Death is not supposed to play favorites. Anguish is supposed to spread itself around. So you can understand why last week, after burying teammate Eric Andolsek in a Louisiana cemetery, several Detroit Lion players loosened their neckties, looked to the sky and said, "Enough already."
Enough indeed. For the third time in seven months, fate had taken a horrible bite out of the Lions. They have become tragedy's favorite team. How much more can they take?
Last November, in a game against the Los Angeles Rams, starting guard Mike Utley, 26, fell on his head while pass blocking and was paralyzed from the chest down. In May, Len Fontes, 54, a popular assistant coach and brother of head coach Wayne Fontes, died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. On June 23, Andolsek, 25, another starting guard, was killed when a truck veered off the road in front of his house in Thibodaux, La., and struck him at full speed.
"I feel like we're cursed or something," says a stunned Lomas Brown, Detroit's All-Pro tackle. "We've spent so much time at hospitals and cemeteries this past year. You keep thinking, What's next? Who's next? It's frightening."
It's also especially disturbing in Detroit, where folks see enough senseless death and look to their sports teams for relief. True, for years the Lions broke more hearts than they comforted. Blown draft choices. No-name coaches. Seven seasons without a winning record.
But last season all that changed. Behind an improved defense and the stellar running of Barry Sanders, Detroit began to win. And it kept winning. It won its division. It won its first playoff game in 34 years. Suddenly, in January—a month that Detroiters usually spend counting the days until the Tigers begin spring training—the Lions were in the NFC Championship Game, playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl. ROAR RESTORED! the banners read.
Who knew that just as the Lions would right their ship, fate would try to tip it over again? A more somber question: Has fate succeeded? Utley's paralysis was a horrible jolt, but Detroit overcame it, using his courage as inspiration. Besides, as Kevin Glover, the Lions' veteran center, points out, "We could still talk to Mike. He was still alive."
Then came two funerals in two months. Len Fontes's teaching skills and dry wit were cherished by both players and fellow coaches. His death was devastating to Wayne, who arrived before the paramedics that morning and tried in vain to revive his brother. And Andolsek's death has left everyone numb. He was a beloved player in the locker room, partial to big denim overalls to cover his squat, thick-necked body.
Now the resilience of the Lions will be tested in a way that all their old fumbles and missed tackles never tested them. "You know what I tell myself?" says Brown. "That this is God's way of showing people that being an athlete doesn't mean anything. Bad things can happen to athletes for no reason, same way they do for everyone else. With Mike, Len and Eric, all of them, that's the lesson."
Consider it learned in Detroit. The hard way.
At a minicamp in May, Utley could still get a laugh out of Brown.
Mitch Albom is a Detroit Free Press sports columnist.