'Worth the pain? Heck yeah': This NJ fan of Detroit Lions is rewarded for lifelong loyalty

Eric Kosmack's love for the Detroit Lions runs deep, only matched by the loyalty to the NFL team that has let him down time and again since his childhood.

And for reasons questioned often by those around him, the 36-year-old born and raised in North Jersey has refused to quit his fandom of a team that continuously broke his heart from 650 miles away.

"So many times since we met, I asked him, 'Why do you want to put yourself through this again? Are you sure?'" Thea Kosmack, his wife, said with an incredulous chuckle. "Being at the game with him Sunday in Detroit, it's like, finally, he gets to celebrate being a fan of the Lions."

She paused before adding with a laugh: "It's worth the wait, but I don't know if it's worth all the pain, even if Eric thinks it is."

Kosmack has never given up on the Lions, even if they gave him reason to do so.

The losing. The heartache. The embarrassment.

Now? The unbelievable elation.

The Lions are just 60 minutes away from the first trip to the Super Bowl ever when they travel to play the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's NFC Championship game. At stake: the first shot at an NFL championship since 1957.

Lions fans are marveling at the opportunity in front of Dan Campbell's team - their team - most still in disbelief with the success of a franchise that has been mired in epic losing for decades.

And Kosmack has been right in the middle of the Pride, traveling solo to Detroit two weeks ago for the Lions-Rams playoff opener and again this past Sunday for their divisional victory over the Buccaneers, this time with Thea tagging along for moral support.

Kosmack's passion for the Lions began on a family trip to see relatives in Michigan in 1992. They wound up in Detroit on Thanksgiving for a game between the Lions and the Houston Oilers, and even though the home team ended up losing, Eric was sold. He became infatuated with Barry Sanders at 5 years old, left the Pontiac Silverdome with a No. 20 jersey and the rest is history.

A long, forgettable history for the Lions and for most of the NFL, one he would not trade for anything - even the Super Bowls won by the favorite teams of older brothers Chris, a Giants fan, and Kevin, a Cowboys fan.

"For years, it hasn't been very fun," said Kosmack, a pharmacy analytics manager who lives in Jersey City with Thea and their two children: 2-year-old son Knox and 5-month-old daughter Sutton. "I've been laughed at, mocked, and there were times I probably questioned myself why I kept coming back. But honestly, I never quit them. As a fan, I got so deep, this was my team. I just hoped that, one day, this would happen. Not sure I really believed it could."

'Shopping for a Lions fan was not easy'

Kathy Kosmack had no problem buying NFL gear for her two oldest sons. It's not hard to find Giants and Cowboys stuff in New Jersey, and back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when NFL Shop and Fanatics really did not exist, the search for anything Lions was a near-impossible quest.

"I think we got a Lions uniform from Sears they had in their catalog, and there was a store in Ridgewood that was able to order some things for me every now and then," Kathy recalled. "Shopping for a Lions fan was not easy."

Part of Eric Kosmack's affinity for the "lovable loser" Lions is a shared connection with his father, Mark, who rooted for the Saints, affectionately known around the league and in New Orleans as the "Aints" because of their continued struggles through the years.

Mark Kosmack died unexpectedly at age 51 in 2006, leaving behind a legacy in sports fandom for his entire family, and in some ways Eric believes he carries that on with his devotion to the Lions.

"That's the Kosmack family way - we're gonna bust and talk smack, and we're gonna be loyal - and Eric always stuck to his guns, no matter how bad they were," Chris Kosmack said. "The Lions were all roar and no bite until [head coach] Dan Campbell came around, and I still remind him to this day that Dan Campbell was a New York Giant first. That's the only reason he knew how to win."

With the Lions and Buccaneers going back and forth last Sunday, Chris had no problem taunting Eric by donning a Joe Jurevicius Bucs jersey and sending him photos throughout the game.

"I'm happy for him, I admire his [fandom]," Chris said. "But my brother never roots for the Giants, I'm not rooting for the Lions."

A burning desire to win

When the 2008 Lions became the first 0-16 team in NFL history, later matched nine years later by the Browns, Kosmack decided to try and do something to break what at that point felt like a curse. He organized a "Burn the Jerseys" party with friends who rooted for fellow losing teams.

The fire pit in the backyard of the Kosmacks' Pequannock home was a popular centerpiece of the event.

"There were plenty of jerseys to choose from," Kosmack said, referring to a collection that included the likes of Joey Harrington, Jahvid Best, Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Ziggy Ansah, among many others. "The most recent ones I bought, Penei Sewell and Aidan Hutchinson, I think those are keepers, so won't be buying any more for a while."

When the Kosmacks started dating, Thea figured she would have to pick a favorite football team of her own. She could have gone with the Lions, but instead, during a random "Monday Night Football" game, the decision was made: Thea was adopting the Baltimore Ravens as her team.

So things could get Super interesting for the couple Sunday with the Ravens hosting the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC Championship. Thea plans on having family over for a watch party, while Eric will be inside Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., for the Lions-49ers game. The trip was meant to be, considering he was already scheduled to be at his company's headquarters in nearby San Mateo for meetings in the days following the NFC title game.

The Kosmacks don't want to jinx anything, but if the Lions end up in Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII, Eric expects to be there, just as he has since that Thanksgiving trip to Motown three decades ago.

"Is it worth the pain? Heck yeah," Kosmack said, laughing. "This is my team."

What is now reality for Eric Kosmack and many like him, in what feels like an alternate universe of some sort after all these years: The Lions have somehow become America's Team now.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Detroit Lions: This NJ fan's lifelong devotion finally being rewarded