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. He’d hear the future Hall of Famer’s impassioned speeches — part gladiator, part preacher — and he’d marvel at the response it elicited from his Baltimore Ravens’ teammates.
And until recently, he’d think the same thing you might think about Burleson here in Detroit.
“Everybody says. ‘Oh, you’ve gotta be writing this stuff,’ like there’s a secret black book of all these inspirational speeches somewhere,” chuckled Burleson, who’ll 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 ESPN’s 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 — it’s in his voice, the tears in his eyes — and that’s 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 today’s NFL, with film crews everywhere and players “mic’d up” and YouTube only a click away, “Any Given Sunday” hasn’t just become an everyday occurrence.
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The pregame hype has become part of the spectacle, too. And in Detroit, it’s typically Burleson, one of the team’s most charismatic and vocal leaders, who takes center stage just before the curtain goes up, though it’s more of a drum roll than a dress rehearsal.
“The guys, they’re 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. You’re stretched out. You’re ready. But you’re 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 blood’s pumping and you’re like, ‘I’m 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 isn’t 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 wasn’t until after they’d 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.
“You’ve gotta come up with something hype, but it has to be clever,” said Burleson, who credits his love for hip-hop — he’ll kill time freestyling with teammates in the locker room — for much of his creativity. “Seriously, it’s like being in a rap battle with these guys. If you say something that’s clever, they’re like, ‘Ohhhhhh!’ I’ve 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 aren’t scripted days in advance. No one had any idea the game would be played in a winter storm, “so it’s 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 we’re 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 doesn’t 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, I’m a grown man, OK? It gets a little crazy out there.”
Then there’s 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 — it’s 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, it’s 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 there’s safety Louis Delmas, who starts talking the minute he steps on the field and rarely stops. He’s 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 it’s as if he’s speaking in tongues sometimes. As Burleson teased Delmas while lining up for the national anthem on Thanksgiving, “Luckily nobody understands what you’re saying except for people that know you.”
The speech you typically don’t 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 Stafford’s message: “In a game like this, everybody talks about the team that wants it the most is gonna win the game, right? It’s 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, let’s 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 he’s “never been a rah-rah guy” — “I’m 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, I’m not Ray. I’m trying to make sense when I talk. There’s other guys out there where you hear their pregame speeches and don’t really … it’s just kind of screaming. I don’t know if one guy listens to mine or the whole team or nobody. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s just a way to get together right before we go out.”
Maybe so, but ask Burleson about it and he’ll tell you a different story.
“He’s coming with it now, and it’s a lot different than when he first started,” he said of Stafford. “Now whatever he needs to say, however he’s feeling, he says it. Which is the best way. That’s what I want to hear. I don’t care how it comes out. I don’t care if it’s smooth, I don’t care if it’s rough, I don’t care if you cuss. But if it’s organic and it’s emotional, that’s the best thing.”
And that’s what it’s all about, he says. A speech won’t win a game, no. But in this league, where the talent’s a draw and everyone’s looking for an edge, that last word needs to be heard.
“I want it to be a powerful moment,” Burleson said. “That’s the idea.”