The Detroit Lions hadn’t won a game in nearly a year (364 days to be exact). Dan Campbell, their rookie head coach, had never been victorious in Detroit. His quarterback, Jared Goff, also new to the team, was oh-fer as a Lion. Same for a bunch of teammates.
Detroit is the worst team in the NFL, the butt of jokes and frustration. When the Lions blew a lead to Minnesota on Sunday afternoon, it looked like more of the same. They were staring down a humiliating, winless season until Goff unexpectedly summoned a final-minute drive and threw a touchdown on the final play of the game.
Detroit won? Detroit won! It is now 1-10-1 on the season.
The players hugged. The fans cheered. It was a moment of well-earned celebration, of relief and respect, a feel-good result amid a long, lost season.
Except Dan Campbell didn’t feel good.
He stepped to the postgame podium and his voice began to crack and his eyes began to water. He sniffed and kept looking down, perhaps to hold himself together.
This big, bruising former tight end, goateed and still with plenty of muscle on his 6-foot-5, 250 pound frame, was on the verge of falling apart as he waved around the very ball the Lions had just used to win the game.
“First thing I’m going to start with this,” Campbell said. “This game ball goes to the whole Oxford community. All those that were affected.”
Dan Campbell makes point to say Oxford victims' names aloud
This was no forced statement. This was no courtesy, no thoughts and prayers. Like so many in metro Detroit, Campbell had been rocked, in ways perhaps he couldn't have expected, when Tuesday a student gunman allegedly opened fire inside Oxford High School, killing four classmates and wounding seven others.
The horrors of school shootings are not new in this country. There have been too many. There will be too many more.
It doesn’t mean — and never, ever should — that each one isn’t a shock to the system. It doesn’t mean — and never, ever should — that the stories and images of the victims, otherwise happy, energetic kids, aren't gutting, awful reminders of lost lives, of lost potential, of lost innocence courtesy of a nightmare that we just won’t stop.
“Man, I just, I want us to not forget these names,” Campbell said, his voice catching.
He began to read quickly because it appeared to be the only way he could keep going.
“Madisyn Baldwin, Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling, Tate Myre, Phoebe Arthur, John Asciutto, Riley Franz, Elijah Mueller, Kylie Ossege, Aiden Watson and Molly Darnell, who is a teacher.”
Baldwin, St. Juliana, Shilling and Myre were all shot to death. The others were wounded but expected to survive.
Campbell was following the lead of Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald, who vowed to say the alleged shooter's name only once (as required when bringing criminal charges) in an effort to “keep our focus on the victims.” She purposefully keeps repeating the names of the deceased.
Later, Goff, the veteran quarterback, talked through his own soft, halting voice, about how he hoped the team had provided a few moments of distraction.
“I try not to get emotional,” Goff said. “ ... you hope to be a light for those people, an outlet. … It’s a lot bigger than us. It’s a lot bigger than our sport.”
Other Lions, University of Michigan make small, moving gestures
Baldwin, age 17, was an artist and proud big sister. St. Juliana, at 14 and a freshman, had played in her first high school basketball game the night before. Shilling, 17, was cited as an exceptional student who worked three jobs to help out at home. Myre was a standout football and wrestling star who some students say rushed toward the shooter in an effort to save others.
“Those names will never be forgotten,” Campbell said. “They are in our hearts and our prayers and all the families, not to mention all those that were affected by all of this; the classmates, the brothers, the sisters, the cousins, the teachers, the everybody, the coaches.”
The emotion was palpable. The rawness. The sadness. Maybe even the anger. Campbell and his wife Holly have a son and a daughter, although you don’t need to be a family man to be impacted. It’s also the realization that something so preventable keeps not being prevented.
Having an NFL head coach read out those names at a postgame news conference is both a small thing and a big thing. No, it won’t bring anyone back. Neither will a sticker on a helmet or a T-shirt with the school’s name on it or a pregame moment of silence. But it’s something. It’s a chance to say that these kids are everyone’s kids, that this tragedy is all of our tragedy, that Oxford is everywhere.
It’s Lions safety Jalen Elliott, a Virginia native, walking into Ford Field with a custom-made jersey featuring Myre’s name and number on it.
It’s New York Jets coach Robert Saleh, who hails from nearby Dearborn, wearing an Oxford Football T-shirt to his midweek news conference 600 miles away.
“I wanted to recognize Madisyn Baldwin, Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling and Tate Myre,” Saleh said, offering one more ringing out of their names.
It’s the University of Michigan bringing Myre’s family out for the coin flip for their Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Saturday night and wearing a patch honoring the four victims. It included “TM 42” — Myre’s initials and uniform number.
“He’s a hero,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Then the Wolverines scored 42 points in the victory.
Small things. But small things help connect a community. Small things spread stories of these kids so big and loud it can drown out publicity for the shooter. Small things draw people together in a world full of too much division and loneliness.
Know this: Dan Campbell won his first game as head coach of the Lions on Sunday. He should have been smiling. He should have been celebrating.
Instead he cried for a bunch of people he never met and then read off their names because that simply can’t be done enough.
It was the greatest victory of the day.