Allen Park — There’s no sugarcoating the Detroit Lions’ on-field performance this year, and if we’re being honest, those failures have been going on for the majority of the past six decades. At this point, coal in the stocking would be an upgrade.
Double-digit losses, many by double-digit margins, after another offseason of renewed optimism have spurred a collection of cliched columns often churned out this time of year, including the ever-popular "don’t let your kids grow up to be Lions fans."
But trust us when we say there are plenty of children in this community destined to grow up supporting the Lions, because behind the scenes and outside the white lines the Lions are supporting them.
Adopting the neediest of families, hosting a dinner for single mothers, buying dozens of coats for the homeless and spending time with hospitalized children are just some of the many things members of the roster are doing in their free time during the holiday season, a needed reminder that there are more important things than football.
From the biggest stars to the team's relative unknowns, many players are leveraging their platform into helping the less fortunate.
At quarterback Matthew Stafford’s house, a room becomes the base of operation for he and wife Kelly's annual tradition of adopting families for Christmas.
Several years ago, before they were married and welcomed their three children into the world, the couple decided they needed to give back to a community that had welcomed them with open arms. Both come from families that preached giving back. Among other things while growing up in Dallas, Matthew's family often volunteered with Meals on Wheels during Thanksgiving.
The Staffords approached the Lions about adopting a family, a program Kelly has since taken over on social media. This year she solicited suggestions, and she and Matthew whittled a list of 400 emails down to four families. After the decisions are made, Kelly organizes the rest by creating wish lists, securing clothing sizes, buying the presents and organizing a time to surprise the family.
The personal touch is the couple delivers the presents in person, spending approximately two hours with each family.
This year, Kelly went above and beyond. There were about a dozen families that didn’t make the cut but clearly needed help. She reached out to the wives of several other players who happily picked up the slack.
In part of these contributions, Stafford was named the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee this year. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison was in line to earn the New York Giants’ nomination prior to being traded to Detroit.
Harrison knows what it’s like to lean on charity. More than a decade ago, the Louisiana native’s life was uprooted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which battered his hometown of Lake Charles. Without the American Red Cross, Blue Shield and FEMA, Harrison wouldn’t be here today, so he’s always looking for the opportunity to help out others in need.
In New York, where he spent most of his career, Harrison set up his foundation, I Told The Storm. Among the group’s annual initiatives are rotating Thanksgiving and Christmas drives to help needy families.
“I was one of those kids who didn’t have much. Didn’t have enough money to get gifts on Christmas or enough money to get a meal on Thanksgiving,” Harrison said.
Since coming to Detroit in a late October trade, Harrison hasn’t had the time to transfer any of his foundation’s work to his new community, but he’s still finding ways to make an impact. Like many people who give, he prefers his actions remain private, but he was willing to share one recent opportunity he had to make a difference.
“People in my foundation get on me a lot about letting them know what I’m doing, but a lot of it is spur of the moment things,” Harrison said. “One of the things I did here, there was a lady having a coat drive. When I was passing by, she handed me a paper for coats for homeless people in the area. So I went to a couple stores and bought maybe 30, 40 coats.”
Cornerback Darius Slay also focuses on an underappreciated segment of society: single mothers. Slay’s mom, Stephanie Lowe, had him when she was just 13 and Slay will never forget the sacrifices she made for him growing up.
“A lot of mothers don’t get recognized and people don’t realize how tough it is to be a single mother,” Slay said.
To honor her, Slay flies his mom into town each year and along with his wife, Jennifer, the family hosts a dinner honoring single mothers in the Detroit area. The event includes a Q&A session and autographs with Slay, and children in attendance are asked to read thank you letters to their mothers.
Stafford, Slay and Harrison are among the most fortunate players on the roster. Each are playing under contracts that have paid them millions of dollars. That doesn’t diminish their charitable actions, but they’re in a better position than most to give.
But they’re not the only ones. There are a number of players at the bottom of the roster who are fighting daily to make their way in the league and are earning less money with far less job security but are also making contributions to this community.
The Lions run dozens of community events during the year and and it would be strange if offensive lineman Leo Koloamatangi wasn't one of the volunteers. A member of the practice squad for much of the past two seasons, he too is fueled by an obligation to pay it forward based on personal experience.
Growing up in a less than ideal socioeconomic situation, Koloamatangi credits the LEMO Foundation in Redwood City, Calif., for helping him attend and finish college and reach the NFL. The organization works with at-risk youth, providing an environment for academic and athletic training.
Koloamatangi returns home to work with LEMO each offseason, and has long-term aspirations to help his hometown through community service or local politics. But while in Detroit the past two years, he has jumped at every opportunity he can to work with children.
He joined up with a group of young players, led by rookie fullback Nick Bawden, to volunteer at St. Joseph’s Children's Hospital in Detroit. Koloamatangi has been active through many Lions charity events, and he works with Detroit PAL, an organization with a similar mission statement to LEMO.
“It feels like I’m there,” Koloamatangi said. “The walls are different, but the kids are the same, the pain is the same. You see the same look in their eyes and you just hope you can have the same affect LEMO had on myself.”
Linebacker Trevor Bates was among the players working at St. John’s with Koloamatangi. Bates has also been working with Angel Tree this holiday season, a program that connects children with their incarcerated parents.
It’s a full-circle partnership for Bates. The group helped him receive a Christmas gift and message from his incarcerated father when he was 10 years old. Now, he’s adopted multiple kids through the program, so that they can feel that same important connection to their parents.
“I know a lot of these kids feel alone and no one understands the pain they’re dealing with, certain things of not having anyone there for them, sometimes feeling unloved or really alone,” Bates said.
Beyond the players’ individual efforts, the Lions organize a number of events through the year. The team ramps up those endeavors from Thanksgiving to Christmas, with their Season of Sharing initiative.
The slate opens with a Thanksgiving dinner for more than 100 families. The team also hosts two Shop with a Lion events, where 100 underprivileged kids are awarded $150 gift cards to shop for presents for family and friends at local Meijer stores.
The series concluded last week when nearly 20 current and former Lions, team cheerleaders, mascot Roary, and the wives of general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia delivered individual gifts to more than 700 students at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School in Detroit.
The Lions also awarded a $100,000 grant to fund a City Year Detroit team at the school this fall.
Many of the team’s top stars were among the group who handed out gifts, including wide receiver Marvin Jones, linebacker Devon Kennard and safety Glover Quin.
Unlike some of his teammates, Quin doesn’t have a specific cause tied to past experience. Instead, he’s spread his attention to a number of programs during his six seasons in Detroit — working at hospitals, with victims of domestic violence and with mentor programs at the Boys and Girls Club.
But none of that community work could prepare Quin for what he experienced handing out gifts at the school last week.
Quin noticed one boy opened his gift and received a baby doll. He quietly asked the child if that’s what he had asked for and the boy told him he asked for a gift for his sister, instead of himself, because he was concerned she wouldn’t be getting anything for Christmas.
“To have enough courage and enough love to sit and say, 'I didn’t want a baby doll for myself, I wanted it for my little sister,' it’s such a selfless act,” Quin said. “At a time where you could think, 'I can get myself something for Christmas, I would rather my little sister get something and I’ll be OK.' That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.”
This list, while it might seem comprehensive, is only a snapshot of the work being done in the community by the Lions and the team's players. Some examples are cut for space and countless others we'll never know.
While no one is happy with the football the Lions have played this season, this team is still finding ways to enrich the community in other ways. It never hurts to be reminded that it's just a game, and as frustrated as the losses might make fans, there are so many more important things in life and so many ways we can help.