DETROIT — The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons had recently won back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.
Civil Rights advocate Nelson Mandela was not far removed from a historic visit to Detroit after spending nearly three decades in prison.
A teenaged Jalen Rose — on the heels of leading Detroit Southwestern High School to back-to-back Class A state championships — had just arrived on the University of Michigan’s campus to help birth college basketball’s famed Fab Five.
But Detroit Lions superstar running back Barry Sanders was the talk of the town.
This was Motown, during the Detroit Lions’ 1991 season.
Sanders was in his third season and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (16) and rushing yards per game (103.2). After two losing years, he had a team around him to capitalize on his once-in-a-generation talents.
The Lions were winners of a franchise-record 12 games, but it was not a season without heartbreak. Offensive lineman Mike Utley suffered a spinal cord injury during a Week 12 game against the Los Angeles Rams and was paralyzed. Utley would be carted off the field, but not before flashing his now iconic thumbs up to fans and teammates, who rallied to win for Utley.
All of these events would lead to Sunday, Jan. 5, 1992: The Dallas Cowboys visited the Pontiac Silverdome as the Lions hosted a playoff game for the first time since 1957.
The game also the last playoff win for the franchise, which is home to the longest current drought between postseason victories in the NFL.
This is how they remember that day, 30 years ago, when Detroit was the epicenter of the football world.
Chris Spielman, Lions linebacker: Leading up to it, I remember driving around the city. It was around the holidays, and it was just excitement. Not only the natural excitement that comes with Christmas and New Year’s and all that stuff, but the excitement that everybody was feeling about the Lions. It reminds me of how hungry this city is and how our fans want this so bad and how much they get into it. For that one year, it was so cool. Everything was about the Lions. Everything.
Jalen Rose, retired NBA player and Detroit native: Ninety-one was the year I graduated from high school. So, I was a McDonald’s All-American, a city and state champion, and of course a huge Lions fan. But, before the games were on DirecTV and all of that stuff, the big games were the national game and then the Thanksgiving Day game. So, what ended up happening is while watching the Lions, we started to get familiar with players on the other teams, in particular the Cowboys. And I played elementary and middle school football. So, I was a defensive end, and I used to feel like I was Ed “Too Tall” Jones. I was trying to crush kids. The Cowboys then were America’s Team. Although I never jumped ship, it seemed like the Cowboys was the team I always wished the Lions were.
Bill Keenist, Lions public relations director: We had just an incredible demand from the media to cover that game. Obviously, it was Dallas, and then we became at least the sentimental favorite because of what happened to Mike, throughout the country, and we just had an amazing media request and demand for that game, so we had to construct temporary media seats in the end zone of the Silverdome where the bleachers were located. Then, throughout the week, all the national reporters that came in and just the onslaught and the demand was kind of overwhelming.
Barry Sanders, Lions running back: It was a big deal. A lot had gone on that season because of Mike Utley’s injury. That really shook me up and a lot of my teammates. So, we were shaken up, but we went on a winning streak. We won all of our home games that year. It was a big deal that the Cowboys were coming into town.
Herman Moore, Lions wide receiver: It was just packed. With Ford Field, people who go there and have never experienced the Silverdome, will never know. The parking lot, the driving in and to see just this sea of people and tailgaters and the cheering at the gate when you pull up in your own vehicle and they start to recognize who you are by that time. You knew you were going somewhere special.
Dallas’ game plan was simple: Stop Sanders. So, the Lions attacked with short passes with backup quarterback Erik Kramer playing for starter Rodney Peete, who had suffered a mid-season Achilles injury in a game against Dallas earlier in the season.
Lomas Brown, Lions offensive lineman: Going into that game we were very, very confident, and we had a great game plan against them. We used the pass like the run, which quarterback Erik Kramer was very good at. So, the short passes, the slant routes, the out routes, throwing to the back out the backfield. Erik was on point that game. I mean we were eating them up with short passes that would go for 5, 6, 7 yards, and that allowed us to be a little more aggressive against the defensive line for Dallas.
Erik Kramer, Lions quarterback: I had been working with a sports psychologist, D. Kevin Wildenhaus, who got me through visualization and painting mental work pictures and scenes.
It was kind of that little mental guided imagery that allowed me to really relax my way through a game. So, that’s what I remember is waking up very calm and treating that game like any other practice, really, and the fever pitch of that day in the Silverdome, I didn’t really notice it honestly. Long before I even stepped on the field, before and after practice, me and (wide receiver) Willie Green would work on a bunch of stuff, and over time it just became very comfortable by the time that playoff game rolled around. I don’t really remember us running the ball much that day.
