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O'HARA: There's a lot to admire about Matthew Stafford and his time in Detroit

The essence of what drove Matthew Stafford to compete every day he was physically able to in his 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions runs deeper than any stats sheets or metrics can explain.

Stafford was blessed with a skill level for all generations, and an old-school mentality that came with it.

He brought that to every practice, every game -- even to every film session and meeting.

No matter how much he might have limped through a practice week with a sore ankle, battered ribs, aching back, broken fingers or any other ailments, he had the will to be on the field with his teammates on gameday.

Stafford plays football because he loves playing football.

He was revered by teammates both for his toughness and production.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year, was asked why he wanted to remain with the Lions when he re-signed with the team after the 2011 season -- his fifth with the team.

"Who'd want to leave that?" he said, referring to Stafford.

It was his best season to that point -- 96 catches, 1,681 yards and 16 TDs. It was also a big season for Stafford -- 41 TDs and 5,038 yards passing.

Wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who'd made the Lions' roster as a third-round draft pick in 2017, was en route to a Pro Bowl season in 2019. He was asked about some receivers drafted ahead of him.

"They don't have Matt Stafford," Golladay said.

And now the Lions don't have Stafford. He is moving on to the Los Angeles Rams.

Stafford officially became an ex-Lion this week, although in reality the cord was cut between him and the franchise when a trade with the Rams and Lions was agreed upon on earlier this year.

Under NFL rules, the trade could not be made official until the new league year officially began.

Stafford had asked the Lions to trade him after the 2020 season, with the Lions committed to a retooling project under their new management team of head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes.

Stafford expressed his desire to go to a team ready to contend for a Super Bowl. The Rams were a willing trade partner -- and a suitable destination for Stafford to restart his career.

Where the Lions have missed the playoffs the last four years and finished last in the NFC North the last three, the Rams have made the playoffs three of the last four years. The 2018 Rams made it to the Super Bowl, losing to the Patriots.

The Rams figure they can get a quarterback with talent and grit who can lead their team in Stafford.

Stafford exhibited all of that with the Lions. Playing quarterback came with a commitment for Stafford, regardless of the team's circumstances and his personal state of heath.

He didn't seek pity or praise for toughing it. It was part of his personal code.

He expressed that code -- without referring to it in those words -- when asked after a loss to the Titans in Game 15 last season why he continued to play. The Lions were on the way to a 5-11 record, and he'd had rib, ankle and finger injuries.

"Because I'm the quarterback of the Detroit Lions," Stafford said. "And it's Sunday. I've got a bunch of teammates out there who are working their asses off.

"They fight to be available. And they fight to get out there and help us win. If there's any way I can play, I'm never going to not play.

"I feel like I owe it to those guys. I owe it to the game. I owe it to this organization ... everybody. If I'm good enough to play, healthy enough to play, my ass is going to be out there.

"I felt I was good enough to play Sunday, and I wanted to be out there."

When he was out there -- and he started 165 games for the Lions -- he was a special player.

The raw stats show that.

Stafford ranks 16th in career passing yards with 45,109, 16th in career TD passes with 282 and is tied for sixth with John Elway with 31 comeback victories in the fourth quarter or overtime.

It was more than the stats that made Stafford special. It was the style he played with. He was the swashbuckling gun slinger with ultimate faith in his weapon -- his throwing arm.

Stafford could throw the ball through the tiniest cracks in coverage. And it didn't matter if it was single coverage, double coverage or more.

Receivers were told to be alert. If they were open, the ball was coming. And it got there with a variety of deliveries -- sidearm, submarine and the no-look pass he first threw as a rookie in 2009.

Stafford could make a throw you thought you'd never seen before, then top it a few plays later.

A friend of mine once wrote that picking a favorite from among many good choices is like picking up soap bubbles with chop sticks.

Stafford had his share of highlights, as the 31 comeback victories he engineered indicate, and picking one is impossible.

There was the memorable throw he made as a rookie with an injured shoulder and no time left on the clock to beat the Browns. He talked his way back onto the field after being injured on the previous play.

Another was the comeback drive to beat the Cowboys in 2013.

The Lions began their final possession at their 20-yard line with 1:02 left on the clock and no timeouts.

Stafford went to work on the Cowboys' defense with a combination of finesse and sheer arm strength.

A first-down pass to running back Reggie Bush failed to gain, but Bush managed to get out of bounds to stop the clock.

On second down, Stafford found Johnson over the middle for 17 yards, then spiked the ball to stop the clock.

Next came two thunderbolts -- 40 yards to wide receiver Kris Durham down the left sideline between defenders, then a 22-yard shot to Johnson to the one-yard line with 14 seconds left.

With the clock ticking, Stafford got the offense lined up for what appeared to be a clock-stopping spike.

Instead, he saw that the Cowboys linemen were back on their heels, expecting the spike. Stafford took the snap and leaped into the line, extending the ball over the goal line for the touchdown.

The extra point followed for a 31-30 win, sealing another of the memorable moments Stafford's produced.

There was a lot to admire about Stafford, and what he brought to the Lions on and off the field.

I admit to being one of the admirers, for his elite talent to throw a football, how he relates to people, and the many charitable endeavors he and his wife Kelly have been involved in that are well known to the public and many more that aren't.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson, who made the Pro Bowl in his second season with the Lions, summed up the feeling of Stafford's teammates in a recent podcast.

"He's probably the best dude, the best player, I've ever been around," Hockenson said. "Everybody on our team respects that guy. Like, everybody loves him.

"He will forever put a stamp on my career and in the City of Detroit."

An indelible stamp.

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