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All Grit: 5 Key Outdoor Takeaways from the Detroit Lions' 2023 Season

In the wake of the Detroit Lions' most exciting - and heart wrenching - season in a generation, we're reflecting back on 5 key takeaways that Detroit's outdoor community can learn from this historic football team. #OnePride

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"This is it - our whole season depends on this play."


I said those words audibly from Section 212C at Ford Field on January 28th. I was on my feet, along with tens of thousands of fellow diehard fans, cheering on the Detroit Lions' playoff hopes until our voices dissipated. Ironically, our yells would have zero tangible effect on that particular play - our boys were playing 2,419.5 miles away in Santa Clara, California.


But there we were - The Pride - gathered to watch Goff and the offense try to convert on one final 4th down gamble to keep our Super Bowl dreams alive.


The ball's snapped. The cheers give way to bated anticipation. Goff's pass is thrown towards ace receiver Amon Ra St. Brown.


The ball hits the ground. Incomplete.


This season - this glorious, division championship winning, 3 points away from the Super Bowl, unforgettable season - is now, in all material respects, over.


Fans started pouring out of Ford Field nearly as soon as the big screens broadcasted that incompletion. I couldn't join them. I had to stay in my seat, cheering the Lions on until the clock struck 0:00. Maybe it was due to my memory of being in that same building when our team came back against the Chicago Bears in dramatic fashion. Maybe it was the fact that the "Conference Championship" banner was located directly in my line of vision, taunting me with one remaining solitary space. Maybe I simply couldn't accept that these were the final seconds that I would watch this team play until September.


Ultimately, I stayed because I fell in love with this particular Detroit Lions team over the last two seasons. Beyond finally bringing winning football back to Detroit, the 2022-2023 Detroit Lions initiated a cultural phenomenon that I had never witnessed in my 30+ years of being a Detroit sports fan. A ripple effect that permeated far beyond the confines of Ford Field, the City of Detroit, or all of Michigan.


We all witnessed it. From the Honolulu Blue-lit buildings to the "Go Lions!" messages posted on church placards, "JA-RED GOFF!" chants breaking out at high school cheerleading matches to media graphics showing the whole country rooting for us, our One Pride grew exponentially this season. I've had friends from Colorado and Mississippi reach out to me asking about how it felt to be here, during this particular season, rooting for this exceptional team.


And once the heartbreak from our loss started to subside (still grappling with it TBH), I was finally able to answer: "Unforgettable."


As Detroit-based recreationists, we place our region's outdoor sports and endeavors over every other genre of recreation - including our beloved professional clubs. In that vein, as we at Expedition Detroit have processed this unforgettable Detroit Lions season from our outdoor lens, we zeroed in on these 5 key takeaways for cementing the legacy of this historic season into the culture of our outdoor community.

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1. REBUILDING A CULTURE STARTS WITH GRIT

"It's our core foundation, men. Grit. And what does it mean? Really, in a nutshell, I think it means this: we're going to go a little bit longer, we'll push a little harder, and we'll think a little deeper, and a little sharper."

Head Coach Dan Campbell, October 1, 2023


Grit. One word that became synonymous with the Detroit Lions this season. An adjective also used to describe the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 1997 Detroit Red Wings. In fact, just the singular descriptor "Grit" could be used to define the ethos of the entire Detroit region.


Coach Campbell provided his palpable definition of the word in the above quote, which he stated after the Detroit Lions secured their grasp on the NFC North division. As outdoorists, his words should resonate immediately and strongly with our recreational passions. Regardless of whether you're peddling up an unforgiving hill on your mountain bike, braving below-freezing temperatures in the stand, paddling up stream in a fierce current, or trekking up hill through multiple feet of powder, "grit" is a prerequisite for success in nearly every outdoor pursuit. An integral resolution to not quit when your quads are screaming, your mind starts playing games, and your body desires nothing more than to return to a comfortable, controlled, and likely indoor space.

Libraries of research support the irrefutable mental and physical health benefits of participating in gritty, outdoor recreational sports. In fact, this research supports that the more difficult - i.e., gritty - the pursuit, the greater health benefits you will receive. Beyond those benefits, our main reason for starting with individual outdoor sports corresponds with the macro impact that micro actions can have on instilling culture change.