Wayne Fontes, Lions coach: Dallas came into the game and said they were gonna stop Barry Sanders. That was their thinking, because every down they had eight men in the box. We had Herman Moore, Willie Green and Brett Perriman. We had three good receivers. So, they were saying “You’re gonna have to pass to beat us,” and I recall my coordinator (Dave Levy) came up to say “Coach, they’ve got eight men in the box every time,” and I said, “Well, keep throwing it.” So we kept throwing the ball to Herman and Brett and Willie. We were catching balls all over the field.
Spielman: The game wasn’t close, but we never let up. In the NFL sometimes when games get like that, you see teams let up, and there’s always a comeback, but it just never got to that point. Everything was clicking. Like, offensively, defensively. (Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman) tried to Hail Mary at the end of the first half, and I was able to go up and get it for an interception, which is pretty cool to have a playoff interception.
It was one of those rare games where I don’t ever remember trying to catch my breath. I don’t know why. It was just strange. I felt like I could run all day and hit anything that moved, but our whole defense felt that way. But the biggest thing about it was for that moment in time, it was so cool to be on a team that everybody was playing for each other and not themselves. It was fun.
By halftime, the Lions held a 17-6 edge despite Sanders rushing four times for eight yards. Kramer picked the Cowboys’ defense apart, completing 18-of-22 passes for 195 yards and a 31-yard touchdown pass to Green in the opening quarter. Detroit’s other scoring came from a 41-yard interception return by Mel Jenkins and a 36-yard field goal from kicker Eddie Murray.
Fontes: We’re going into the locker room and my administrative assistant comes up to me and says, “You know Barry has only touched the ball (four) times this whole first half,” and I said “Well, we’re winning the game.” So, we go in the locker room and everyone is getting their uniforms straightened out. Everybody wanted to look pretty for the second half. So, I come up to Barry and I said “How are you doing?” He says, “Great coach.” I said, “I know we haven’t given you the ball much but we’ve got so much passing going on.” He says, “Coach, don’t worry about it. We’re winning this football game and that’s the most important thing.” I said, “You’re absolutely right.”
Sanders: They did a good job of pretty much bottling me up for most of the game.
Kramer: We just kept throwing simple throws really, but they never came up and pressed; they never changed up coverage. They never went Cover 2; they never went Cover 1; they never did anything. It was like, if that’s what you’re gonna do, this is what we’re gonna do.
Moore: Right corner of the end zone, I was going against (Kenneth) Gant, who was a real physical corner, shorter guy. And I just remember this guy was overly aggressive. I really had it out for him. I said, “You know what, I’m going to really work him over” because I don’t think any respect was there — and it shouldn’t have been at that moment because I was a rookie. I just wanted to do my part and said, “Anything thrown my way, I’m catching.” The first pass he threw me, I think it went over my head. It was an attempt in the end zone, and I went to the huddle and said, “Erik, just bring it down and make sure I can get my hands on it.” He threw a perfect high, flat fade, and I remember just going up, never even had to tuck it, and I caught it over him in the corner of the end zone. I shook my head because I said, “You know what? It can’t be this easy.”
Playing in his first playoff game, Sanders hadn’t been able to break loose. That changed with 7:56 left in the fourth quarter, when he broke off one of the greatest runs of his career — a 47-yard touchdown that left a number of Cowboys shaking their heads in disbelief.
Fontes: So we go out for the second half and it’s the same thing. They won’t stop putting eight guys in the box, and now we’re up 31-6. Then I go up to my offensive coordinator, and I say, “Look, Barry has only touched the ball about five or six times. Let’s just give him the ball.” So anyway we gave the ball to Barry, and he made the greatest run in the history of football. One guy on the defense missed him three times, and another guy, he spun around like a top. Then he went almost 50 yards for a touchdown, and as he comes off the field, I’m laughing. I go to my offensive coordinator and I say, “I told you just give the ball to Barry.”
Tony Casillas, Cowboys defensive tackle: I see it all the time on those top-10 runs, and I’m the guy that they shadow, highlight in white. He runs right by me. I turn around, and I’m like “What the hell?” I tell people that Barry did that to a lot of people. We shut it down because we thought the game was over, but Barry didn’t think it was over. So, that was a freakin’ crazy moment in my career and obviously one of his top highlights of making somebody look stupid, our whole defense, but it’s all good.
