Rob Sims was watching the NFC Championship Game on television and could feel his own emotions starting to bubble up. For years, Sims blocked for Matthew Stafford as a guard on the Detroit Lions. Now, in retirement, he was watching his former quarterback do something they never could in Detroit.
He watched Stafford -- with his bright smile and scruffy beard -- reach the pinnacle of the sport with the Los Angeles Rams after languishing with the Lions. For Sims and so many others who played with Stafford throughout the years, his journey felt, in some ways, like their own journey.
"Man, me and [Calvin Johnson] have had many conversations about how cool it is that he's in this position," Sims said. "Me and [Dominic Raiola] are like, 'What we believed in was true. This guy, he is the real deal and he's proving it.'
"It's just good for us, seeing somebody that came from where we came from, to go to that next level and prove it."
They watched in Los Angeles and suburban Detroit, cheered in Texas and Connecticut -- and even in Paris. They played alongside Stafford and shared so much with him. Some were co-captains and others close confidants. They all have one thing in common -- a quarterback who once led them, now reaching the place they all wanted to go.
The Super Bowl.
"This might be weird for people to hear," former quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. "It's going to be like watching a family member."
Orlovsky, who has long been an ardent Stafford supporter, is not alone. The group of players who worked with Stafford from 2009 to '20 in Detroit have been vocal about watching Stafford's journey this season.
The quarterback, who turns 34 Monday, may be a Ram now, but his ties to Detroit are deep. Lions fans have loudly cheered their former quarterback on social media. The local sports radio station in Detroit, which often bashed Stafford with the Lions, held a "StaffordCast" during the Rams' first playoff game -- Stafford's first playoff win. One of the co-hosts, who bet against Stafford and the Rams, lost and had to drink a shot of Jagermeister mixed with mayonnaise.
That they were still talking about Stafford, who played 12 seasons with the Lions, a year after he was traded to Los Angeles shows the pull he still has in a town that hasn't won a division title since 1993 or a playoff game since the 1991 season.
In some ways, Stafford's run through the playoffs has been Detroit's run, too. The Lions hope one day they'll get there. For now, some are living vicariously through his success.
Time zones away
Nine hours ahead of Pacific Time in Paris, former Lions wide receiver Kris Durham loaded up the NFL's international version of Game Pass on Sunday nights to watch the Rams live. Durham and Stafford met at 16 and became teammates and close friends at Georgia before spending two seasons together in Detroit.
It was Stafford who gave Durham the John Grisham book "Playing for Pizza," about a former NFL player going to Italy to play pro football that eventually became Durham's reality. Durham has been with Stafford through a lot and made it a point to watch at least parts of 12 Rams games this season. Durham stayed up until almost 5 a.m. to watch Stafford reach the Super Bowl. After the game, he was part of a short FaceTime celebrating the win.
"It's probably one of the only people that I've been really, really close to that has been able to play in this game and possibly win it and for it to be a quarterback, especially after the last 12 months have occurred, have been special," Durham said. "I'm really excited for him and I'm excited for [Stafford's wife] Kelly and his family and just have a small, minor part in it."
Earlier this season, Durham traveled to Los Angeles -- he was in the United States for work at the time anyway -- and went to the Rams' game against Detroit and surprised Stafford. Kelly Stafford and their college friend Steven Cundari helped get Durham a worker's uniform from SoFi Stadium.
When Stafford entered the suite following the game, he walked by his 6-foot-6 friend dressed incognito and did a double-take before realizing it was him and enveloping him in a big bear hug. Durham said he's planning on flying back to Los Angeles later this week for the Super Bowl.
"It's surreal," Durham said. "This guy has been working for this his entire life."
Seen it 'a million times'
The most Stafford moment of his entire playoff run came in Tampa Bay, in what turned out to be the final game of Bucs quarterback Tom Brady's career. Stafford got the ball on his own 25-yard line in a tie game with 42 seconds left.
