December 16, 2013 at 3:01 am

John Niyo

For Lions players, pregame hype is more than just talk

Lions safety Louis Delmas starts talking the minute he steps on the field and rarely stops. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Detroit Like most NFL fans and yes, the players can be fans, too Nate Burleson used to watch the pregame show that was Ray Lewis with rapt attention. Hed hear the future Hall of Famers impassioned speeches part gladiator, part preacher and hed marvel at the response it elicited from his Baltimore Ravens teammates.

And until recently, hed think the same thing you might think about Burleson here in Detroit.

Everybody says. Oh, youve gotta be writing this stuff, like theres a secret black book of all these inspirational speeches somewhere, chuckled Burleson, wholl be the man in the middle tonight when the Lions break down their pregame huddle before a sold-out crowd at Ford Field and an audience of perhaps 15 million TV viewers on ESPNs Monday Night Football.

And I used to think that of Ray. Man, that stuff is so powerful, he had to have practiced it in the mirror all week. But I know how emotionally attached he is to the experience its in his voice, the tears in his eyes and thats as real as it gets.

The myth and the reality surrounding the pregame speech in football is as old as the game itself, from Knute Rockne to Vince Lombardi to Reverend Ray. But in todays NFL, with film crews everywhere and players micd up and YouTube only a click away, Any Given Sunday hasnt just become an everyday occurrence.

Let's get it started

The pregame hype has become part of the spectacle, too. And in Detroit, its typically Burleson, one of the teams most charismatic and vocal leaders, who takes center stage just before the curtain goes up, though its more of a drum roll than a dress rehearsal.

The guys, theyre looking for something in that moment, Burleson explains. Before a game, you take everything you need to take. You take energy drinks. You take pain pills. Youre stretched out. Youre ready. But youre looking for that one thing to kind of set you over the edge. Just a little spark right before the game.

And then somebody comes up with some gasoline and Whooosh! all of a sudden your adrenaline is flowing, your bloods pumping and youre like, Im ready to run through a brick wall right now!

Of course, sometimes the wall wins. In fact, the wall is undefeated: Somebody always loses, with the exception of the occasional NFC North game. And as the Lions Reggie Bush was quick to point out this week, A speech isnt gonna make you go out and score 50 points.

Still, he admits, it does count for something. And there was something about that Super Bowl run he made with the New Orleans Saints back in 2009. Quarterback Drew Brees and his teammates had fans mystified with their pregame cadence call that year, one that was inspired by an offseason visit with Marines at Guantanamo Bay. It wasnt until after theyd won it all that Brees finally explained it, teaching a group of fans who packed a New Orleans bar after the championship parade.

The Lions might have some familiar refrains in their huddles, but each week the message is tailored to fit.

Youve gotta come up with something hype, but it has to be clever, said Burleson, who credits his love for hip-hop hell kill time freestyling with teammates in the locker room for much of his creativity. Seriously, its like being in a rap battle with these guys. If you say something thats clever, theyre like, Ohhhhhh! Ive literally had guys flipping out, saying, Did you write that?!?! When did you come up with that?

The one last week in Philadelphia is one of his favorites. And further proof these things arent scripted days in advance. No one had any idea the game would be played in a winter storm, so its not like I was practicing that at the hotel, checking the Doppler radar.

But as shown on the Lions team website this week, Burleson told his teammates, The only weather that matters is whether they want it more than us, you know that! We came to Philly to get what we want and were headed back to the D!

Then he pointed to the sky and added, You know how good all this is gonna look on the highlight tape?

It doesnt always sound as good as it looks. Burleson says he gets the occasional phone call from his mother about his pirate mouth and has to explain, Mom, Im a grown man, OK? It gets a little crazy out there.

Then theres simple fact that not every B-Rabbit is cut out for the 8 Mile stage. While Burleson usually handles the final pregame huddle on the field sometimes linebacker Stephen Tulloch or one of the other captains jumps in its just one of many prior to kickoff.

In fact, the one thing the NFL and your day job probably have in common is this: There are too many meetings. So during the week in Allen Park, its Dominic Raiola, the longest-tenured Lion, taking charge at practice. Each position group also has an assistant coach or a player breaking it down before games.

And then theres safety Louis Delmas, who starts talking the minute he steps on the field and rarely stops. Hes always in the middle of the first gathering after the Lions team stretch. He yells, he screams a revivalist not unlike a young Lewis and he inevitably loses the helmet off the top of his head. (Every time, Burleson laughs.) His teammates nod and respond, but they also joke that its as if hes speaking in tongues sometimes. As Burleson teased Delmas while lining up for the national anthem on Thanksgiving, Luckily nobody understands what youre saying except for people that know you.

Growing voice

The speech you typically dont see is the one quarterback Matthew Stafford delivers in the locker room before the team comes out of the tunnel.

In Philadelphia, this was a portion of Staffords message: In a game like this, everybody talks about the team that wants it the most is gonna win the game, right? Its the team that needs it. And we need it. Hey, we got an opportunity, man. Grab that by the throat. One play at a time, lets take that back to Detroit with us.

Now, again, all they brought back from Philly was a bag of wet laundry, thanks to that second-half collapse in the snow. But you get the idea, at least. And while Stafford admits hes never been a rah-rah guy Im still not, he adds he has learned to play the part as he has grown into a leader for this franchise.

As the week goes on you kind of get an idea what might be appropriate that week, something to say, he told me. But I just kind of let it happen. I mean, Im not Ray. Im trying to make sense when I talk. Theres other guys out there where you hear their pregame speeches and dont really its just kind of screaming. I dont know if one guy listens to mine or the whole team or nobody. Frankly, it doesnt matter to me. Its just a way to get together right before we go out.

Maybe so, but ask Burleson about it and hell tell you a different story.

Hes coming with it now, and its a lot different than when he first started, he said of Stafford. Now whatever he needs to say, however hes feeling, he says it. Which is the best way. Thats what I want to hear. I dont care how it comes out. I dont care if its smooth, I dont care if its rough, I dont care if you cuss. But if its organic and its emotional, thats the best thing.

And thats what its all about, he says. A speech wont win a game, no. But in this league, where the talents a draw and everyones looking for an edge, that last word needs to be heard.

I want it to be a powerful moment, Burleson said. Thats the idea.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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