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December 21, 2014

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RON KANTOWSKI:

After 20 games, fans at Detroit Lions bar in Las Vegas can celebrate

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Rick Ekey, left, and Lloyd Hicks pose for a photo while watching the Detroit Lions defeat the Washington Redskins at Meatheads on Sunday. Both men worked at General Motors before moving here.

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Meatheads

Beyond the Sun

They start rolling in to Meatheads, a watering hole at West Charleston and Decatur that used to be one of those Kenny Rogers Roasters, around 9:30 every Sunday morning during this time of the year.

The Few.

The Brave.

The Detroit Lions fans who now call Southern Nevada home.

They roll in wearing their Barry Sanders No. 20 jerseys, a symbol of the glory days when the Lions were only mediocre instead of brutal. They roll in hoping for a miracle and that Karen the bartender and bar manager — the former carries a lot more weight with Lions fans — will take off her top.

You can’t have one without the other at Meatheads. It’s a tradition. When the Lions win, Karen takes off her top. When they lose, she jumps out from behind the bar and asks who’s thirsty. This isn’t the assembly line at GM. You drink or get to steppin’. There’s a Cowboys bar down the street. They’ll serve you a drink with a paper umbrella in it.

This is where Rick Ekey and Lloyd Hicks meet on Sunday. They both grew up on Detroit’s West Side, which, like the other three sides of the Motor City, is down on its luck. Rick is 72 and white. Lloyd is 52 and black. As far as I can tell, they only have four things in common, besides their roots and their blue collars — both worked for General Motors before the automotive industry petered out like Eddie Murray’s 43-yard field goal attempt against the Niners in the ’83 playoffs with the Lions down by one:

The Lions, Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings.

“... and the Shock,” Lloyd says.

OK, five. Don’t forget the Shock. That’s Detroit’s women’s basketball team. Won the WNBA title in 2003, 2006 and 2008. You could look it up.

They take winning seriously in Detroit. They take losing seriously, too. That’s why Meatheads is jammed with more than 100 patrons wearing Honolulu blue and silver. Waiting for a miracle. Waiting for the Lions to win. Waiting for Karen the bartender to take off her top.

The Lions hadn’t won since Dec. 23, 2007, which is hard to do in a parity-driven league in which almost everybody wins eight games almost every year. Not the Lions. They had lost 19 in a row, matching the league’s second-longest reign of futility. If old Tiger Stadium were still standing, you could almost see Tampa Bay (26 consecutive defeats) from the right field bleachers.

When I left for Meatheads, the Lions were ahead of the Redskins 13-0 at halftime. By the time I got there, they were ahead 13-7. Rick and Lloyd were getting nervous. Remember how Mickey Lolich looked when he pitched three complete games for the Tigers against the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series? Well, Rick and Lloyd looked the opposite of that.

Rick kept texting his grandson and son-in-law back home with scoring updates. They were playing golf because the game did not sell out back in Detroit, which meant it was blacked out on TV. This sort of thing happens when the home team has lost 19 in a row and the assembly lines are quiet.

Lloyd recited the names of his Lions heroes of yesteryear: Alex Karras, Lem Barney, Mel Farr, Altie Taylor, Earl McCullough, Charlie Sanders and Ron Kramer — who walked into Meatheads one Sunday not long ago. Did you know that Lem Barney and Mel Farr sang backing vocals on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” Lloyd asked.

No, I did not know that. But I knew that George Plimpton, the writer, once played quarterback for the Lions. Rick and Lloyd nodded, and got a chuckle out of that.

Then Rick told me there’s this tavern in Detroit where they bronzed the athletic supporter of Wayne Walker, the old Lions’ middle linebacker, and hung it on the wall. Probably in a place of honor ... like next to the Stroh’s sign.

The Lions went ahead 19-7. Then they were ahead 19-14. What in the world of Monte Clark are they doing, playing this prevent defense, Rick texted his loved ones on the golf course.

For the first time since I arrived, it got quiet in Meatheads. Real pensive-like. You could see the fear in their Lion eyes. Even the Tigers were losing. Surely, they’re not going to blow it, too.

Finally, a girl I judged to be 20-something, wearing a Michigan Wolverines T-shirt that fit like an offensive lineman’s jersey, saw me taking notes. She said her name was Dawn.

She said she liked college football better than the pros. She said the Lions reminded her of a college team. Check that, she said. Her high school team could probably beat the Lions.

Moments later, the Redskins were running one of those crazy flea-flickers on the last play of the game. There were a bunch of laterals before one of the Lions put an end to all of it by tackling one of the lateral movers around the 20-yard line.

Game over!

Lions 19, Redskins 14.

It sounded as if Bobby Layne himself had walked into Meatheads with shots and beers for everybody.

Miracles do happen. Rick and Lloyd high-fived each other. I heard a son tell his father he loved him. And vice versa. I heard a girl’s voice, which could have been Dawn’s but might have been somebody else, somebody older, because she was channeling Ron Jaworski from the old NFL Films days.

“The Lions aren’t losers anymore!”

Suddenly there was a blur of bare skin and camera flashes in the back alcove where the hard-core Lions fans, the ones with the blue collars, the ones who recall the old logo featuring The Lion and the Detroit smokestacks in the background, sit every Sunday, recalling Alex Karras and Lem Barney and Billy Sims and 5-0 playoff losses to the Cowboys.

Karen the bartender had stripped down to her Honolulu Blue and silver bra.

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