Training camp started on Monday for the Detroit Lions, but Saturday was the day many fans circled on their calendar.
Saturday was family day at the Allen Park training facility, giving families and kids the opportunity to experience an NFL practice with the special addition of activities geared toward the youngsters.
From 9 a.m. when the gates opened to just past noon when practice ended, kids were running around with blue or pink lions painted on their faces, playing on inflatable toys, channeling their inner Matthew Stafford by throwing a football through various-sized targets or unleashing their energy on a tackling dummy.
Jessica Gifford, a fan and mother of three, appreciated the way the team set up the kid-friendly practice.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “They (the organization) did an awesome job. My kids really liked the tackling dummy.”
In addition, through Nickelodeon’s touring Worldwide Day of Play, children were able to meet and take photos with SpongeBob SquarePants, Patrick Star and some of the Haunted Hathaway cast members. Roary, the Lions’ official mascot, was there as well.
“We haven’t got pictures with them yet, but we have seen them and hopefully we will,” seven-year-old and life-long Lions fan Ethan Gilbert said of the Nickelodeon characters.
When asked who his favorite player was, Ethan said, “Ndamukong Suh, because he’s good.”
Ethan’s father, Nate, was excited to come out and see the Lions and to take a look at the new coaching staff and some of the new players.
“I hope they have a good season,” he said. “I always have hope.
“The family day setup is cool, it’s very open. I think it really helps build a fan base with the team and it’s cool for everybody to come out and show their support for the team. It’s just been a fun day.”
For Vice President of Marketing and Partnership Activation Jennifer Cadicamo, the goal of family day was simple.
“We want to make sure that we are appealing to our youngest fans, our new fans,” Cadicamo said. “We want to create an atmosphere, not only to have fun and get access to our players and our team, but also through fun family events.”
It is customary for players to sign autographs after every practice, but Saturday provided a special circumstance. While the crowd was still able to get signatures from their favorite players by the bleachers, the autograph tent – which is normally open to anyone in attendance – was available for just the kids.
If fans got hungry there was an abundance of great food available, including hot dogs and polish and Italian sausages from Franks Etc., wood-fired pizza from Rollin Stone and pulled-pork sandwiches from Detroit BBQ Company.
For dessert, kids – and adults alike – could get their hands on a variety of flavors of ice cream, such as Kooky Monster or Mint Chip.
Steven Sample has been a huge Lions fan ever since he was five or six years old, but Saturday marked his first visit to training camp. He has high expectations for the upcoming season.
“I think they have the potential to go all the way,” Sample said. “I think they will have at least 11 wins. I’m pretty optimistic.
“I like the new acquisitions and the new coaching staff and I think the coaches are helping Stafford a lot.”
Saturday was a family-friendly day for the kids to have fun and for players’ families to watch the action on the field at practice.
Fourth-year wide receiver Kris Durham said family day is a unique and much-needed event.
“It’s great because you get to see a lot of guys with their families, their wives, their kids and their girlfriends,” Durham said. “It’s just great because we’ve been in this grind mode, continually seeing the same faces, but today we get to see our families and this day kind of allows the opportunity to get our minds off football for a bit before it’s back to the normal day and the grind.”
A handful of lucky kids even got the opportunity to walk out onto the field with players just prior to practice.
“I think that whole experience, not only for the kid, but also for the player, is really unique,” Cadicamo said. “It really shows how broad our fan base is and how kids are really looking up to the athletes as role models.”
“When a player gets the chance to walk out with a kid, that’s something they will remember for the rest of their life and hopefully that will be a positive influence for them.”
From the meet-and-greets to the autographs to the face painting to the inflatable football activities, the kids had plenty to smile about on Saturday.