Mahatma Ghandi is often misquoted as saying "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Great mantra, but his actual quote is far more insightful:


"All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him."


Here's the takeaway from both Campbell and Ghandi: as we as individuals embrace grit in our daily recreational pursuits, we will implicitly ignite a revolution within our recreational culture. One in which the Detroit region becomes a magnet for ardent, passionate, and world-class recreationists. A "culture of champions" that advocates for high quality trails, expansive parks, and world-class recreational opportunities. It starts with us getting outside - regardless of the conditions - and pushing ourselves to become the most resilient and gritty outdoorists that we can be.

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2. NEVER ACCEPT COMPLACENCY

"I think our focus still has got to be we're not hunted. We're still on the hunt, and I said this back in training camp, but if you're hunting us, you don't have to look far. We're going to be on your front porch when you open the door."

Head Coach Dan Campbell, August 6, 2022


I have a singular favorite moment while trail running. An experience that occurs regularly in each of my training runs, but provides an X-factor during competitive races. A mental skill that translates to both other recreational pursuits and life as a whole.


The moment arrives when I catch a faint glimpse of another runner down the trail. Someone that I hadn't seen before a particular twist, bend, or hill in the route, despite previous straightaways that could have offered a fleeting sight of their vibrant running attire. Regardless of how many hard-fought miles I may have logged, seeing that runner always makes me smile.


Why? Because now I have a new target to track down. A tangible metric to literally chase after. It may take 5 minutes. It may take 5 miles. But as soon as that neon fabric cuts through the woods, in my heart I know it's already too late for that runner. I will push myself to catch them and pass them, even if my legs are on fire and the tread is wearing thin.


Of course I don't always catch them before the finish line, but that end result is irrelevant to this takeaway. As Coach Campbell summed up, the main point is to always stay in the hunt - to never accept complacency in spite of past success, always striving be 1% better today than you were yesterday.


For recreational sports like trail running, that's a relatively simple concept to visualize. We can all increase our mileage and/or speed through training. The construct gets mirkier with pursuits like skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, and hunting. Yes, we can all always strive to increase our strength or perfect our form. But removing complacency in these less-binary pursuits also involves upgrading the mental side of the activity. Increasing your tolerance to extreme temperatures, palpable boredom, or simple distraction. Allowing yourself to simply enjoy the present moment, even if your competitive days of ripping down the mountain are decades behind you.


The key takeaway is less: in every outdoor recreational pursuit, find a metric that you feel you may have grown complacent within and attack it head on. Reach for that extra mile. Tackle that daunting trail. Shoot at a few extra targets. Leave the phone on airplane mode. Find joy in the present. Achieve your full outdoor potential.

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3. EMBRACE - AND EMBODY - YOUR ENVIRONMENT

"It's not the first thing you think if you go to L.A. . . . Here, it's harsh winters, right, auto industry, blue collar, things aren't always easy. I just think that's what we're about. You want something the city can be proud of. You can look at those (players) and say, 'I can back that guy. I can back that team. I can resonate with that group of guys."

Head Coach Dan Campbell, January 21, 2024


"Why Expedition Detroit?" - with a heavy, exaggerated, and often condescending emphasis on "Detroit." If I had a nickel for every time that I've heard that question over the last two years, well, I'd be doing exactly this but with an additional lucrative income stream.


I have never given the same answer twice to this question. Beyond the Detroit region simply being "home," there are countless reasons to focus on exploring, promoting, and advocating for our area's outdoor ecosystem and economy. The destinations constituting our Federal, state, county, and Metroparks are immaculate. Our burgeoning trail system is innovative and community-driven. Our open green spaces are sustainable and award-winning. We are positioned to be North America's trails capital by the end of next year.


As the cherry on top, we also have a broad range of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, large corporations, and small businesses banding together to work towards a collaborative, dynamic, and inconclusive regional outdoor industry.


But here's the crux of all of these efforts: if our industry and ecosystem do not align with realities of our natural environment - and the recreationists within them - then all of the goodwill and energy surrounding our trajectory will be lost. Like this year's Detroit Lions, the outdoor community needs to cater towards our Great Lakes environment and residents in a way that invigorates zealous loyalty and engagement. In MCDC's words, "we want something the city can be proud of."


