I started going to Lions games around 1992, Jason Hanson's rookie season. My eyes widened as I saw Barry Sanders bounce around the turf like a methodical pinball. I saw the passion in the crowd, the scheming on the sidelines, the tribalism of the enitre event. It was infectious. It was intoxicating. It was where I belonged.
For the next sixteen years, that was home. Whether it was the long stroll through the cluttered Silverdome parking lot, or the short trek along Adams Street to Ford Field, my body was pulled by aura of football to my Mecca. I was there when Barry Sanders reached 2,000. I marveled over the physical specimens that were Herman Moore, Cory Schlesllinger and Chris Spielman. The great catches, the huge hits, the insane jukes. They are all branded permanently against the walls of my memory. Hanson was barely a blip on my impressionable radar.
The NFL during the '90s would hardly be recognizable today. Football didn't dominate Sundays. There was no Sunday Ticket. There was no Red Zone channel. If you were lucky, you'd get a few replays of the other games going on, but, mostly, Sundays were purely about your team. Therefore, my Sundays were dominated by the Lions. I occasionally tried to watch other teams, but if their performance didn't directly affect the Lions, it didn't interest me much. I obviously knew of the other teams. But without any visual evidence of these teams, I hardly knew anything about them. I knew that the Cowboys and 49ers were pretty good. But mostly, I assumed, teams were pretty much like the Lions.
Because of this, field goal kicking always just seemed like a formality. Every now and then I'd hear about a team losing because of a missed 40 yarder. But in my jaded mind, that was some sort of crazy abnormality, like a Barry fumble or a playoff victory. And with no internet to compare Hanson's statistics to anyone else, I assumed everyone had it as good as us. I probably couldn't have named another kicker in the league, and I only knew Hanson's name because I knew every Lions' name.
But when the NFL expanded and because much easier to consume, it slowly became obvious how special Hanson was. As I watched more and more games, I saw game-tying 30 yard field goals shanked. I saw overtime kicks fly far wide. I saw teams like the Cowboys go through several kickers in one season. I learned why "Wide Right" had become synonymous with the Buffalo Bills. I even saw a missed extra point lose a game. It was absolutely shocking. An aspect of the game I had paid so little attention to had been secretly essential to the Lions for decades.
To say I took Hanson for granted for the majority of his career would be a gross understatement. Like most of us, I was too busy being wowed by Barry Sanders or angered by the football gods to even notice Hanson go about his business in such routine fashion.
Hanson currently ranks 18th among kickers in career kicking percentage with an 82.4% success rate. Alone that doesn't seem much like an accomplishment. But Hanson had one thing almost none of these kickers had: longevity. Hanson played for 21 straight seasons, all in Detroit. The 17 kickers above him averaged just a 9.9 year career collectively. The only player that outlasted Hanson was John Carney, who was in the league 23 years. But Carney spread out his career with seven different teams (also, he was the one that missed that extra point). Hanson was always a Lion. He gave the Detroit Lions consistency that is historically unmatched.
But now he's gone, and our Lions head off into unfamiliar territory. No longer can we run to the bathroom early as Hanson trots on the field for a routine 37-yarder. We won't be able to breathe easy as Matthew Stafford brings the team within the 30-yard line down two points in the waning minutes of the game. The schadenfreude of watching some other team lose on a wide field goal will no longer carry the same pleasure. Instead, it will serve as a haunting reminder that the Lions are now just as vulnerable to the same fate.
Today, we all appreciate the time Hanson has given us. We hail him as the most reliable Lion in history, and a great man. But our full appreciation won't be known until we all feel the bitter pain that 31 other franchises know all too well. That first missed game-winning kick without Hanson is going to suck.
Obviously, Hanson missed some game-winners in his career. In fact, he missed one last year on Thanksgiving. But it happened so infrequently that when it did, we hardly blamed Hanson. There was always some larger reason the Lions lost. But going forward, with every crucial field goal that is sent wide, there will be a voice in the back of our heads haunting us, "Hanson would have made it."