The words still rattle around in my noggin, some 20 years after they were spouted for public consumption by the hard-hitting, boisterous free safety for the Detroit Lions.
“Come out to see me on Monday Night Football,” Bennie Blades said into the camera, “and watch me hit Bo Jackson in the mouth!”
In my prior life as a producer and director for local cable television, part of my charge was to rustle up guests for our weekly sports talk show. I had no budget with which to work to secure such guests—just my charm and my wit. So you can imagine where that left us.
But I had spotted Blades at Fishbone’s in Greektown. It was St. Patrick’s Day, 1990. He had just finished his second season as the Lions’ paid assassin of the secondary—a member of Jimmy Johnson’s wild bunch at the University of Miami until being drafted by the Lions in 1988.
Fueled by some of the evening’s libations, I approached Blades, business card in hand, and asked him if he’d like to do our show sometime. He was gracious and willing.
Late in the summer, Blades graced our studios. The Lions’ schedule for 1990 had been released. There was a Monday night game slated for December against the (then) Los Angeles Raiders.
Bo Jackson was in his heyday of being the quintessential two-sport athlete—slugging homers for the Kansas City Royals in the summer and running over would-be tacklers for the Raiders in the fall.
It must have presented a quandary for the Kansas City sports fan, because the Chiefs were longtime, bitter rivals of their baseball superstar’s football team.
The NFL schedule would have Jackson and the Raiders invading the Pontiac Silverdome on national TV late in the 1990 season. Blades couldn’t wait.
So he made the pronouncement on our show, before the football season even started.
“Come out to see me on Monday Night Football and watch me hit Bo Jackson in the mouth!”
The Lions would lose that game to the Raiders—a wild, high-scoring affair. The Lions’ Barry Sanders, no slouch of a runner himself, scored early and often. Jackson and the Raiders countered. Back and forth it went, until the Lions collapsed into defeat in the fourth quarter. Typical.
Blades might have gotten a few hits in on Jackson that night. But the Lions lost anyway.
Bennie Blades was the last of a dying breed: that of the Lions defensive back who could change game plans and inject fear into opposing pass receivers.
Blades wanted to hit people, very badly. He played free safety as if the pass catchers had broken into his house.
Blades’ lineage as a Lions defensive back started in the 1950s, when Dick “Night Train” Lane patrolled the secondary and rarely made a tackle below the jaw line.
The Lions rosters of the 1950s and ‘60s were filled with top notch DBs.
There was Lane and Jimmy David and Yale Lary and Jack Christiansen and Dick LeBeau and Bruce Maher and Lem Barney and Wayne Rasmussen and Tommy Vaughn.
The 1970s and ‘80s saw Jimmy Allen and (still) Barney and James Hunter and Bruce McNorton. They weren’t all Hall of Famers or Pro Bowlers, but they were capable.
It was into this line that Bennie Blades fell when he was drafted by the Lions out of Miami in 1988.
When Blades left the Lions after the 1996 season (he retired after one season in Seattle), that lineage of capable defensive backs ended. The Lions have tried mightily since, but they haven’t been able to find “that guy” in the secondary.
Louis Delmas is only a second-year player but he squawks and carries himself like a 10-year veteran. He played college ball at Western Michigan, which is about as known for pumping out All-Pro safeties as Yale is for quarterbacks.
Yet Delmas has become, after just one measly season, the best Lions’ defensive back since Bennie Blades. Says me.
“We have to play defense with personality, and (Delmas) provides that,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz told the media wonks earlier this week as training camp droned on.
Delmas was the topic du jour because he’s been little more than an anxious, chomping-at-the-bit observer during camp, thanks to a tender groin.
Forgive me, but he’s been like a caged Lion.
The Lions have had Delmas for just one season and already they and their fan base shudder to think of life without him. When news broke that Delmas’s groin injury might require season-ending surgery, the social networks and blogs were filled with mass hysteria.
I can see why.
Louis Delmas is the best thing to come down the pike in the Lions secondary in this century. He’s smart, physical, leads by example, and spices things up in the personality department. He makes plays. He helps give the Lions defense an identity.
The Lions, I suspect, are building around Delmas defensively just as they are around Matthew Stafford offensively. With all due respect to rookie DT Ndamukong Suh, Delmas is the quarterback of the defense. Suh is Delmas’s Calvin Johnson.
For all of the Lions’ inadequacies during the Matt “The Villain” Millen era, the defense has been the 400-lb. gorilla in the room. The Lions have been easier to score on than a Scrabble board. Opponents moved the ball down the field as if they were on a Sunday stroll.
Delmas, by himself, didn’t do a whole lot to stem that tide last season. But he plays a high-profile position in a high-throttle manner. He has no off switch. He should be the Lions’ free safety for years to come. He could be our Ronnie Lott, or at least the next Bennie Blades.
The Lions have tried aging veterans, supposed hot-shots, alleged big hitters (Kenoy Kennedy anyone?), and unheralded kids from the draft, all in an attempt over the years to ply together a secondary that at least achieves the level of respectable.
It’s all failed—a total, unmitigated disaster.
Bennie Blades was eventually joined by William White, Ray Crockett and Melvin Jenkins as the Lions’ secondary became better than average in the early-to-mid 1990s.
Louis Delmas is the new best thing back there—a player around whom to add more pieces, as the Lions did for Blades.
So come out to watch Delmas hit some people in the mouth!