June 27, 2009 at 1:00 am

Terry Foster

Lions coach shows his young players the city's spirit, character

Lions rookies Louis Delmas, left, and Brandon Pettigrew sign autographs for workers at the Dearborn Truck Assembly Plant. (Special to The Detroit News)

Lions coach Jim Schwartz didn't want television cameras around. He simply wanted to do his civic duty and move on. But people talk, and his little secret got out.

Schwartz didn't end minicamp this week with a morning practice session. He continued it by taking rookies Matthew Stafford, Louis Delmas and Brandon Pettigrew inside the Dearborn Truck Assembly Plant, where they sat for two hours and signed autographs, took photos and passed out Lions gear to surprised workers. He wanted this to be part of his players' education on the NFL and the city of Detroit.

Schwartz is a different cat. After a month of planning, he took his high-profile rookies to meet the rank-and-file. His goal was to do more than just spread good will to Ford employees. He wanted his rookies to touch hands with regular people in Detroit. He wanted them to see the hardened Rouge plant that has pumped out thousands of cars and trucks over the years.

"The other day, Dominic Raiola talked about how he fell in love with the city," Schwartz said by phone from Maryland. "He said how much he loves the people and I thought it was important for these guys to experience the same feel and things like that. We did not want cameras there because we thought it would have ruined the whole dynamic of it."

Real people

Schwartz, 43, wants his rookies grounded.

Stafford signed the richest rookie contract in NFL history. Delmas and Pettigrew have not signed contracts, but it is safe to say they will make more than any of the 500 people who carted off Lions hats, coffee mugs, photos and autographs.

"We wanted them to know who they were playing for," Schwartz said. "We wanted them to meet the people who were paying their paychecks."

Rob Webber, plant manager for the Dearborn Truck Assembly plant, said workers were surprised by the visit and that it boosted morale.

"I am sure it did," he said. "They were very excited about that. But I think it did as much for the players, too. They seemed excited about meeting everybody also."

Schwartz recognizes professional athletes often get lost in their own world.

Lions linebacker Larry Foote admitted it happened to him after he left the University of Michigan to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although he got involved in the community, he felt a wall had been built between himself and the fans. That wall was made up of jewelry and nice clothes and big cars and trucks.

He has since torn down that wall and is establishing a foundation to help Detroit community projects and perhaps start a charter school in Detroit. Hopefully the current rookies will follow suit.

Schwartz wants to make Detroit his home. He grew up in blue-collar Baltimore, where he was surrounded by some of the toughest people in the world -- cops and football players.

"I respect hard-working people," Schwartz said. "Most of my friends I grew up with did not go to college. They were all blue-collar guys. They were hard working and blue collar. Look, I have lived all over the country. You see people with different mentalities in different cities. It does not take long to realize that if you feel good about hard work, you have a kinship with these people."

Fitting in

Schwartz has gone to charity events set up by the Lions. But during Game 7 of the Red Wings-Ducks series, he wanted to experience Detroit fans. So he sneaked into a sports bar and tried to watch the game incognito. It didn't work. People recognized him, and the next thing Schwartz knew he was being admitted into Detroit culture. They talked Lions and Wings, and Schwartz liked it.

He better understood our pain. And he got a clear vision of how badly people want the Lions to win. This is no longer just a job for him. He met new friends, and he wants to make them happy.

"We plan on being in Detroit for a while," he said. "When my kids grow up, I want them to tell people they are from Detroit."

That is an important statement. People from Detroit want to be loved, and they like to show newcomers what their city is all about. Schwartz has broken down barriers simply because he is a Lions coach.

He broke down more when he saw workers wearing Ford F-150 truck caps. He mentioned that he owns a 1994 F-150 with more than 200,000 miles. A small admission like that got the conversation going and drew a lot of smiles. It surprised Schwartz, and he spoke about an old truck with new friends.

"People were really excited about that," he said.


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