The music. When the Hard Knocks music kicks in, so do the goosebumps. You know, the handful of notes created when bows are dragged across stringed instruments überdramatically, implying mighty things, like creation or destruction or rebirth: Dah-da-da-da-dum. And then a brief swell of feedback. Some rumbling tympani: Bum-BUMM. And that’s when we start to believe the words coming out of Dan Campbell’s mouth.
This is Hard Knocks at its best: Making you feel like football is important. And not just a bunch of testosterone-laden pituitary cases smashing into each other until their brains inevitably turn to jelly.
The opening episode of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Detroit Lions is heavy with Dan Campbell. Dan Campbell, head coach of the Detroit Lions, the same Detroit Lions who haven’t won a championship since the Eisenhower administration, and haven’t won a playoff game since the Soviet Union crumbled. The Detroit Lions, the butt of all the jokes, the ultimate portrait of sports futility, the saddest sacks to ever be sacked – and sacked and sacked, over and over and over again. The Detroit Lions, the first team in NFL history to play an entire season without winning a single game. The Detroit Lions, whose devotee Kool-Aid is like Subtraction Stew from The Phantom Tollbooth – you drink it and drink it and drink it and it only makes you thirstier.
The Detroit Lions, finally, finally are on Hard Knocks. It feels like validation for a team perennially written off as nobodies who aren’t worth watching or even acknowledging. For a Lions fan (Right here! That’s me! Lifelong! Guilty! Stubborn! Conflicted! Maybe more than a little ashamed?), it feels like, at last, long-deserving respect for a franchise whose previous lack thereof obviously contributed to their longstanding sub-mediocrity.
And then you realize they wouldn’t be featured on HBO’s hype-stirring pre-season documentary series if they didn’t suck 10,000 asses. The primary qualification for a team to be on Hard Knocks is, it’s got to be coming off a fetid sewer of a season. And lord knows the Lions have had an inordinate number of those – fetid sewers of seasons in which superstar, Hall of Fame players like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson waste away beneath faceless and inept coaches leading them off the cliff to certain death like the fabled lemming.
Which brings us back to the opening moments of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Detroit Lions, and Dan Campbell’s speech to his team. “Doesn’t matter if you have one ass cheek and three toes,” he says, “I will beat your ass.” I don’t quite know what that means, but I’m fired up anyway. And then he makes an analogy that almost makes sense, that the NFL season is like getting in the ocean, with some teams never getting off the beach, and some get in the shallows, and what the Lions have to do is drag their opponents to the “deep, dark abyss” and DROWN ’EM. “We’ll tread water as long as it takes to f—in’ bury you.” Now, he should’ve said “sink you” because you can’t bury someone in water, but (dah-da-da-da-dum) we hopeless/hopeful Lions Kool-Aidaholics (bum-BUMM) are putting our fists through the ceiling tile.
That’s why Campbell is the focus of this episode. He’s far from a faceless schlub like every previous Lions coach dating back decades. He’s the second-year head coach whose debut press conference is legendary for the Kneecap Spiel – you know, we’re gonna fall down and get up again and fall down and claw back and bite our opponents kneecaps off and fricassee their kneecaps in a light oyster sauce and eat them with seasoned red potatoes and lightly steamed snapped asparagus. He says stuff like that all the time, so of course Hard Knocks is all over him like Bob Evans gravy on a chalky biscuit. Because anyone watching this show will wolf that shit down and beg for more.
So we get a Campbell bio, and a segment in which he does a series of grueling up-downs alongside his significantly younger players, despite having tripped over a dog gate at home and jacking up his wrist in the days prior. That’s Dan Campbell: Never asking his team to do something he wouldn’t. He gets fired up, pissed off, pumps his fists. He gives a post-practice speech and gets so passionate his voice cracks and you get some serious VAN-down-by-the-RIVER Matt Foley vibes, and wonder if he might cry. “All I think about is you guys,” he says, kinda as if he’s in love with them and they’ve been cheating on him.
