Denise Ford may not have landed the big prize at this year’s Super Bowl, but the 69-year-old Wayne State University senior and Detroit Lions 2022 Fan of the Year still feels like a winner.
Ford attended Super Bowl LVII earlier this week as part of the official festivities to compete for the title of the NFL’s Fan of the Year. Despite not winning the top spot — that honor went to the Seattle Seahawks’ top fan — Ford made clear as she was preparing to return home to Detroit from the big game in Glendale, Arizona, that she still has never felt more triumphant.
“Just to be able to attend the Super Bowl, to see all the people and meet the players was wonderful,” said Ford, an African American studies major who is set to graduate in the spring, during a phone call from Arizona following the game. “I am over the rainbow over this. I still cannot believe this is happening to me. It’s like a dream.”
Ford was named the Detroit Lions 2022 Fan of the Year last November after winning an online essay contest. Her essay detailed how she uses her devotion to the team to help build camaraderie among family, friends and neighbors in the Detroit senior-citizen building where she lives.
The win earned her several prizes and perks. In addition to being featured on a special cover of Sports Illustrated with the 31 other teams’ top fans, Ford also got to watch the game in person, and, because of a pinched nerve that forced her into a wheelchair during much of her visit, had an even closer view than other fans.
“A lot of people were way up further, but because I was in the wheelchair, they put me right down close to the field,” Ford, who at first feared her condition might prevent her from flying to Arizona, said. “I hated that I had the pinched nerve because it did put a damper on some things. But it still worked out.”
Not only did she get a closer view of the game, but Ford also participated in a raft of Super Bowl festivities, met the other 31 Fans of the Year, and even hung out with NFL leaders and legends. On her first night, in fact, she said that none other than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell greeted her by name.
“He walks by me and says, ‘Hi, Denise,’” she recalled. “How did he know my name? He told me he knew my bio. Then he asked if I saw Barry Sanders. I told him I did, but that Barry had kind of raced through. He grabs my arm and says, ‘Come with me.’ Takes me into the green room and walks over to Barry and says, ‘Hey, Barry, do you know Denise here?’ Barry said no. Roger Goodell told him I was the 2022 Fan of the Year from the Detroit Lions. Barry stands up and gives me this big hug! Then Goodell gets in the picture!
“I’m living in Barbie world. It’s like being in the Wizard of Oz and going over the rainbow.”
Later, Ford said, she attended an award presentation dinner.
“They announced player of the year, coach of the year, quarterback,” she said. “I’m getting calls from family about me being on TV. How does it get any better than this, really?”
Ford returned home earlier this week and said she’s already begun to make plans to leverage the new contacts she made in Arizona to help Save Our Kids, an organization she founded in the 1980s to support disadvantaged families in Detroit.
“I’m going to be calling people, doing whatever I can to get people to help with Save Our Kids,” she said. “I met some really nice people who said they wanted to help, so I’m looking forward to reaching out to them.”
Ford said she also looks forward to walking in the Wayne State commencement ceremonies this spring. Although she still has a few credits to earn and has been slowed by her leg ailment, Ford reiterated a vow she’d made long ago to graduate college.
“Going to the Super Bowl, earning the Fan of the Year honors — those things have been wonderful, like a dream come true,” she said. “But earning my degree is a must. My trip was something I wanted to do. Getting this degree is something I have to do.”