Detroit Lions fans have been through years of hurt. Now, they're one of the NFL's teams to be reckoned with.
Despite losing the NFC Championship game 34-31 to the San Francisco 49-ers on Sunday, their success has galvanized the entire city and new fans have jumped on the bandwagon.
"I'm speechless; I don't even know what to say about it," said Darice Ashley before the game. "This is so phenomenal; it's a huge milestone for the city. Once we get to the Super Bowl, I think the city's going to shut down and we're going to be partying for weeks."
Bruce and Darice Ashley have become Detroit Lions fans since the start of this season. Having moved from San Diego to Detroit seven years ago, the Ashleys were initially derided for choosing to support the Lions. (TJ Dhir/CBC)
Ashley and her son Bruce have been living in Detroit for seven years, having moved there from San Diego. They hadn't embraced the team until the start of this season, though.
"Everybody said, 'You suck; that team sucks. I don't know why you're following them,'" said Ashley. "I'm a Michigander now, so I'm going to be a Detroit Lions fan. They said, 'You guys are losing.'"
"But look at us now."
But if you ask fans who have been supporting the team through the many ebbs over the team's history, it means much more.
"You hear people say 'Same Old Lions'," said Aundrea Birch, who has been supporting the team since she moved to Detroit in 1988, before the game.
"This is not the 'same old Lions.' This is a tough team and this is a tough city. We need this for the city."
Edward and Aundrea Birch have been Detroit Lions fans for many years. Aundrea says this Lions team is different than previous underachieving teams. (TJ Dhir/CBC)
And when you consider what Detroit has been through over the last 16 years, it's no wonder she feels that way.
The automotive sector crashed in 2008, with the Detroit's Big Three suffering mass losses. That same year, the Lions became the first team to lose all 16 games in a season.
The team made three more brief appearances in the NFL Playoffs before this season's deep run, losing games in the first week of the postseason in 2011, 2014 and 2016.
Meanwhile, the city declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013.
It was as low as the city would get.
Eventually, Detroit would rise from the ashes, with investment breathing new life into the city and its residents.
But while the city was on the rebound, the Lions continued to flounder.
Between the 2016 playoff appearance and the start of the 2021 season when Dan Campbell was hired as the team's head coach, the Lions failed to reach the playoffs until this season, with a combined record of 23-40-1.
But if you ask lifelong fan Dino Piccinini, none of that matters.
"History's meaningless," he said before the game.
"It's a new team, it's a new era. Great coaching, great rookies, this is the time."
Fans of the Detroit Lions before a 2024 NFC wild card game against the Los Angeles Rams at Ford Field. (David Reginek/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters Connect)
Indeed, Campbell's arrival was the beginning of the culture switch.
The Lions suddenly became a tougher, more rugged team. In their first season with Campbell at the helm, they went 3-13-1, but followed it up with a 9-8 record in 2022, only missing the playoffs by a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Seattle Seahawks.
This year, they won the NFC North Division with a 12-5 record and came within three points of heading to the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl.
"People have been dreaming about this for a lifetime," said Birch before the game.
"We're just on the cusp and it could happen."
Before the game, Birch says a Super Bowl win will give the city some long-overdue respect, with her husband Edward adding that the 2024 NFL Draft being staged in Detroit means that Detroit is becoming a football hotbed.
But even though the Lions failed to reach the Super Bowl this year, their fans will stick around.
Hailey Reed, Jaeda Young and Dee Evans, left to right, have been supporting the Detroit Lions for many years. Evans says regardless of how their teams performs, Detroit sports teams will always have the support of their fans. (TJ Dhir/CBC)
"Win or lose, Detroit has the best fans," said Dee Evans, a season-ticket holder for the last 10 years, before the game. "Whether their teams are winning or losing, their fans are still going to support them.
"That's the heart of Detroit."