Campbell has cried before, quite famously. Oct. 10, 2021. During a postgame press conference. Lost a heartbreaker to the Minnesota Vikings. Last-second field goal. Tears down the cheeks of a guy who looks like he fortifies his ultra-caff Starbucks with 500mg of protein powder and lifts F-150s for three hours a day. It’s infectious. We see running back Jamaal Williams give a speech – Hard Knocks LOVES a good motivational speech – and he breaks down when says, “Every time I get tired or I think I can’t go no more, I think about that f—ing record,” referring to the previous 3-13-1 season. He cries. And so do we. Honolulu-blue-and-silver tears.
Such are the highlights here: Grown men, weeping. Something Lions fans know all too well.
More notable bullet points from the episode:
Heavy emphasis on Campbell’s coaching staff, which is stocked with former players such as Antwaan Randle-El, Mark Brunell, Aaron Glenn and Duce Staley. Glenn and Staley are the focus of a highly amusing montage in which they, as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach/running backs coach respectively, talk trash and bust each other’s balls during practice. (Stick around for a choice moment beneath the end credits, when Staley chews out players for farting in the film room: “It’s a serious fine if you do bust your ass in here.”)
Drinking-game fodder: Reaction shots of quarterback Jared Goff. He almost always has a dopey look on his face, as if it’s an inside joke among the series’ editors. We rarely ever hear his voice, and never in direct address. He’s a Hard Knocks vet, having been part of a Los Angeles Rams team profiled twice by the series. We’ll certainly get more from him in coming episodes – he’s in the final throes of a girthy contract, so it’s a make-or-break year for him.
We already saw rookie D-line demolition man Aidan Hutchinson sing “Billie Jean” to his team in a pre-release promo clip, and it’s still fantastically cringey. Aidan Hutchinson, the Caucasian boy of much pedigree (his dad was a star D-lineman at Michigan too) who we see with his rich-ass family all glossed-up on the patio of their gigantic house. Aidan Hutchinson, the type of guy who we’d probably dismiss with a F— THAT GUY if he wasn’t the second overall pick who’d better be the hero of that team, and soon. Sack Aaron Rodgers into dust, and we’ll love your millionaire-ass ass, Hutch.
It takes 11 minutes before we see Jamaal Williams, the kooky, loveable walking soundbite whose postgame interviews go viral faster than COVID at a country-music festival. I’m shocked it took that long. He’s a capital-C Character. Expect him to be an MVP of this run of Hard Knocks.
Liev Schreiber’s weighty narration, which can render the word “Intensity.” as an entire sentence. He booms, “There’s a cold calculus to the NFL: Winning is everything. This team-” – and this is where Lions fans press pause and say DON’T REMIND ME DON’T REMINDDDD MEEEEEEE – “…knows it. They’ve been in a dark place for a long time.” ARRRRGHHH.
A vignette about “guardian caps,” the squooshy padding players wear atop their helmets in an attempt to reduce head injuries, new to the NFL this season. Anyone else think “guardian cap” sounds like the brand name for a product designed to prevent semen from entering the birth canal?
Campbell invokes Metallica lyrics during the opening speech, and the episode closes with that song, which goes, “The soothing light at the end of your tunnel was just a freight train coming your way.” HIGH DRAMA. Because Lions fans have been run over by trains for years. Is this the year we reach the light? NEVER SAY NEVER, BABY.
Notable omissions from the series’ opening 45 minutes: No young-and-hungry players on the cusp of making the team, no vets making dicey comebacks to the league, no profiles of competition for roster spots. It’s all yet to come, no doubt. But we do get crying, farts, Metallica and plenty of Dan Campbell, heaping steaming scads of him. Can he carry Hard Knocks for four more episodes? We’ll be hanging on his every loony word.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
Stream Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Detroit Lions on HBO Max