By definition, Detroit Lions' fans are some of the most loyal and faithful imaginable.
It takes a lot to remain a fan of a team that hasn't won a league championship since 1957, is one of four current National Football League franchises to never play in the Super Bowl, is the only NFL team ever to go 0-16 in a season and — until this season's turnaround — has been a laughingstock for a decade.
Being a Lions fan is generally a condition caused by geography: being born in Detroit, the suburbs or at least in Michigan.
So you wouldn't think that anybody would actually choose, of their own free will, to be a Lions fan.
Oh, sure there was writer George Plimpton, who was known to be at his favorite New York bar, in a secluded corner, watching the Lions every NFL Sunday until his death in 2003. But the team let him play quarterback in an exhibition game (the basis of his book and the movie Paper Lion). Of course, he became a Lions' fan for life.
But Noel Symonds had no such inducement when he made his commitment more than 20 years ago.
Blame it on Madonna, whom we'll get back to in a while.
Symonds grew up just south of London ... England, not Ontario. The 37-year-old still lives in the Redhill section of Surrey County, where he works at the Royal Mail (the British post office) sorting mail.
But every fall since 2002, Symonds has taken his "holiday" during the NFL season and crossed the Atlantic for Lions games both at home and on the road, all the while wearing a jersey with "BLUELIONMAN" on the back.
When Symonds supports a team, he does it with everything he has. That's obvious from his two-year-old Honolulu blue-spiked mohawk. That's definitely a conversation piece when he's following the Lions in the United States each fall. But what about the rest of the year at work?
"I'm not customer-facing [dealing with the public]," Symonds said earlier this fall, as he had a beer at the Cass Corridor bar Jumbo's, a few days before this season's Lions holiday was to come to an end. "Even if it was, I would still have my blue mohawk."
Combine that with his admission that he hasn't been laid since donning the unique hairstyle and he may be the most loyal fan in the history of team sports.
But even Symonds is disappointed with the team's undisciplined play, which resulted in the two-game suspension of star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for stomping on a prone Green Bay Packer in the Thanksgiving Day loss to the team at Ford Field. Then there was last Sunday's loss at New Orleans on Sunday, in which rookie wide receiver Titus Young punched a Saints player in the face and kick returner Stefan Logan was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Both drew 15-yard penalties.
"I am really sad that I think Detroit is earning a reputation in the NFL as a dirty team," Symonds wrote in an e-mail at 4:42 a.m. — his time — after watching Sunday's game live back home in England. "... Other players on other teams watch TV and know you can get the Lions to lash out so will talk trash at key times like on the goal line or on third down to get these penalties."
Overall he thinks the now-7-5 Lions will be a much better team next season, but at least this year is turning out to be fun. The Lions have won a few games and created some excitement.
So how did this long-distance relationship come to be? Symonds says that both the NFL and NBA began to have a bigger presence in England in the mid-1980s when he was about 12 or 13. A big reason was that cricket, soccer and rugby — the three traditional British sports — went to pay-per-view television and were no longer available to those of modest means, like Symonds.
The NFL and NBA took over much of that programming on over-the-air British TV. Symonds took a liking to American football and, little by little, learned the game.
That led him to an important decision: Which NFL team to follow and support? This was a big decision because Symonds says when he becomes a fan, he's a fan for life. That's how he supported his favorite soccer, rugby and cricket teams, and the same would be true of American football.
He had two main criteria when making his choice in the late '80s and early '90s:
It couldn't be a successful team because he didn't want to be a "bandwagoner," and it couldn't be one of the teams like the Raiders, whose gear had become trendy in the United Kingdom.
Now here's where Madonna — and Barry Sanders — come in.
At that point in his life, he was obsessed with female pop stars, and his room was covered in pictures of Kylie Minogue, Debbie Gibson, etc., and especially Madonna. An article he read about Madonna included her birthplace: Bay City, Mich. And on a map he saw that Bay City was relatively close to Detroit.
Then came the final game of the Lions' season in 1992. It was in San Francisco and on Monday Night Football on Dec. 28.
"My two favorite players were Joe Montana and Barry Sanders, and I couldn't pick San Francisco because they were already a successful team."
"That's it," he said. He decided at the time: "Detroit it is."
So, despite losing that Monday night contest, 24-6, the Lions had gained themselves a new fan.
Symonds first traveled to the United States, and Detroit, for the last half of the 2000 season for four home games and four road games. He flew to New York (for games against the Giants and Jets), Minneapolis (the Vikings) and Green Bay (the Packers).
He got a firsthand dose of the disappointment to which the team's fans have been accustomed, when Detroit dropped the final game of the season — at home at the Silverdome — 23-20 to the Chicago Bears on a last-second field goal. The loss knocked the Lions out of the playoffs.
But Symonds had a far greater disappointment on that first trip to Detroit.
He was taken for $2,000 by a con man who befriended him during his stay at the Hostel Detroit, which then occupied the first and second floor of the Park Avenue Hotel downtown.
He was understandably upset and embarrassed, and nobody would have blamed him if he had gone back to Red Hook and never returned. But Symonds says the notoriety of his plight and the recognition that followed — he was interviewed by FOX-2 news — led him to meet more people and make connections.
That's how me met the people he regularly stays with in the Cass Corridor on his trips to Detroit, and that's how he became friends with other Lions' super fans, such as Michael Rollin (aka Reverend Rollo) and many more who live and hang out downtown and in the Cass Corridor.
One of the people who originally lived in the house in which he couch surfs in Detroit has since moved to Chicago. That's where he now stays when he goes there to see the Lions play the Bears.
Symonds has also met and mingled with Lions' players, members of their families and various team staff members through a series of coincidental meetings and conversations in his travels after following the team over the years.
He has an idea of why so many Detroiters and Lions' employees have embraced him so much.
"Many people, I feel, would have never come back to the city after such a lousy first time," Symonds says. "I think people respect that. Now I feel more at home here than at home. I have more friends here than there."
He even takes a risk when he dons his Lions' gear in South London, which has three soccer teams. Symonds is a fan of Crystal Palace (the Eagles), and the others are Millwall and Charlton (the Addicks). The three teams and their fans have a fierce rivalry, and Millwall is the most hated. Their fans are known as some of the biggest hooligans and brawlers in all of English soccer.
Millwall's nickname is the Lions, and their logo of a blue pouncing lion looks exactly like the former Detroit Lions logo. Crystal Palace and Charlton supporters hate Millwall and its fans. It's not unusual for Millwall supporters to be punched in the face on the street by fans of the other two teams without a word.
So when you walk around South London in a Detroit Lions cap ...
"Having it in the wrong neighborhood is not a smart thing," Symonds says. "People would say, 'Why you wearing that Millwall shit, man? Why you wearing that shit?'"
He would then take his cap off and show them the NFL logo inside and explain he's supporting the Detroit Lions not the Millwall Lions.
"I guess it's a bit like in a Crips neighborhood and wearing red. It's probably not a good thing for your health," he said. "You won't get killed. But maybe you'll get a punch in the face."
Now, that's a fan.