The Detroit Lions are nearly as much a part of Thanksgiving Day as the turkey itself.
Tackle football on Thanksgiving Day was first played in 1883, when Yale beat Harvard, 23-2, at the Polo Grounds in New York. It was the 11th time the two schools met in what has come to be known as “The Game.” Four years later, the Bulldogs played the Crimson on Thanksgiving Day for the second and final time of their storied rivalry. The University of Michigan played annual Thanksgiving Day games from 1885 to 1905, and in some areas high school teams play on Turkey Day. On November 25, 1920, the NFL played a slate of six games—the first time professional football was played on the fourth Thursday in November. Five years later, the legendary Harold “Red” Grange made his pro debut for the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day, which ended in a scoreless tie against the Chicago Cardinals.
In 1934, Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the financially-strapped Portsmouth Spartans for just under $ 8,000, moved them from Ohio to Detroit, and renamed the team the Detroit Lions. The team played second fiddle in the Motor City to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League pennant before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game World Series. Professional football was considered a second-rate sport in the 1930s, taking a backseat to major league baseball, boxing, and horseracing. College football was considerably more popular than the pro game. The biggest crowd the Lions drew in 1934 was 15,000. Needing a gimmick, Richards offered to host the mighty Chicago Bears—who were defending NFL champions and were 11-0 on the season—on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions were 10-1 and Richards, believing fans would gather for a late-season chance to see Detroit win the Western Division and to do so on a day off from work, saw a chance to sell tickets. The Lions not only sold out 26,000-seat University of Detroit Stadium, but had to turn fans away at the gate. As owner of WJR, one of the bigger and more powerful stations in the country, Richards convinced NBC to broadcast the game on 94 stations nationwide. It would become the first national pro football broadcast.
The Bears, led by hall of fame owner and coach George “Papa Bear” Halas, won the game, 19-16, but a tradition was born. Chicago would go on to win their second straight league title and finish the season 13-0, which stood as the best mark in NFL history until 1972, when the Miami Dolphins went 14-0.
The Detroit Lions have hosted the Thanksgiving Day Classic for eight decades. The only time they have not hosted were six seasons during World War II. The tradition is older than 24 current NFL franchises and began before the inception of the All American Football Conference or the American Football League. The Lions are 36-38-2 [.480] on Thanksgiving Day. Their most frequent opponent has been the Green Bay Packers, against whom they have gone 12-8-1 in 21 meetings. Detroit’s next-most frequent foe has been the Bears, who they have played 16 times, winning eight. The Lions have been least successful against the Rams, losing each of their three meetings. Beginning in 1951, Detroit played in 13 straight Thanksgiving Day games against the Packers. The 1951 contest was the highest-scoring game [52-35] in the history of the Classic. The first Thanksgiving Day game shown on national television came in 1956- when the Packers beat the Lions, 24-20. The lowest-scoring game was the 1968 “Mud Bowl”- when the Lions lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 12-0, at Tiger Stadium, a venue that had played host to the World Series one month earlier.
The Thanksgiving Day Classic was played at the University of Detroit from 1934 to 1937. Tiger Stadium was host venue beginning in 1941. The last Classic played in Tiger Stadium was in 1974, when the Lions fell to the Denver Broncos, 31-27. The game moved to the Pontiac Silverdome from 1975 to 2001. In the 1980 Classic, Bears quarterback Vince Evans scored on the final play of regulation to send the game to overtime. David Williams returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown as Chicago stunned Detroit, 23-17. At the time, it was the shortest overtime [21 seconds] in NFL history. Since 2002, the Classic has been played at Ford Field. Legendary Lions running back Barry Sanders reached two milestones on Turkey Day. In 1997, he gained 167 yards to pass Eric Dickerson into second place on the league’s all-time rushing list. The following year, he joined Walter Payton as the only backs in NFL history to run for 15,000 career yards.
Today the Detroit Lions host the 77th Thanksgiving Day Classic, as they meet the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field in Detroit. It will be the fourth time these teams have met on Turkey Day. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 pm ET.
On behalf of all of us at the Daily Dose, Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!