Denise Ford admits that she doesn’t know the name of every player on the current Detroit Lions roster. She’s never held season tickets. She’s never painted her face Honolulu blue and silver or fraternized at most of the raucous, elaborate tailgates that other Lions faithful are known to convene in parks and parking lots for miles around the stadium.
“I’m not that kind of fan,” she says humbly. “I wish I could do that, but I don’t have the money for all that. I'm the type to watch the game on TV in the senior building where I live and get other people to join in. I bring people from all around my community to sit and watch the Lions and root for them each Sunday. It's about creating memories and networking with each other, laughing and betting on each other. That's what the Lions represent to me.”
As far as Ford is concerned, no one roots harder, cheers more sincerely or lives more passionately for her city’s pro football franchise than she does. In her mind, she’s the team’s number one fan.
And it would seem the Detroit Lions agree.
The team has made it official, in fact. Following an essay contest held earlier this year, the Lions named Ford, a 69-year-old African American studies major at Wayne State University, its 2022 Fan of the Year in November. The announcement came during a game-break celebration at Ford Field that left Ford confused, shocked and, finally, elated. In addition to winning an abundance of team swag and other prizes, the Detroit native will be flown to Glendale, Arizona, the site of Super Bowl LVII, where she will compete with the top fans of the National Football League’s remaining 31 franchises in hopes of being named the league’s Fan of the Year.
For all her passion, Ford had no idea she’d win the essay contest when she saw information about the competition posted on Facebook. Although she’s rooted for the Lions since the 1980s — when the team sent players to visit children participating in Ford’s grassroots family-support organization, Save Our Kids — she says she entered the essay challenge mostly out of a love for contests and communicating.
“I like to go on Facebook,” says Ford, sitting quietly in an art classroom in Old Main, occasionally sweeping back the long, braided tendrils of hair — some of them dyed blue and silver — that dangle from beneath her Detroit Lions baseball cap. “By profession, I am a minister, so I do a lot of positive things on the internet, such as giving speeches [and] sermons. I also like to enter contests. I just happened to be on Facebook and saw an ad that asked, ‘Are you the biggest Detroit Lions fan?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah. That's me.’ Nothing was planned. I usually enter about five contests a year, and this was one of them. I stumbled upon the site and wanted to enter.”
She didn’t keep a copy of the essay, but Ford recalls that she poured into it all the passion and joy for the team that she could muster. She explained how she’s rooted for the team for decades and praised the Lions organization for its work with Save Our Kids. She bragged about how she decorates the activity room of her Detroit apartment complex in Lions colors and logos and invites other senior residents down for potluck gatherings in front of the large-screen TV. She talked about organizing the occasional party bus to ferry fans around and celebrate the Lions. She explained how, whether in victory or defeat, the team stirs camaraderie, community and hope among her aging neighbors, many of whom live otherwise solitary lives.
Ford sent in the essay and assumed that her submission wouldn’t amount to much. Then, one day in October, she received a strange voicemail from someone claiming to be with the Lions’ front office. The person wanted to talk with her about her Facebook composition. But Ford ignored the message at first.
“I thought it was a hoax,” she says. “I hadn't even remembered I had written that essay! Then I got another call that said something like, ‘This is such-and-such from the Lions marketing department – the real Lions marketing department. Can you please give us a call back?’”
Incredulous, she returned the call and learned that she had been named a candidate for the Fan of the Year honor and that the team wanted to capture promotional video of one her watch parties. She also was gifted Lions team gear. A short while later, the Lions invited Ford to a game in November, where, she was told, the team would select the winner of the essay competition. (Click here to watch the promotional Detroit Lions Fan of the Year video featuring Denise Ford.)
