Sylvia Swarthout said being a Lions cheerleader was one of the best times of her life. Her dream is to see the Lions win a Super Bowl.

Sylvia Swarthout said being a Lions cheerleader was one of the best times of her life. Her dream is to see the Lions win a Super Bowl.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Detroit Lions fans remain faithful through the years

By: C & G Sports Staff | C&G Newspapers | Published September 11, 2019

 Gary Whitcher proudly displays his Lions-themed garage at his home in Eastpointe. Whitcher, who also has a tattoo of the Lions logo, guaranteed the Lions would win their division this season.

Gary Whitcher proudly displays his Lions-themed garage at his home in Eastpointe. Whitcher, who also has a tattoo of the Lions logo, guaranteed the Lions would win their division this season.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Cory Schlesinger was a member of the Detroit Lions from 1995 to 2006 and has seen firsthand the passion of Lions fans. The former fullback is now a teacher at Allen Park High.

Cory Schlesinger was a member of the Detroit Lions from 1995 to 2006 and has seen firsthand the passion of Lions fans. The former fullback is now a teacher at Allen Park High.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Sylvia Swarthout, middle row, far right, joined the Detroit Lions cheer team in 1963. The Hazel Park resident has been a loyal fan her entire life.

Sylvia Swarthout, middle row, far right, joined the Detroit Lions cheer team in 1963. The Hazel Park resident has been a loyal fan her entire life.

Photo provided by Sylvia Swarthout

 Detroit Lions fan Mark Boettcher is pictured with the team’s mascot, Roary. One of Boettcher’s favorite memories of being a Lions fan is when the organization won its last playoff game in 1992.

Detroit Lions fan Mark Boettcher is pictured with the team’s mascot, Roary. One of Boettcher’s favorite memories of being a Lions fan is when the organization won its last playoff game in 1992.

Photo provided by Mark Boettcher

METRO DETROIT — You can say the Detroit Lions haven’t won a Super Bowl; you can say the Lions haven’t won a division title since 1993; you can even say the Lions have made the playoffs just three times since 2000.

The one thing you can’t question, however, is the loyalty of the fan base. From suffering through a 0-16 season to gut-wrenching playoff losses, Lions fans have continued to support their hometown team through it all.

The following are some stories of those who are proud to call themselves Lions fans and even one who donned the Honolulu blue and silver.

For even more fan stories, visit candgnews.com.


‘When we do, it’s going to be a heck of a party’
Cory Schlesinger can vouch for the city of Detroit and its fan base. As a member of the Lions from 1995 to 2006, the bruising fullback was able to experience firsthand what playing for Detroit fans was really like.

“That’s the best part of playing for the Detroit Lions, is the fans have really always been there for us even though our record has not been great,” Schlesinger said. “Haven’t been a Super Bowl team, but I’ll tell you what: The stadium, the fans in Michigan and Detroit, they are always encouraging the team, they’re always supporting the team.”

Schlesinger tries to stay as connected with the franchise as possible.

In this past year’s NFL draft, he announced one of the Lions’ draft picks and hasn’t had much of a problem interacting with fans of the team.

“They’re great around here, and I’m never one to really shy away from taking a picture or signing an autograph or just shake hands with somebody, because they gave me the job that I had, and I guess they appreciated what I did when I was out on the field,” Schlesinger said.  

Like many Lions fans, Schlesinger is also anxiously waiting for a Super Bowl title. He knows it will come and hopes it is sooner rather than later.

“I want that Super Bowl ring coming to Detroit, that Lombardi Trophy coming to Detroit. When we do, it’s going to be a heck of a party,” Schlesinger said.


‘They’re my team. They’ll be my team forever’
Hazel Park resident Sylvia Swarthout has been a fan of the team her entire life. For a stretch, Swarthout was there for every home game in a unique capacity.

“I was one of the team’s original cheerleaders in the ’60s,” Swarthout said.

The Lions started with five cheerleaders in 1962. One year later, Swarthout made six.

“The team officials said they’d give it a try, but they weren’t going to invest any money until they could see what we could do,” Swarthout said. “The whole thing went over really well.”

Swarthout remained with the group until 1974 — when the team played at Tiger Stadium. The team moved to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975.

The Lions have played their home games indoors since then, but during Swarthout’s tenure, the cheer squad performed outside — even in the winter.

“We wore royal blue tights in the winter. That was about it,” Swarthout said. “We were cold. We just kept moving around. At halftime, we’d go into an office and get hot chocolate, get warmed up.

“Being on the field was an amazing experience. It was great to be right there with the crowd. We’d come out of the dugout before the players would (take the field). I’m only 5 feet tall. When you go out there and look at the players, they’re all so big.”

