By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – A longtime Detroit Lions fan and Michigan native wore a Barry Sanders jersey when he attended Sunday’s Eagles-Lions game in Philadelphia, and he paid the price.
The fan, whose first name is Paul, got beaten unconscious by a group of Eagles fans while leaving the game.
Barry Sanders, the legendary Lions running back, heard about the incident and went on Twitter in search of the fan’s identity.
Now Sanders plans to reach out to Paul and send him a signed jersey. To say the least, the lifetime Lions diehard was surprised.
“I was actually completely, completely in shock, totally,” Paul said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I always thought really highly of Barry as a player, but this makes me kind of think of him as a player and a person in a whole new kind of level. I thought it was pretty cool, and I think I’m a Lions fan because of Barry.”
Paul has already been to four Lions game this season, and he and his friend plan to travel to either London or New England for the 2014 season. Since Paul started traveling to games when he was 18 or 19 years old, he has visited 21 different NFL stadiums.
When Paul and his buddies began going to games, they ran into Sanders’ father. He seemed to take a liking to them, and they talked regularly with him after several more games that season. In years since, Paul has collected some Sanders memorabilia, including jerseys and a signed helmet.
Paul’s best moment as a Lions fan, not surprisingly, also revolves around the legendary running back.
“My number one memory – and I guess it’s kind of a lot of people’s memory – I was at the Lions-Jets game when he broke 2,000 yards,” Paul said. “That game was so emotionally up and down. I remember it was a Lions game for them to clinch the playoffs against the Jets. It was a game where Reggie Brown broke his neck, and the crowd being so down from that moment, to thank God him … at least surviving, recovering from that injury.
“And then Barry Sanders breaking 2,000 yards that game,” Paul continued. “The way that that game ended … just seeing Barry being carried off the field by his teammates, it was great.”
In all his trips to other stadiums, Paul wore Lions gear proudly, and he never experienced anything like what happened to him last weekend in Philadelphia. Getting spit on in Chicago was the worst that he had ever endured, and he has visited Soldier Field many times since without incident.
This time, though, Paul went to the game with some of his local friends – Eagles fans. Normally he attends games with fellow Lions fans. As it happened, the buddy with whom Paul went to the game left at halftime, so Paul left the game by himself.
Him being alone, Paul said, was definitely a factor in the assault.
“These people who started it outside of the stadium, this fight with me, they would have never started it if there was two or three of us,” Paul said. “They were looking for one person, probably, because they were cowards.”
Paul was on his way to take the train home when six Eagles fans started yelling at him and throwing snowballs and other objects at him. Eventually the group attacked Paul, and after getting hit in the head, he lost consciousness.
He was later treated in the hospital for a concussion and minor injuries, and doctors also checked him for internal injuries after he urinated blood.
Certainly, for Paul it was an ugly end to what had already been a rough game for Lions fans, as the team surrendered 28 points to the Eagles in the fourth quarter.
While Paul is staying away from the local newspapers and radios, he has heard enough to know that there seems to be way too much rationalization of the actions of the Eagles fans who assaulted him. Some radio hosts, Paul said, accused him of antagonizing the Eagles fans and provoking the attack by wearing Lions gear.
“It’s still, in my eyes, kind of sad here, still hearing people talk about it here after the fact,” Paul said. “I still hear people here trying to defend the story as if they were there.”
That some would justify the violence instead of speaking out against it – especially in the light of a fan death in the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium just weeks ago – baffles Paul.
As one who travels around the country to see the Lions play, Paul always hears from fans of the home team, but usually, yelling and teasing is the extent of it.
Usually, all the ribbing is in fun.
“I personally almost enjoy the little heckling that people do, joking around, saying to fans,” Paul said. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of rooting for your team. If you heckle someone a little bit, as long as it’s all in fun and games and joking around and no one feels uncomfortable, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Clearly, though, what happened Sunday was totally different. Though it does not ruin Paul’s perception of the city he currently resides in – and it certainly will not keep him from wearing Lions gear – he does believe violence among NFL fans is an issue.
“Everyone knows it’s a problem,” Paul said, “and not only in Philadelphia – in other cities too.”