ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) – Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola is showing his face in public these days, mingling with fired-up fans and soaking up success he hasn’t experienced in his 11-year career.
Raiola sat in seats on the third-base line at Comerica Park to watch the Tigers play Texas in the AL championship series Tuesday night when it hit him how much things have changed.
“Back in the day, I wouldn’t do that,” Raiola said Wednesday. “I’d be up in a suite because I didn’t want to be seen.”
Raiola wished he could’ve went into hiding the night of April 24, 2008, when he was shown on the Joe Louis Arena videoboards and got booed during a Red Wings playoff game.
“I was like, `I can’t believe it,’ but I knew I couldn’t do anything about it,” he recalled. “It was embarrassing.”
Raiola and offensive tackle Jeff Backus, both drafted by former Lions executive Matt Millen in 2001, are getting to enjoy winning for a change with the undefeated Lions after losing three-fourths of their games over the first decade of their careers.
The duo endured the NFL’s first 0-16 season three years ago when they hit rock bottom during the league’s worst stretch of futility since World War II.
Only St. Louis defensive end and former Lion James Hall (.246) has a lower winning percentage – barely – than Backus (.267) among position players since 1991 with at least 100 starts, according to STATS LLC, and Raiola is fifth on the dubious list.
Backus said he was “out the door” when he wasn’t under contract following the 2005 season.
“That’s when they franchised me and things changed,” he said. “I cleaned out my locker at the end of the season, not expecting to come back. I didn’t have a contract. Things hadn’t gone very well. I was definitely going to explore my options at that point.
“I’m glad we’re at where we are right now. I wish it would’ve come a lot sooner,” Backus added. “But I definitely appreciate it more having gone through what we’ve gone through the last 10 years – better late than never.”
Both veterans, though, are not getting too caught up in the hype suddenly surrounding their team thanks to their best start since 1956 – the year before its last NFL title.
They know Detroit (5-0) might have its toughest test Sunday at home against the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers (4-1) coming off a short week and an emotional Monday night victory over Chicago.
Raiola said the Lions got too comfortable the last time they had a similar start, going 6-2 and finishing 7-9 in 2007, and it cost them.
“We don’t want to fall into a trap and feel like we’ve arrived because I know what it feels like to be on the other side,” Raiola said. “I’m excited, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, we’re staying hungry and guarding against talking about going to the playoffs or looking ahead.”
Looking back, the Lions are fortunate two of the rare good picks Millen made were in his draft.
Backus, taken No. 18 overall out of Michigan, is the only player from the 2001 NFL draft that has started every game of his career. His 165 straight starts is the longest active streak among interior linemen on either side of the ball. Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber (188) and Washington linebacker London Fletcher (168) are the only players in the league with longer active starting streaks.
Raiola, a second-round pick from Nebraska, has started all 145 games he’s played since he was a backup as a rookie. The outgoing leader has given the team stability in the middle of its offensive line.
“Dominic and Jeff have played a lot of football and have been very, very consistent players here,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “They’ve persevered through some very difficult times. I think that experience has helped them be able to lead the team through the success that we’ve had this year.”
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