Orlovsky texted his NFL Live group chat and told them he'd seen this "a million times before." Sims, who blocked for Stafford from 2010 to '14, knew when Stafford got the ball back with that much time what was going to happen. Glover Quin, a co-captain with Stafford for a half-decade in Detroit, did too.
"Stafford has always proved to be good in that scenario and that's why he has so many game-winning or game-tying or game-whatevers in the fourth quarter, right," Quin said. "So if he got that ball in the fourth quarter with that much time left, shoot, that's right up his alley. So I knew, oh yeah, Stafford's fitting to make something happen."
Long-snapper Don Muhlbach, who resided two lockers away from Stafford for most of their Detroit careers, was on a flight to Michigan during the Buccaneers game. Half the flight was rooting for Brady. The other half were Lions fans.
Muhlbach witnessed this 38 times in person, a fourth-quarter, game-winning drive from Stafford (who has 42 in his career in the regular season, tied for seventh all time). He knew what would happen next.
"When we had Stafford, we were never out of anything. He proved that plenty of times," Muhlbach said. "Everyone's always like don't ever leave [Aaron] Rodgers or Brady too much time. As soon as [the Bucs] scored, I was like, there's enough time left. This is not going to shock people when this happens."
After Stafford unloaded a 44-yard completion to Cooper Kupp to set up the eventual game-winning field goal, the quarterback was running down the field screaming. Quin and Sims had flashbacks. In 2013, Stafford was miked up against Dallas -- in a game in which Calvin Johnson had 329 yards receiving -- and was running down the field frantically to set up a play for a last-second win. In that scenario, he was waving and yelling at tackle Riley Reiff to get set.
This time, he wasn't yelling at Reiff, who now plays for Super Bowl opponent Cincinnati (but is currently injured). But Stafford was still waving players downfield in a scene eerily similar to that 2013 game. In what was an early Stafford comeback moment, he faked a spike and dove over a pile of Cowboys and Lions for a game-winning touchdown.
Here, he spiked the ball to set up a game-winning Matt Gay field goal.
"It's the same thing," Sims said. "Been here a million times. Knows what he's doing. Just flashes of that is pretty cool."
This was the moment Stafford obliterated the belief he can't win a big game. Knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions on the road in the playoffs was a defining win.
As that happened, Sims texted Stafford to congratulate him. Fifteen minutes after the game ended, with so much swirling around the quarterback, Sims saw his phone light up.
"That guy could be doing anything and he's texting back, 'I appreciate you,'" Sims said. "Those are the type of relationships that we built over the years in Detroit, and more than anything, he's just my boy."
'Wish we'd done it here'
For over a decade in Detroit, despite all the losing and coaching changes and regime switches and inability to succeed, Stafford never publicly blamed. He never openly criticized. That mattered then and still does.
It explains why after every postseason Rams win, there have been celebrations from a segment of former Lions players on social media. They'd lived through the football pain with him -- saw the criticism he received -- and beamed with pride over what he's doing now.
"I do wish we'd had done it here," Muhlbach said. "It would have been better if we all could have done it together, but I think a lot of his old teammates are thinking the same thing I do. We're all so happy for him.
"He took a lot of stuff here, fair or unfair, however you want to say it."
And they've become fans of the Rams because of Stafford. Orlovsky's kids now wear Rams jerseys, and as he prepared for his trip to Los Angeles this week to cover the events leading up to the Super Bowl, he was trying to navigate whether he could fly to Connecticut for his kids' basketball games on Saturday, and then back to L.A. to watch Stafford and the Rams take on the Bengals.
"Once in a lifetime, man," Orlovsky said. "It's once in a lifetime."
Orlovsky believes if Stafford wins a Super Bowl, it could cement his eventual induction into the Hall of Fame -- a subject that came up last summer, when Raiola, Sims and Stafford all met in Canton for Calvin Johnson's Hall induction. As they were hanging out and reminiscing, Sims said Raiola suggested the next time they'd be there was for Stafford's induction. Sims said Stafford's reaction at the time was: "Man, I got to get a Super Bowl to do that."
"And here we are," Sims said.