We do not have the glitzy ski towns, dramatic mountains, and hundreds of thousands of acres of protected parkland that the western states boast. We also do not have the tropical climate that beckons far too many Michiganders this time of year.


Those are both positive attributes of our region, because what we have is an environment perfectly suited for the intrepid outdoorists that we are. A four season climate enriched with old growth forests, vibrant rivers, panoramic trails, running rapids, and great lakes. Opportunities for solitude in the midst of a heavily-populated urban area. Thousands of acres of reclaimed green space within one of America's largest cities. An unmatched opportunity for international recreation.


Most importantly, we have a hard-nosed population - inclusive of every demographic - that's fiercely proud of our region. This gritty bulwark has demonstrated on a generational scale that it will work tirelessly to make our outdoors the best that we can. Long gone are the days of thoughtless urbanization in the name of industrialization. Now, our region's environmental focus solely sets on prioritizing conservation, preservation, and expansion of outdoor opportunities. Detroit built the American industrial dream; now, we can rebuild the outdoor state.


What a time to be both a Detroit Lions fan and an outdoor enthusiast here.



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4. AIM FOR WORLD-CLASS STANDARDS

"Every team should want to go to the Super Bowl every year . . . I think we're positioned much better to swing with the big boys this year. Now I can't tell ya what that means in win totals, but that is the goal, man. We've got to go get this division."

Head Coach Dan Campbell, March 28, 2023


From the moment that the 2022 season ended, the professional football world knew that this year's Detroit Lions were on a mission. In 2023, Dan Campbell's troops would do everything in their power to not leave their playoff hopes to the outcomes of several different coinciding games. Another iteration, albeit an improved one, of the "leave it to chance," S.O.L. mentality.


No - in 2023, this team's playoffs destiny would rest solely in their hands. And there was no safer way to lock that fate in than by "swinging with the big boys,"playing at a world-class standard, and winning the NFC North Division title for the first time since 1993.


The Detroit Lions had every excuse not to hold themselves to such a high standard. A culture of losing had practically instilled a core belief that, regardless of the altruistic values that Sheila Hamp, Brad Holmes, and Dan Campbell might hold, the team would ultimately regress to their mean of mediocrity. Add in a young starting core, barely cracking .500 the previous season, and veterans lurking throughout the NFC North, Campbell's stated goal of winning the division sounded nearly as fanciful as his (in)famous "biting kneecaps" speech.


And yet...look at what his team did. Beyond comfortably accomplishing the divisional championship goal, this team earned - and won - TWO home playoff games, the first since 1991. The Detroit Lions nearly punched their ticket to the Super Bowl. Not to play the "what if" game, but if one or two mere bounces would've went a different way during last week's game...we could've actually been within striking distance of beating Kansas City for a second time this season and cementing our place in football immortality.


Here's the takeaway: if our professional football team can set AND accomplish world-class standards, then we as an outdoor community should follow suit and not settle for anything less. What does that mean exactly? For us at Expedition Detroit, it means continuing to build and maintain award-winning outdoor spaces that enrich lives - yes, for both wildlife and recreationists.


The incredible work that organizations like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has already accomplished along the Riverwalk, Dequindre Cut, and Southwest Greenway are prototypical examples of the world-class standard that we as a community are aiming for. The forthcoming Joe Louis Greenway, Iron Belle Trail, and Gordie Howe International Bridge provide further examples of cutting-edge trail infrastructure projects that are fundamentally redefining what it means to live and recreate in the Detroit region.


Like our football team, Detroit as an outdoor destination has been overlooked and written off by the outdoor community for far too long. Just as every Detroiter has an inherent and hard-nosed belief that the Lions will earn a Super Bowl berth, we need to maintain the similar expectations of our outdoor spaces. An unwavering commitment to continue protecting the wild and beautiful, while simultaneously refurbishing and repurposing the neglected and forgotten.


In both scenarios, those core principles start with believing that we as a region are worthy and capable of reaching world-class standards - and then turning that belief into action.