Following the team’s move to Pontiac, there was no official cheer team. The Lions wouldn’t have their own cheer team again until 2017.

“That was one of the best times of my life,” Swarthout said. “I’ve always loved football. It’s my passion. I still have my uniform. I’d love to be able to find some of the other girls.”

Her fondest memories of the times on the sideline involve a heated rival.

“I love beating the Packers,” Swarthout said. “That was during a time when all the teams played outside. I think that if the Lions played outside now, they might be better. They’re too soft.”

Swarthout’s allegiance has never waned despite the team’s lack of success. She’s hopeful the team can one day be the last squad standing.

The Lions are one of four teams — along with the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans — that have never played in a Super Bowl.

“And I wanna be there when they do,” she said. “They’re my team. They’ll be my team forever.”


‘More lives than a freakin’ cat’
Kirk Chubka still remains loyal to the franchise.

“This is where I live and this is the team that I’ve got,” he said. “People ask me if I’m into fantasy football. They ask me who my team is, and I say the Lions. My fantasy is that they win the Super Bowl. I follow the Lions; I get all behind them and I cheer for them. When they lose, I die. I’ve got more lives than a freakin’ cat.”

Chubka’s fondest memory of the team dates back to the fall of 1974.

Fresh off of graduating from Warren Cousino, Chubka was taking classes two days a week at Macomb Community College. Chubka’s uncle, Richard Oszustowicz, had been a Minnesota resident since 1970 and was in town on business. But Oszustowicz’s intentions on that trip were more than just work-related.

As a graduation present to Chubka, Oszustowicz hand-delivered a ticket to see the Lions take on the Minnesota Vikings in Minnesota Oct. 20.

Born and raised in Hamtramck, Oszustowicz came to know a couple of Lions players at that time. So on the Saturday before the game, Chubka and his uncle took a trip to the Lions’ team hotel in Minneapolis to meet guard Bob Kowalkowski and center Ed Flanagan.

When the Lions battled with the Vikings during Week 6 of the 1974-75 NFL season, the two teams created a memory that Chubka will remember for the rest of his life. The Lions beat the Super Bowl-bound Vikings 20-16 behind running back Altie Taylor’s two touchdowns and two field goals from kicker Errol Mann.

With the win, the Lions broke a 13-game losing streak against the Vikings.

Chubka’s passion for the Lions still burns as bright today as it did in the fall of 1974.

“For a team that won when I was only 1 year old in 1957, I want them to win more than anybody else,” he said.


‘They said my blood was blue and silver’
Eastpointe resident Gary Whitcher’s fandom started at around 6 or 7 years old when he would go over to his uncle’s house to watch the games every Sunday.

From that point on, he’s been a diehard Lions fan. It’s gotten to the point that his Sundays rest on what the team does. If the Lions lose, he said he won’t watch sports the rest of the day.

“I always tell people, ‘Yeah, I had to go get a blood test, and I had to go to a specialist.’ And they’re like, ‘Why? What happened?’ ‘Man, they said my blood was blue and silver,”’ Whitcher said.

With the home opener just around the corner, the Eastpointe resident had some predictions for his hometown team.

“I guarantee the Lions will win the division this year. Guaranteed,” Whitcher said.  

Winning the division is one thing, but he’s been waiting for a Super Bowl.  

“I’m a diehard. I want them to win a Super Bowl before I die, just like a lot of people,” Whitcher said.

Whether this is finally the year or not, Whitcher will still be rooting for his beloved Lions every week.

“I just keep on coming. If it’s an addiction or what, I don’t know what it is, but I just want them. I’m dying for them to do good and win the Super Bowl,” he said.

UPDATE: After the Lions and Arizona Cardinals tied in Week 1, Whitcher said, "Heartbreaker ... but they will still win the division."


A reason for remaining loyal
Clinton Township resident Mark Boettcher is a Lions season ticket holder who has been a fan of the team pretty much his whole life.

However, being a fan doesn’t preclude Boettcher from having a sense of humor about the struggles the organization has had over the years.

After informing his wife that he had fallen asleep at a game, Boettcher said, “She wondered aloud why I would spend so much money for such expensive naps.”

Boettcher has also had fun at the Lions’ expense. When giving tickets away, he tells people, “I know you’ll go, but I make no promises that the Lions will show up.”

But despite the jabs, he has remained a fan of the team over the years.

“The thing is, the reason why we watch sports — look at what happened with the Cubs,” Boettcher said. “Look at what happened with the Red Sox, look at what happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers — organizations with decades and decades, or practically a century with the Cubs, of misery, and all of them have won recently. … Those types of organizations create that type of hope in someone like myself.”

Boettcher recalled what it was like when the Lions won their last playoff game in 1992 against the Dallas Cowboys.

