DETROIT – Football has become as synonymous with Thanksgiving Day as turkey, parades, and family gatherings. Since 1934, the National Football League has been a staple on Turkey Day, and it began in Detroit.
Thursday marks the 72nd time that the Lions have played host to a Thanksgiving game. From 1934 to 1966, the Lions were the only game on Thanksgiving before the NFL awarded the Dallas Cowboys the late afternoon game in 1966.
“I look forward to it every year, whether the Lions are good or not”, said Tameria Warren of Detroit. “But this year is going to be the best.”
This year’s game pits the Lions (7-3) against the undefeated, defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers (10-0). This is just the second time in the last 11 years that Detroit heads into this game with a winning record – the other was 2007.
“Being on Thanksgiving, being the Packers, being in the division, being that we were 1-1 with them last year, there are a lot of reasons why this is more exciting,” said Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson. “They look unbeatable, and they have been. We are in a position where we can maybe put a little nick in their armor.”
The sudden revival of this year’s Lions has added a renewed energy to the game and the city. In recent years, the game has struggled to sell out. This year, when tickets for the game went on sale, they sold out in 15 minutes.
Last week, 1,500 standing-room only tickets were made available and those sold out in less than an hour. The atmosphere could rival not only that of the Monday night game against Chicago on Oct. 10, but also that of the Lions’ former home, the often-raucous Pontiac Silverdome.
“We talk about the tradition of Thanksgiving every year,” said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
“Guys that have been here obviously know a lot about the history and the tradition, but we have new players, we have rookies, we have other players that have never experienced what goes on in Detroit on Thanksgiving.”
The Lions game is the centerpiece of the holiday in Detroit. On Thanksgiving morning, the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade is held along Woodward Avenue in Downtown Detroit starting at 9 a.m., bringing thousands of spectators from across the state to the city. The game, which has been played at iconic Tiger Stadium, the Silverdome, and – since 2002 – Ford Field, kicks off at 12:30 p.m. every year.
“When you wake up downtown and they’re setting up for the parade, I mean, it’s not just a normal day,” Schwartz said. “Thanksgiving in Detroit is different than other cities and we wanted to respect that tradition, and we wanted to respect it by playing well on Thanksgiving and not have people talk about, you know, how long we’re going to continue a tradition.”
For decades, the game was a national showcase for the Lions ,who often stepped up with big performances, wild finishes and big wins, including:
1962: The Lions beat the then-undefeated Packers 26-14, for Green Bay’s only loss that season.
1976: O.J. Simpson ran for a then-NFL record 273 yards, but the Lions defeated the Buffalo Bills 27-14.
1980: Chicago quarterback Vince Evans scored on a 4-yard touchdown run as time expired to tie the game at 17. The Bears won the overtime coin toss and Dave Williams returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for the winning touchdown — the first time in NFL history that a kickoff return ended an overtime game.
1991: The Lions defeated Chicago, 16-6, in front of a record 81,000 fans at the Silverdome to move into first place. The Lions eventually finished 12-4, won the NFC Central Division, and advanced to the NFC Championship game.
1997: The Lions trailed Chicago 20-17 at halftime before exploding for 38 straight points in a 55-20 win. Running back Barry Sanders – who would rush for 2,053 yards in 1997 – ran for 167 yards and scored three touchdowns. The 55 points are a Lions’ franchise record and an NFL Thanksgiving record.
1998: Pittsburgh Steelers running back, and Detroit native, Jerome Bettis calls “tails” during the overtime coin toss. Referee Phil Luckett mistakenly thinks that Bettis called “heads” and awards the ball to Detroit. The Lions quickly won the game, 19-16, on a 42-yard field goal by Jason Hanson. The gaffe led to a rule change in how coin tosses are administered.
In recent years, however, Thanksgiving has not been kind to the Lions. Since they defeated the New England Patriots, 34-9, on Thanksgiving Day 2000, the Lions have won just once on Turkey Day.
“We want to take back control of this game,” Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “We need to keep breaking these negative streaks. It’s been like what, seven years since we won it?”
Actually, it has been eight years and seven straight losses. The Lions’ last Thanksgiving win was a 22-14 victory over the Packers in 2003. Worse, the Lions have lost the last six Thanksgiving games by an average of 23 points.
The most humiliating defeat came during the Lions’ winless 2008 season, a 47-10 rout by the Tennessee Titans. The Lions had to get two late extensions to avoid a blackout and were facing calls from the national media for the NFL to strip the Lions of the game.
Schwartz was the Titans’ defensive coordinator in 2008. When he was hired by the Lions in January 2009, he vowed to “put barbed wire” around the Thanksgiving Day game.
“I was just saying that we want to make sure that the players understand the tradition of this game, it’s importance to the city, it’s place in the history of the National Football League,” Schwartz said yesterday. “Those are all very, very important things and we wanted our players to recognize that and play accordingly.
The Lions have had to fight to keep the game for years, even when the team was successful. Lamar Hunt, the late owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, tried multiple times during the 1990s to get the league to strip Detroit of the game and have it awarded to Kansas City.
St. Louis — the Cardinals, not the Rams — briefly replaced Dallas as a host of the game in 1975 and 1977, before the Cowboys were given the game back full-time in 1978. The thought of this happening to the Lions has angered Detroit fans for years.
“The game is a tradition and every sport has one or a few,” said Jaunae Gardner, a Detroit native who lives in Long Beach, Calif. “There are only two teams (the Lions and Cowboys) that are guaranteed to play, everyone knows that. Let us have our game.”
The Packers players understand the honor that goes with playing in this game. This will be the 20th time the two teams have played on Thanksgiving with the Lions holding an 11-7-1 edge.
“I think you understand the tradition that’s gone on with the game,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“Being a sports fan growing up, you get used to watching the Lions on Thanksgiving and appreciate the fact that Thanksgiving reminds you of family and knowing that you’re going to be able to be on TV in front of a large audience.
“Personally, I have a lot of family watching, and that’s exciting, knowing that I was a kid watching teams play the Lions and playing on Thanksgiving. It’s a lot of fun.”
Prior to the current seven-game losing streak, the Lions had an all-time Thanksgiving record of 33-28-2. They are now 33-35-2 and look to finally end the losing on Thanksgiving Day.
“If you start thinking about all the things that go into this game you get away from what really matters — getting the win,” Burleson said. “We just want to win the game. We need to have the same type of mindset.”