Lions owner and chairman William Clay Ford, right, shares a laugh with former Lions linebacker Joe Schmidt before the start of a game at Ford Field. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)
We asked him about his legacy once, and this was more than a few years ago now, back when William Clay Ford Sr. was still seen and heard publicly with any sort of regularity.
The octogenarian owner of the Lions was in his office at the team’s headquarters in Allen Park, where he’d just finished watching his team wrap up its final offseason practice.
Matthew Stafford, the new quarterback, the one he’d just handed a record-setting rookie contract, looked good, better than the rest. And Jim Schwartz, the new coach, the 15th that Ford Sr. had hired or promoted in his 45-plus years as a member of one of pro sports’ most exclusive fraternities, seemed like a whip-smart change of pace.
But the question had to be asked, given Ford Sr.’s advanced age and his franchise’s most recent football follies, culminating in that infamous winless season in 2008. And so it was asked, in what ended up being his last extensive interview as the Lions’ proud patriarch, in June 2009.
After all those years and all those losses, did he ever pause to wonder how he’d be remembered as an NFL owner?
The response was not what you might expect, unless you believed what those closest to him always said: The losing hurt him more than we’ll ever know.
"Oh, I want it,” he replied that day, his eyes lighting up as he let loose a hearty laugh. “I can promise you that.”
Not many happy days
But “it” proved elusive, as did all the promises, which only fueled the dissent in Detroit, where a blue-collar fan base grew increasingly impatient yet never quite abandoned their Lions. And in that sense, the fans were not unlike the man whose name they often cursed, both of them refusing to give up the dream.
“If things go sour and the fans turn against us,” he told a few of us in his office that day, “I'll have nobody to blame but me, and I'm aware of that. But that's a nice challenge to have, to try to keep them happy in bad times."
There weren’t enough happy days for Ford Sr. as an NFL owner. And that makes a sad day all the more so for those that worked to make his dream a reality.
In his 50 years as owner, Ford Sr.’s teams finished with a losing record 32 times, posting an overall mark of 310-441-13. They made the playoffs 10 times, but won just one playoff game. And they remain one of four franchises never to play in a Super Bowl, along with the Cleveland Browns and a pair of expansion teams in Jacksonville and Houston.
“No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions,” team president Tom Lewand said in a statement released by the team Sunday.
And I don’t doubt that one bit. His father took him to his first game in 1934, the Lions’ first season in Detroit, so Billy Ford was a fan long before he was owner. But there was a story he once shared about a game he missed in December 1961 — not long after he’d taken over as president — that probably explained it best.
Ford Sr. couldn’t make it to Chicago for the Lions’ game at Wrigley Field — Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating — so he was stuck at home watching it on television. Right up until the moment in the fourth quarter when he kicked a hole in the TV set, convinced the Lions were going to lose.
Only they didn’t, and he’d had to scramble to find a radio to listen as the Lions scored late — on a pass from Earl Morrall to Terry Barr — to win the game, 16-15. Soon after, his eldest brother, Henry, told him, “Why don’t you buy the Lions and straighten things out?”
Two years later, the youngest of Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s four children did just that, citing his “love for the sport and the team” as he ponied up $6 million to take full control from the 144 stockholders of the Detroit Football Co. And as cynics have routinely noted, the day that sale was formally approved — Nov. 22, 1963 — was the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
What has transpired since with the Lions is a seemingly endless cycle of broken TV sets and season-ticket renewals, blind optimism and bad luck, misguided faith and more frustration than anyone can know.
Just a decent man
Through it all, the one constant was the Ford family’s ownership stake. And the one constant from the man in charge were the traits that engendered such genuine, heartfelt condolences Sunday. His common decency — “He was just a guy who wanted to be one of the guys,” Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders said — and his uncommon patience.
Sanders, who requested Ford Sr. introduce him at his induction ceremony in Canton in 2007, was asked Sunday what he’d say to those who long ago lost patience with that, to those who’d prefer to remember the losing above all else.
“If I said it, I don’t think you’d be able to print it,” he answered. “Because they don’t understand that part of it. But if that’s the legacy that they want to remember him by, then you know what? They can turn in their tickets. …
“I understand the fans’ side of it. They want a championship. I understand that. But so did he. And I know that. I know that personally: that this is what he wanted more than anything else in the world. So I’m not going to let that be the one thing that I remember this man by. Because it was so much more that he brought to this world.”