“I’ve never been in a stadium louder — not for any other NFL games, not for any World Cup events that I’ve attended,” Boettcher said. “That stadium that day, that experience, that playoff win, without a doubt, was the best Lions fan experience that I’ve had.”
 

‘This is a football town’
Sylvan Lake resident Al Nyquist recently turned 70 years old. For the vast majority of those years, he’s been a Lions fan.

Nyquist said he “inherited” his fandom from his dad, Floyd.

He said being fans of the team “kind (of) brought us close together.”

“I learned a lot about the game from the kind (of) comments that he made and the way he watched the game,” Nyquist said. “When I was young, he had season tickets. That’s when they were playing at Briggs Stadium before it became Tiger Stadium. … I got to go with (him) a couple times when I was little, and that was really a thrill. Even though it was cold as could be out there under the open air at the stadium, it was still something to see it live, as opposed to an old black and white TV back in the ’50s.”

When his dad got older, Nyquist said, he would plan visits with him on Sundays.

“We would watch the games together, even as his health was failing,” Nyquist said. “We always had that in common.”

Although his dad never got to see the Lions play in a Super Bowl, Nyquist still could.

“I think this is a football town, compared to all the other sports they have,” Nyquist said. “I think if the Lions got into a Super Bowl, it’d just be the greatest place in the world to live.”
 

A family connection
Troy Athens football coach Billy Keenist Jr. has had an up close and personal look at the human side of the Lions.

His dad is currently the team historian, which is a role he took on after being the organization’s vice president of communications for a number of years.

Keenist said one of his dad’s best friends was former coach Rod Marinelli, who was let go after the team became the first in NFL history to go winless back in 2008.

That kind of connection to the franchise helps give Keenist a different perspective.

“Rod and my dad were as close as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Keenist said. “So when he got fired, everybody’s like, ‘He had to go.’ But then my dad lost one of his best friends. … It’s a unique perspective to see how professional football works, but also to see that these are human beings, and they have lives and different things like that.”

Keenist said his dad tells the story of him coming home from school one day crying because kids were making fun of him due to his dad’s employment with the Lions. Despite what he endured as a child, Keenist said Lions supporters are “great fans.”

He discussed where the Lions making a Super Bowl ranks among things he would most like to see.

“The No. 1 thing I’d like to see in the world of sports is for Troy Athens football to make the playoffs and win a state title,” Keenist said. “But a very, very close second would be (for) the Lions (to) win the Super Bowl. I’ve been through so much with this team, and to see them just make a Super Bowl would be out of this world.”

 
‘I’ll be a fan till the day I die. Regardless of what they do’
Wilma D’Anna moved from Caseville to Ferndale in 1956. During the 1957 Lions season, she and her late husband, Joe D’Anna, went to every home game at Briggs Stadium.

On Nov. 17, 1957, the Lions played the San Francisco 49ers in Detroit. D’Anna remembers the cold weather most during the Lions’ 31-10 victory. D’Anna, seated right behind the bench, had a great view of some of her favorite players, including quarterback Bobby Layne. Layne threw for one touchdown that day behind 250 passing yards.

“We had rain, sleet and snow that day, and they were freezing,” D’Anna said. “They were out there shivering with these big coats on — they were still cold.”

Lions football became almost like religion in D’Anna’s household. The home game against the Green Bay Packers each season would always fall on Thanksgiving. If Wilma and Joe went down to the game, Joe’s best man’s mother would babysit the kids and have dinner ready when they got home from the game.

“I could handle that,” D’Anna said with a laugh.

When others went to the game and D’Anna stayed home, dinner would not be started until the football game was completed. D’Anna did not let anything deter her from watching the Lions.

Now, over 60 years later, D’Anna still watches the Lions on Sundays, and she is just as passionate as she was during the 1957 season.

“I’ll be a fan till the day I die,” she said. “Regardless of what they do.”

When asked why she thinks Detroiters are still passionate about the Lions after all these years, D’Anna said it’s something that they’re born with.

“It’s in their blood,” she said. “We’ve got great fans here, win or lose. It’s just something that’s in their blood; they don’t give up.”


Players worth watching
Although the Lions haven’t always had a lot of success in the record books, the franchise has had some exciting players over the years.

Some of those players have helped provide entertainment for Livonia resident Ami Sardesai.

“It was fun watching Barry Sanders for years,” Sardesai said. “Watching Scott Mitchell, Herman Moore, Brett Perriman back in the ’90s — watching Stafford, Calvin Johnson over the last decade, that’s been fun. The Lions have had some players that are worth rooting for; it’s been fun to watch at times. I just accept the fact the team’s not (going to) win. But I’m not (going to) find any other team to root for. I’m a Lions fan all the way.”