagined.

“Love you!” Norman says.

“Love you, too,” Ellen says, starting her walk back to the press box.

“Go Lions!” Norman says.

Five minutes to kickoff, a marching band performs as the lights dim. A moment such as this is a promise every fan base makes, though it’s an impossible one to keep. The roster, message and time must be right, and if it happens once, it may not happen again.

So a man from Detroit’s east side lifts his phone, his cousin’s face on the screen, so they can watch together. A dad holds his daughter, a toddler, and points to the field from Section 122 for the first of a zillion memories, for better or worse. A 44-year-old from Barton records a video from a standing-room-only platform, saying if the Lions wait as long between home playoff games as they did last time, he will be almost 80 for the next one.

Detroit gets the ball first, and running back David Montgomery proceeds to slice through the Rams’ defense. Goff finds Josh Reynolds on a pass near the end zone, and a wave of high-fives sweeps across the stadium, jumping across rows and sections, race and class.

Montgomery charges toward the goal line, drawing cheers as loud as a military jet engine, but the Rams stop him. Fans remain on their feet. They can feel it coming: an early touchdown, a home playoff win, a chance — an actual chance! — at a playoff win, a path to the NFC championship game, maybe more. “God has heard our prayer,” Schaicoski will send in a text message that night.

For now, all eyes are on Montgomery as he takes the ball and lunges toward the goal line, 66,000 people here and throughout the city waiting just a little longer, together, to explode.