When the team’s limousine bus arrived to take her to the game, she says, “I'm thinking in my head like, ‘Oh, they must be picking all the contestants up.’ So, we got on the limo bus. They’re filming us and stuff. Then when we get to the game, go in through the VIP door. I'm really feeling important. Then, we go down through a gateway where the Lions players come through, and I'm like, ‘Whoa!’ Then, they take us right on the field! We stood on the sidelines, and I see there's a lot of people with the same type of name tags that we had. We assumed they were other contestants. My daughter and I were sizing up people like, ‘Hmm…that might be one.’"
In truth, though, Ford had already been chosen. The Lions only wanted to build suspense and capture her genuine reaction to winning. So, even after the video shoot, the swag and the limo ride to the game, it wasn’t until the team brought her to midfield during a timeout and played snippets of her video on the stadium PA system that Ford realized what was happening.
“A marketing person called us out on the field and was telling me to look at him, to not worry about the crowd,” she recalls. “I went out there with my family and my friends, and I'm looking at the marketing guy. Suddenly, I hear, ‘Hi, I'm Denise Ford...’ I'm like, I'm not talking, so what’s that? I look up at the Jumbotron and, on the screen, there's our tailgate party. They had my grandson on there in his little Lions helmet, kicking and clowning. They showed my neighbors.
“Then I heard him say ‘we want to welcome you to something,’ but by then I was kind of freaking out because I'm not understanding what's going on. I'm totally trying to figure it out, but it ain't making sense. Then he said, ‘We'd like to introduce to you at this time…’ — I think that's what he said — ‘…our number one Detroit Lions Fan of the Year 2022, Denise Ford!’"
Ford says she froze at first, as her family and friends erupted in laughter around her. She thought she might be dreaming. Then someone started toward her with prizes she’d won as part of the contest. This only convinced her further that she was hallucinating. “They were telling the audience about some of what I’d won. Then the next thing I heard them say was, ‘And she's going to the Super Bowl!’ That was enough to make me nearly black out.”
To Ford, the win wasn’t just vindication of her loyalty to the Lions but a blessing for the work she says she’s put in over the years to better her community, her family and her own life. After years of serving with Save Our Kids, the family support group she founded after the murder of Detroit high school football star Chester Jackson in 1986, Ford decided to return to Wayne State last fall to finish coursework that she’d begun in 1971 but abandoned to raise a family. Now, after having raised three children, the grandmother of 16 is scheduled to receive her bachelor’s in African American studies in spring 2023.
“I’ve had four grandkids in college,” she says. “My daughter graduated from Wayne State. My niece graduated from Wayne State. So, I'm looking like, ‘Well, everybody's leaving me.’ I was the first one in the family to go to college, and I'm the last one out the door. But I wanted to show them — my children, my grandchildren, my fellow seniors — we can do anything we want."
To make matters even better, she will graduate along with a daughter, Tamara Robinson, who’s receiving a master’s from Wayne State, and a granddaughter who’s earning a bachelor’s from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
But before that, she plans to be in Glendale to watch the big game and find out whether she’s been named the league’s Fan of the Year. She’s certainly doing her part to ensure a win.
“Anybody can go on the website and vote, so I vote myself when I can,” she says, her face lit by a shy smile and twinkling eyes. “And I encourage as many people as I can to vote for me.”
Win or lose, Ford says she will be eternally grateful for the opportunity she’s gotten to represent her favorite football team and her city on one of the world’s biggest sports stages. “I love it all,” she says. “I love the Lions. I love Wayne State. And I love Detroit. And that’s what started everything, getting people together to enjoy community and each other. Now, it’s not just seniors, but their family members, too. We don’t have money for tickets, but we can enjoy the Lions as one. They’re creating new memories for us, especially the older people. We don't want to talk about the past. We want to talk about now. As I told the Lions, they’re extending our life by getting us together. We argue. We bet. We mingle. It keeps our adrenaline running. The team doesn’t know the effect, even if they lose, that they have on us.
“I know football's about the winning — but for us, we win every time we sit down to watch the Lions."
Click here to cast your ballot for the 2022 NFL Fan of the Year