Let the record show, Ford loved his Lions

William Clay Ford passed away Sunday at home from pneumonia, five days before his 89th birthday.

Paul Sancya/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Long before he became owner, William Clay Ford was a fan of the Detroit Lions.

His father, Edsel Ford, took him to a game way back in 1934, when William was 9 years old, the first season after the franchise moved to Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio.

Despite what fans might have thought of him over the years, William Clay Ford meant well when it came to his football team. He really did. He just could never figure out how to deliver a winning product in the NFL.

As much as it would have meant to him to see his team play in a Super Bowl, that will never happen now. William Clay Ford passed away Sunday at home from pneumonia, five days before his 89th birthday.

"No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions," team president Tom Lewand said. "Those of us who had the opportunity to work for Mr. Ford knew of his unyielding passion for his family, the Lions and the city of Detroit.

"His leadership, integrity, kindness, humility and good humor were matched only by his desire to bring a Super Bowl championship to the Lions and to our community. Each of us in the organization will continue to relentlessly pursue that goal in his honor."

Ford is survived by his wife, Martha; three daughters, Martha, Sheila and Elizabeth; and a son, Bill Jr., along with 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family announced that funeral services will be held privately. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent in the name of William Clay Ford to the Henry Ford Museum at 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, Mich. 48124, or to Dr. Scott Dulchavsky’s Innovation Institute at Henry Ford Health System at 2799 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48045.

Ford, the only surviving grandson of Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, took over as owner of the Lions in 1964 after purchasing the franchise for $4.5 million. The Lions are now valued at $900 million, according to Forbes magazine, while his net worth is estimated at $1.4 billion.

Still, the team won just one playoff game during his ownership.

More than anyone, he was considered the villain to Lions fans — the one who drew the most rage for the hometown team’s constant failures — because he was the one constant.

Players, coaches and general managers came and went, while ownership stayed the same. And the Lions mostly kept losing year after year, even experiencing a winless season in 2008.

Ford was loyal, to a fault. He kept coaches — and general manager Matt Millen — longer than most would have, despite public pressure to fire them.

Through it all, one thing was clear: Ford was tremendously respected around the league.

"For five decades, Mr. Ford’s passion for the Lions, Detroit and the NFL was the foundation of one of the NFL’s historic franchises," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Mr. Ford helped bring the NFL through enormous periods of change and growth, always guided by his commitment to what was best for the NFL and his beloved Lions."

Ford is a big reason why the NFL brought the Super Bowl to Detroit — despite the cold-weather climate — as recently as 2006 in a stadium named after the family, Ford Field.

He’s also largely responsible for the Lions keeping their traditional Thanksgiving game, even when many believed it was time to rotate it to different cities each year — mostly because of Detroit’s laughingstock teams.

Those fans who never met him might have despised him, but people who knew him had great admiration for all that he and his family accomplished.

"We wouldn’t be here if it were not for the Ford family," former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said eight years ago during Super Bowl week. "The Ford family’s leadership has certainly been a big part, not just of the NFL and NFL history, but of Detroit and our nation’s history."

Partly for health reasons, Ford hadn’t been all that involved in recent years with the Lions’ day-to-day operations. He had already handed off much of the ownership-type duties to Bill Jr., who has been the club’s vice chairman since 1995.

"My father was a great business leader and humanitarian who dedicated his life to the company and the community," Ford Jr. said. "He also was a wonderful family man, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

"He will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, yet he will continue to inspire us all."

In a rare tweet, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had this to say of Ford: "Great loss to the Lions family today. My condolences go out to the Ford’s. Keeping them in my prayers."€

Running back Reggie Bush also reacted with regret to the loss.

"Today the city of Detroit lost a great man!" Bush tweeted.

Green Bay Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang, who went to Brother Rice High School and Eastern Michigan, also tweeted simply: "RIP William Clay Ford."

Ford was much more than a businessman.

He served in World War II with the U.S. Naval Air Corp. He went on to graduate from Yale, where he was an honorable mention All-American soccer player and a standout in tennis.

Later in life, he became a near scratch golfer who recorded seven holes-in-one.

He first started working for the Lions in 1956, one year before the team’s last championship, and became club president in 1961.

For better or worse, mostly worse when it came to the standings, he was the Lions.

And in some ways, he always will be.