By: Will Burchfield
Every now and then, Wayne Fontes takes a trip down memory lane. He closes his eyes and envisions the Pontiac Silverdome, packed to capacity, on Jan. 5, 1992. He sees himself on the sideline, coaching the Detroit Lions in the second round of the playoffs.
“Who could ever forget that Dallas Cowboys game?” Fontes reminisced on 97.1 The Ticket on Friday morning. “It was a great game. The crowd was deafening. I close my eyes and I sit back and remember that afternoon. Nothing would ever be like that again.”
The Lions went on to beat the Cowboys 38-6 on that day, buoyed by 79,000 screaming fans and a punishing defense. They would lose to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship a week later, but the 1991 Lions remain one of the most successful teams in franchise history.
They will be honored at Ford Field this Sunday during the Lions game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Many players from the team will be in attendance, but Fontes, due to medical complications, won’t be able to make the trip. So he wants to set something straight.
“When we won in ’91, everyone said it was a great coaching job, etcetera, etcetera. We had excellent players and I always felt that players win. Coaches coach, players win and we had a great bunch of players,” Fontes said. “I don’t want to name them because I’d probably miss some, but if it wasn’t for the players we wouldn’t have won in 1991.”
Fontes, to his credit, is the winningest coach in Lions history. (He also has the most losses. Alas.) He led the Lions to four playoff appearances in his eight full seasons as head coach and two division titles.
“We had some good football teams, but the ‘91 team kind of stuck together and we went all the way to the championship game,” Fontes said.
The bonding point came midway through the season, Fontes recalled, when offensive lineman Mike Utley suffered a tragic injury in Week 12 that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“I remember going on the field when Mike went down and he kept saying, ‘I can’t feel my body, I can’t feel my legs.’ And I remember looking down at the doctor and the doctor kept shaking his head so I knew it was a catastrophic injury,” Fontes said.
“They put him on a stretcher and he gave the thumbs up and I think that was the battle cry for our football team, and I think every down after that was played for Mike Utley.”
At the time, the Lions were 6-4 and had lost three of their last four games. From that point on, with Utley’s number 60 stickered on their helmets, they ripped off six straight wins and claimed the NFC Central title.
Fontes actually lost more games than he won as the Lions head coach, and his job seemed to be in constant jeopardy. He was criticized by the media and the fans throughout his tenure, but Fontes, more often than not, was able to laugh it off. In 1995, he famously referred to himself as “the Big Buck,” as if he had a bull’s-eye on his back.
“Everyone is aiming for me,” he said at the time. “Everyone wants to take down the Big Buck.”
It was a nickname that stuck. And a big piece of Fontes’ legacy was his ability to withstand the heat.
“It goes with the job, it went with the job. And every year that I did survive the bashing I knew it would keep getting worse. But I was there eight years, eight great years with a great organization and a great owner,” Fontes said.
Asked if he wishes he were coaching now, in an age of unrelenting scrutiny, Fontes’ laughter rang through the phone from Florida.
“No, I’m glad I’m sitting here, retired in the land of the sunshine,” he said.
These days, Fontes prefers to watch.
“Every Sunday I go to a sports bar and I make sure that I’m sitting in front of a TV where the Detroit Lions are playing,” he said. “It was a tremendous run for me and the great players I had around me. I enjoyed every minute of it and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”