At Super Bowl 58, Detroit Lions fans in Las Vegas can't get over what could have been (2024)

LAS VEGAS — The ride to the airport was quiet, but the flight home was worse.

Shortly after Detroit-area native and Las Vegas casino mogul Derek Stevens and his group boarded their private flight home from the Detroit Lions’ NFC championship game loss to the San Francisco 49ers, they got word their plane was delayed.

So they sat on the tarmac at the airport … and sat … and sat.

For more than an hour, the group idled in relative silence, consumed by their thoughts as they processed what had just happened to their beloved team.

The Lions raced to a 17-point halftime lead and looked like they were on their way to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history when they came unraveled in an avalanche of mistakes.

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Stevens’ mind wandered back to his first Lions game at Tigers Stadium in the 1970s, when Bill Munson was quarterback. His wife, Nicole, thought about her father, who she watched games with after church as a young girl, and how excited he would have been to see this playoff run. And Chris Wilberding, another Michigan native who now serves as director of operations for Stevens’ family of businesses, thought about the hopelessness he endured as a Lions fan and how this loss hurt so much more.

At Super Bowl 58, Detroit Lions fans in Las Vegas can't get over what could have been (1)

“I’ve been in Vegas for almost nine years now,” Wilberding told the Free Press from the Legacy Club atop Circa casino in downtown Las Vegas this week. “Every single Sunday I spend with them, I spend with the majority of people on that plane, at the end of the Longbar at The D (casino), watching the Lions lose, consistently. And then this one year, we got to watch the Lions win, consistently. Change of pace. Unbelievable. And now we’re back to feeling sh*tty cause the Lions lost again. That’s how it kind of all came back.”

The group brought “so much booze” onto the plane, Wilberding said, bottles of beer they planned to use to drown their sorrows on the flight home.

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When flight attendants told them they couldn’t serve the alcohol until the plane got in the air, no one even had the energy to protest.

“We were just so pissed off,” Stevens said. “Actually, pissed off is the wrong word. Just, we felt so bad for …”

“Defeated,” Nicole said. “It made us just defeated.”

It has been almost two weeks since the Lions lost to the 49ers, and while the feelings of sorrow, defeat and hurt have dissipated, it’s hard not to think what could have been at Super Bowl 58 this week.

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On Wednesday, thousands of fans wearing 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs gear flooded the convention center at the Mandalay Bay Casino for the NFL Experience, with a handful of Lions fans sprinkled in.

There was a woman in a Lions T-shirt who planned a vacation to Las Vegas months ago, unaware she and her husband would be here Super Bowl week. There was a man in a “Detroit” sweatshirt who moved to Las Vegas years ago from Allen Park and remains a die-hard of the team. And another man in an old Calvin Johnson jersey, a local who said he never expected the Lions to be here anyway.

Elias Hale, a radio personality from Mexico who is covering his first Super Bowl, did.

Hale is a rabid Lions fan who talks about the team often on his YouTube channel. When his boss told him he was going to his first Super Bowl this year, he thought he’d be joined by his favorite team.

At Super Bowl 58, Detroit Lions fans in Las Vegas can't get over what could have been (2)

“First Super Bowl ever for me as a member of the media,” Hale said Wednesday from radio row. “I would have had Jared Goff in front of me, Jahmyr Gibbs, Amon-Ra St. Brown, my favorite player in front of me. It would be so special and it just hurts so much that it didn’t happen this year. But hey, I’m keeping the faith. Next year, in New Orleans, Louisiana, I’m going to be there and the Detroit Lions are going to be there.”

Hale flew to Chicago to watch the Lions play the Bears in December, but he has a ritual he follows most Lions games: He watches them alone, at his house, wearing a St. Brown jersey and Lions baseball cap, locked into every play.

For the NFC championship game, Hale broke character and went to a friend’s house for the game. More people around to celebrate with, he figured — only it didn’t turn out that way.

“Never again in my life am I watching a Lions playoff game with some friends,” he said. “There were like six of us, and some of them they just left when the game finished. And I was like, man, I can’t go home right now. I’m going to just be somber and in sadness. I was too hurt. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t be alone right now,’ so my friend pulled out a bottle of whiskey and we just started drowning our sorrows. We started to drink. I ended up (getting home) at like 2 o’clock in the morning. We just spent six, seven hours just drinking and watching highlights from YouTube of Calvin Johnson. To reminisce about the good ol’ days.”

The good ol’ days, it turns out, weren’t that good after all.

As great as Johnson and Barry Sanders and so many players before them were, they never gave fans a season like this.

Sanders led the Lions to their last NFC championship game appearance and a 12-4 record in 1991, but the Lions went 32 years between playoff wins and 30 years between home playoff games.

“I know time goes by, but until this year the Lions only won one playoff game in my lifetime and I was at that game at the Silverdome,” Stevens said. “I was at that when they beat the (expletive) out of the Cowboys, and I won’t forget it, but it didn’t mean as much to me then as the game against the 49ers meant to me.”

Stevens said his businesses — he owns The D Casino, Circa, Circa Sports and the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, among other spots — stood to benefit from a Lions Super Bowl win.

That was the best outcome for his sportsbook, which had smaller liabilities on the Lions than the other championship-round teams, and his Detroit-themed hotel The D.

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But business is booming all the same with the Super Bowl in town for the first time ever this week, and in some ways, the Lions’ loss allowed Stevens to turn his attention away from the game this week.

“Now I’m actually able to do my job and I can actually focus on running the venues I need to,” Wilberding said. “If the Lions were in there, I think my staff might have already known, don’t talk to Chris, don’t talk to Wilbo while the game’s going on, just leave him be.”

At Super Bowl 58, Detroit Lions fans in Las Vegas can't get over what could have been (3)

Wilberding said he probably won’t get over the loss until next season, when the Lions will be one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

Nicole said there’s a silver lining in the Lions’ championship game loss.

“I’m saying God did us a favor because we would have gotten so many phone calls and been inundated for them going to the Super Bowl this year,” she said. “But next year, we’re back. We’re back.”

Stevens expects that to happen, too, but that doesn’t take away the pain from the game or the feeling of what could have been.

“I’m over it for living my life, but I’m telling you, I’ve watched the game four times now, I’ve watched the third quarter six times and I will tell you, I’m like never really going to get over it,” Stevens said. “Wilbo and I are on a group text with an old Lion guy, T.J. Lang, Brother Rice guy, so Lang is like, ‘Dude, I remember the 2014 (championship game loss to the Seattle Seahawks, when he was with the Green Bay Packers). It will haunt you. Haunt you.’ It’s going to (bleeping) haunt me. I will never forget that we took that.”

Contact Dave Birkett Follow him on Twitter@davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions fans at Super Bowl can't get over what could have been

At Super Bowl 58, Detroit Lions fans in Las Vegas can't get over what could have been (2024)
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