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5. ALWAYS COME BACK STRONGER

"We're gonna kick you in the teeth, and when you punch us back we're gonna smile at you, and when you knock us down we're going to get up, and on the way, we're going to bite a kneecap off. We're going to stand up, and it's going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we're going to take your other kneecap, and we're going to get up, and it's gonna take three shots to get us down. And when we do, we're gonna take another hunk out of you."

Head Coach Dan Campbell, introductory press conference, January 21, 2021


"We will be back, I promise."

WR Amon Ra St. Brown, January 31, 2024


This...this is the most difficult takeaway from this historic season. One where success isn't guaranteed. An unshakeable belief that requires blind faith and a diligent work ethic. Discipline in the place of celebration; a blank check written out to more hard work instead of a ticker-tape victory parade.


The first quote, reprinted here in all of its unmitigated glory, comes from Coach Campbell on day 1, week 1 at the helm. He inherited a team with a losing culture - the "Same Old Lions" mentality where you gave up late leads, caved into pressure, set "realistic" expectations, and sorely lacked the grit and tenacity necessary to carry a team through the regular season slugfest. So, Coach Campbell did what all great leaders do:


He set the tone. He established the expectation. He publicly declared that the culture of his Detroit Lions - the "Brand New Lions" - would play hard to the final whistle. Quitting would never, ever be an option.


The rest is now history. During Year 1 of Campbell's reign, the Detroit Lions went 3-13-1. Year 2 started with similar concerns, but the team turned a corner midseason to finish 9-8 and just outside of a playoff berth. And then, there was this season: a historic 12-5 (really 13-4, IYKYK), the NFC North Division title, and THREE POINTS away from clinching the conference and punching a first ticket to the Super Bowl.


Now the Lions are facing their most difficult task yet: to outperform three years of consistent progress. To get back up after the most gut-wrenching loss in the franchise's living memory. To fill that remaining space on the "NFC Champions" banner. To truly cement their place in history by finally accomplishing an unfulfilled Detroit dream for over 55 years: playing in the Super Bowl.

If there's one shared experience that unites all outdoor recreationists - scratch that, all humans - it's failure. Complete, objective failure. The days on end that I've spent in the woods, only to blow that one singular opportunity at a buck when it finally presents itself. Picking out the perfect backcountry line, only to lean too hard into your ski's edge and tumble halfway down the mountain. The scar tissue on my arms from unanticipated rocks while mountain biking. Freezing nights in my tent that could've been avoided with proper planning.


I have a tradition for whenever I "fail" in the outdoors. It works best with "fast failures" like falling while skiing or biking, but it works with "long failures" too. As soon as I get back on my feet and confirm that I don't require emergency medical equipment, I audibly say "Best Day Ever!" I try and say that as close to the "moment of failure" as I can. And then, if possible, I immediately try to succeed in the act that I just failed attempting (e.g., getting back into the stand after discovering a clean arrow or hiking back up the hill to reattempt the line).


By publicly proclaiming "Best Day Ever," my goal is to immediately put my mindset back into the place of a champion vs. victim. Far too many accomplished outdoor athletes and enthusiasts cave in to their fear of failure as soon as they experience a bad fall, rough night in the woods, poorly-inflated kayak, or shut-out deer season. As I recently shared with a friend while teaching him how to ski, falling and its inherent feeling of failure are integral components of the learning process.


Here's some truth for this overcast Monday: you, dear reader, are going to fall. You're going to fail. You're not always going to have an amazing time.


And that's exactly what makes outdoor recreation - and life - so beautiful. The wins are never guaranteed. A perfect day on the trail can be immediately followed by a relentless downpour. You will celebrate and suffer, laugh and cry, reach peaks of strength and valleys of recovery. C'est la vie.


So, here's the final takeaway from this Detroit Lions season: don't focus solely on trying to avoid failure, because failure is an integral part of the human existence. Focus on coming back stronger, regardless of your genre of failure. Rigorously analyze, learn from, and capitalize on every failed experience. Systematically improve every step of the process that may have led to such failure. Never give into the temptation that the integrity of your hard work - the blood, sweat, and tears that only you know exists - will never pay off.


In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense."


Or, as more succinctly put by Amon Ra St. Brown, "We will be back, I promise."


Always come back stronger.

And bite a knee cap off while you're at it.



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