With the Detroit Lions this season notching consecutive playoff victories for the first time since the Ford Skyline was rolling off assembly lines, the team has had no trouble finding fans, locally and nationwide. But long before the Lions were the darlings of the football world, and before the team found itself one win away from its first-ever Super Bowl appearance, Wayne State University student Denise Ford was still proudly rooting on her then-hapless hometown team.
Her passion ran so deep that the 70-year-old Ford was even named the official Detroit Lions Fan of the Year in 2022, earning a special edition Sports Illustrated cover and a free trip to the NFL championship game in Arizona last February. But now, with her Lions needing only to beat the San Francisco 49ers this weekend to find themselves in their first league title game since 1957 — a full decade before the game was even dubbed the Super Bowl — Ford’s roar isn’t just one of passion but also of joyful, long-awaited vindication.
“People say, ‘I can’t believe it’ – but I can!” said an excited Ford a few days after the Lions knocked off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to advance to the National Football Conference championship. “I believe it because I’ve always believed in the Lions. But to see what they have done this year is just awesome. I am so excited to see my boys winning! I love ‘em!”
In 2022, Ford, who is pursuing a degree in African American studies at Wayne State, was named the team’s Fan of the Year after entering an essay contest in which she wrote about how she uses Lions games to bring a sense of community to the elderly residents of the senior citizen complex where she lives. The honor brought her prizes and a Super Bowl trip – but more significantly to Ford, it gave her a chance to get more familiar with her favorite team. Since then, Ford has been featured in marketing clips, a Sports Illustrated photo shoot that captured all 32 Fans of the Year and even a short spot that aired during the recent Lions-Bucs playoff game.
“NBC came in from New York to talk to me because the Lions gave them my name,” said Ford. “Even though they’ve got another Fan of the Year for this year, they still call me about doing things for them, and I am always happy to. So, they did a shoot at Ford Field. It was a half-hour thing and went all over the country. People were calling me to tell me that they saw me. Meanwhile, I’m doing crazy stuff like making up a song about the Lions that I sang to the tune of The Jeffersons TV show. ‘We movin’ on up…to the playoffs…’ I told them ‘y’all have to excuse me, OK? I lose it when I get with my team.’”
Ford, who was forced to take a break from classes this semester after dealing with a series of health issues, said she plans to make a return trip to the Super Bowl this year to reunite with her fellow Fans of the Year – and to settle a few scores. During the big game in 2023, she was confined to a wheelchair so she couldn’t take in the festivities the way she wanted and also couldn’t push back the way she wanted against criticism she endured for her loyalty to the Lions.
“I had people asking me why I was wearing my Lions jersey, how I could support the team, all that kind of mess,” she said, her voice rising with indignation. “Honestly, it wasn’t even all the fans. It was mostly Eagles fans saying it. I don’t know what’s wrong with those people, but those Eagles fans were crazy. Well, now look. Their team is out, and the Lions are trying to go all the way. I can’t wait to see those Eagles fans this year!”
But as satisfying as that would be, Ford said, her desire to take a swipe at the fans who ridiculed her and her team runs a distant second to the one dream that persists for Lions fans everywhere, let alone the team’s biggest fan.
“I’m leaving for the Super Bowl in about two weeks — and all I really want is for my Lions to be there with me on the field,” she said. “All of this Fan of the Year stuff has been great. But to the see my Lions play in the Super Bowl in person? I would be in heaven.”