ISHPEMING - In 1956, Vito Vilona's family emigrated from Calabria, Italy, to Ishpeming. Almost immediately afterward, he said, he became a fan of Detroit football and never looked back.
"Ever since I came to this country, I've been a Lions fan," he said. "I don't know how I did, but I stick with them all the way."
Vilona, 85, of Ishpeming, was asked by his friend, Tony Sarvello, to attend a Lions game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field back in the 1960's. Back then, Vilona's children were very young, but he decided to take Sarvello's offer.
Vito Vilona takes a photo with his son, Vince, during a Detroit Lions game against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field in Detroit, Thanksgiving Day. (Photo courtesy of Dominic Vilona)
"That was the first time I went there, and the last time I went there," he said in a thick Italian accent that still remains after all these years. "It was a miserable day. It was raining and cold. We had a garbage bag over the head. However, we had a good time, and by the end of the day, we weren't cold anymore."
Although Vilona initially said he couldn't remember who won that game, he later confided that it was in fact the Packers.
After that, he immersed himself into working at the Tilden mine and raising his five children with his wife, Jenny. Years passed and decades followed, and he had never gotten another chance to see his beloved Lions play other than on the television.
This past July, Jenny passed away due to complications from surgery. And when the holiday season was approaching, Vilona's family insisted that he join them to watch the Packers take on the Lions on Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field in Detroit.
Because of the sheer distance and the bitter taste in his mouth that lingered from the last game he attended, he was hesitant at first. But he eventually gave in and made the trip to the Motor City.
Any U.P. football fan knows how that game turned out; the Lions crushed the Packers 40-10 to earn their first win over the division rival since 2010 and first win on Thanksgiving in 10 years.
"It was the nicest game I've ever seen, because the Lions finally won," Vilona said. "It was wonderful to see the Lions beating up on the Packers. And that was the first time in a long time, too.
"I just wanted to see them win before I died," he joked.
Vilona and his family stuck around in Detroit through the weekend, and also attended Ishpeming's Division 7 state championship game against Detroit Loyola. As if the Lions routing the Packers wasn't enough, He got to see his home team win back-to-back titles after Ishpeming came away with the 22-12 victory.
"That was the most wonderful time I've ever had in Detroit," he said. "I think the Ishpeming game may have been even better than the Lions game."
Justin Marietti can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 245.