Training camp offers hope for championship-starved Lions fans

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Allen Park -- The presidential candidates are trickling out of town, Tom Brady’s due here next week, and the NFL returns to your TV on Thursday night.

August is here and the Lions hope you’re ready for another year of Sundays with Super Bowl dreams.

Drew Bradley, 7, has his picture taken with Lions mascot Roary on Thursday.

After a scorching open to training camp, perfect Michigan summer weather attracted more Honolulu blue-clad souls to Lions headquarters this week.

On Thursday, more than 500 fans took in a non-padded practice featuring a heavy dosage of 2-minute drills and end-of-half situations.

It was a slight uptick in turnout from the previous week, but nothing like the thousands that came to mid-Michigan in the late 1990s, or the near-capacity crowds that regularly came to Allen Park about a decade ago.

The Lions used to spend summers shaking off the rust at Saginaw Valley State University from 1997 through 2001 in front of a fired-up fan base. Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Kansas City and Pittsburgh still bunk at sleepaway camps at local colleges.

But since Matt Millen’s regime moved camp back to Metro Detroit -- and then after five years of closed camp in Allen Park -- the Lions have opened their facility to the masses, hoping to secure future generations of support.

Youth cheerleaders from Detroit PAL’s Northwest Cougars, Blue World Wolverines and Westside Steelers were on hand Thursday, along with varsity football players from Detroit Edison Public School Academy.

“It’s a real fan-friendly atmosphere,” said Greg Warren, 37, who drove up from Columbus, Ohio, Thursday to see his favorite team continue to prepare. “It’s really cool seeing all the stuff that’s there for the kids, trying to get the next generation of fan involved, and get them to be interested. And not just be interested in what’s going on on the field, but the team in general as a whole.

“There’s something for everybody.”

Creating connection

Joe Penrod spends quite a bit of his summers in Allen Park watching his favorite team.

On Thursday, the 16-year-old Commerce Township resident wore his No. 11 Marvin Jones Jr. jersey -- a player he’s met.

After practice, Penrod got autographs from more than a dozen players, including Matthew Stafford and Jarrad Davis, and spent some time with coach Matt Patricia as he came off the field.

Children play on LIONS letters during camp practice Thursday in Allen Park.

Penrod is wheelchair-bound because of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare disease that inflicts 1-in-4,500 male births, said Joe's mother, Marissa.

Joe's also the namesake of Team Joseph, a program started by his mother, which funds Duchenne research and has an assistance program for families in need.

For more than a decade, Team Joseph has funded millions of dollars in research and the new family assistance program, partnered with Ohio-based Little Hercules Foundation, has helped several hundred families nationwide with more than $250,000 of direct assistance, Marissa Penrod said.

On Thursday, the group brought Joe and two other boys with Duchenne and their families to training camp.

In addition to the autographs and photos, Joe Penrod got a special school supply from Patricia for his junior year at Walled Lake Central High School.

“He was just talking to Joseph and thanked him for coming out, and he gave Joseph the pencil behind his ear, which is pretty special,” Marissa Penrod said. “We’re super grateful to the Lions for being so community-minded and welcoming a group of boys with Duchenne to practice.”

On the field, the offseason pick-ups of wide receiver Danny Amendola and defensive end Trey Flowers have Joe Penrod optimistic about the season.

“I like what they did in the offseason,” Penrod said. “Hopefully we can get a better record.”

A new fan?

Lena Kaczur has visited with Mickey Mouse, a horse and now the Lions.

The 2-year-old Canton resident was at training camp Tuesday as a guest of the Lions and the Rainbow Connection, a Michigan-based wish organization.

Lena got her arm painted at the face-painting station, got pictures with Lions mascot Roary and the cheerleaders -- or “princesses,” as Lena called them -- and indulged in french fries.

“We try to see what’s a good fit for her. We thought this would be a lot of fun, and it is,” Lena’s mother, Amanda, said. ”With her, since she spent so much time in the hospital, we kind of try to feel out what she likes. 

“She likes this so far.”

Lena Kaczur of Canton has her picture taken with Lions cheerleaders on Thursday.

Lena has leukemia and spent seven months in the hospital last year.

This year, with positive news regarding her health, Lena was granted a wish trip to Disney World from the Rainbow Connection.

Last weekend, Camp Casey, a non-profit horseback riding program for kids with cancer, brought Stella for Lena to ride around her Canton block.

“We’re just trying to enjoy life,” Amanda Kaczur said. “The horse was a big deal, but she’s liking this too. She’s just liking being out, enjoying life.”

In addition to Lena’s fries, food trucks from The Happy Patty, Good Humor ice cream, Bearclaw Coffee Co., and Wahlburgers keep fans full at camp.

The extras are great, but to satisfy lifelong fans like Joe Penrod and attract newbies like Lena Kaczur, more Sunday wins is a tried and true solution.

Feeling hopeful

It was partly the humid, 90-plus degree days that kept the fans away during camp’s first week.

But, let’s be honest, a miserable start to Patricia’s first season, which ended a lackluster 6-10, is also partly culpable -- not to mention decades of futility, by the way.

But Ohio’s Warren, who has the Lions in his blood because his father grew up as a fan in Toledo, believes better days are ahead.

Detroit Lions fans watch practice on Thursday in Allen Park.

Wearing his No. 68 Taylor Decker jersey to honor his beloved Buckeyes, Warren spoke Thursday in support of general manager Bob Quinn’s recent investments in the trenches.

“I’m more optimistic about this year than I have been for any year since 2014,” Warren said. “It seems like the front office has a good plan. They’ve actually tried to stick to the ideas and they’re holding to it.

“We’ve got a solid team on both sides of the field and in the trenches, and I think Stafford is due for a bounce-back year.”

Warren’s Decker jersey was the only one spotted Thursday, but fans also rocked the numbers of Stafford (32 jerseys), Darius Slay (nine), Kerryon Johnson (five), Kenny Golladay (two), Marvin Jones (two) and even a Matt Prater No. 5 was seen in the crowd.

Former Lions were also represented: Calvin Johnson (10 jerseys), Golden Tate (seven), Barry Sanders (six), Ndamukong Suh (two), and single stray jerseys of Chris Spielman, Mike Williams, Ziggy Ansah, Charlie Batch and Shaun Rogers.

Despite the disappointing past, camp offers hope for a hungry fan base.

The Lions pulled a training camp surprise last week, adding former Green Bay defensive tackle Mike Daniels to the fray.

“We really needed to pressure the quarterback up the middle,” Warren said. “And as long as he’s back and he’s healthy, that’ll put in that missing piece.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.

Detroit Lions fans watch as players go through drills during training camp.