Sanders (who had starred at Oklahoma State): Hey look, Tony Casillas, he’s from the University of Oklahoma. Being that, that’s all you could watch, college football-wise at my house, so I was very well aware of him. And he played on those great college defenses with Brian Bosworth and Rickey Dixon, and so I was very well aware of Tony Casillas.
It was an off-tackle play. And it was one of those things where I knew that whatever quarter that was after running the ball however many times, that they had a good, young, quick defense. I don’t know how many yards we had got in the passing game, but Herman and those guys had a good day that day, and Tony was a good D-tackle and nose guard.
It was just one of those things to where I happened to finally just catch a little daylight and really deliver to the Silverdome fans a lot of what they had been waiting for. But I go off tackle to the right, fortunately bounced off of someone, and they thought it looked like he was gonna be able to wrap me up, but instead of him wrapping me up, I was able to bounce off of him and just find that daylight that every running back is always looking for and take it the distance. I don’t know, 50 yards or whatever it was and really just kind of seal it and not just give the Silverdome fans a win, but a nice electric run in the playoffs.
Kevin Glover, Lions center: Casillas takes hard feedback from his teammates about it, but then (Ken) Norton, who was a great player, he got turned around at the end of that play also. Nobody gets embarrassed if you get beat by Barry because he was a rare breed. He’s not an ordinary guy, so there’s absolutely no shame in getting beat by great players.
Casillas: It’s always great to be part of history for Barry Sanders. I think that I should probably get some residuals off that play every time they show it because they say “Who is that dumbass, No. 75?” and have my name on it. Thanks a lot, Barry. It’s better to be remembered than to be forgotten. I will say this, although that was their first playoff game, look what happened the next three Super Bowls over the next four years or so. (Cowboys coach) Jimmy (Johnson) wasn’t going to let that happen again, but Barry Sanders to me is the best all-time running back that’s ever played.
Wearing decals on the side of their helmets to honor Utley, the Lions’ victory celebration started even before the game ended. It was the franchise’s first playoff win since their NFL Championship Game defeat of the Cleveland Browns in 1957.
Sanders: I don’t want to say it was before the Cowboys were the actual Cowboys, but they won (the Super Bowl) the next year and obviously three in a short, tight window there. So, that was a big deal.
Fontes: After the win, I recall the owner, God rest his soul, Mr. (William Clay) Ford. I asked my PR guy, I said, “Look this is a great moment for Detroit and for him.” He was up in a box, and I remember telling the PR guy, “Tell him to come down on the field.” Mr. Ford didn’t want to interfere. He was a great owner, and he cared about winning. He comes down on the field, and he’s in the tunnel. I wave him down on the field, and he comes off from the sideline, and now he’s 20 feet behind me. I said, “Mr. Ford, come up here and enjoy this. This is your team.” And he stood there and was a proud man.
“Oh, my gosh. That thing was on point. Other than winning the Super Bowl, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a locker room that was as crunk as our locker room was.”
Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown
Brown: Oh, my gosh. That thing was on point. Other than winning the Super Bowl, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a locker room that was as crunk as our locker room was. We had the music going. We had all kinds of celebrities in there. Tim Allen, he was there. It was so many local dignitaries that were there for that game. It was just a great moment. It was an unbelievable celebration. It was off the chain. Music, everything was flowing after that game.
Mark “Pilgrim” Mullins, Lions season ticket holder since 1991: I can just remember the electricity in that stadium. The whole second half, I don’t think we sat down. The roar and the screaming. I don’t think we’ve ever matched that since. For us, to be our first year with season tickets, me and my buddy, we were young. I was in my late 20s, and I’ll never forget it. I’m diehard. Oh, I’m sure we partied a lot that night.
The Lions moved on to the NFC Championship Game, where they fell to eventual Super Bowl champion Washington, 41-10. No team in Lions history has reached that point again.
Utley: This was probably one of the best groups of guys that I’ve ever had the opportunity to play with, and the reason that I say that is because everybody sacrificed so much to be where we were at, at that point. We were mediocre as in record wise, but on the field we were playing so very, very well. Big difference. It was something that I had to say was pretty damn cool.
Jerry Ball, Lions nose tackle: In this particular situation, it was a culture thing that was shifting, and as players, we decided to change the culture from within by being accountable for each other.
Sanders: I mean, it’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years. I feel like there certainly should’ve been more playoff wins. It’s hard to believe that was the last one, and so it just proves we’ve got a lot of work to do, but it also proved that even back then, we made some progress, and at least for that year, gave the Lions fans some hope. So, hopefully we can do that again, one day soon.