The Detroit Lions have been playing football on Thanksgiving day since 1934. From the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s account:
When it comes to Thanksgiving Day football, NFL style, most fans first think of the Lions and the tradition that was started in 1934. It was their first year in Detroit after a local radio executive, George A. Richards, had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved the team to Detroit. The Spartans were members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933.With the Spartans, not only was Richards bringing a proven, quality team to Detroit, he was also bringing at least one super-star, Earl “Dutch” Clark, one of the most versatile backs ever to play the game. Clark had an outstanding supporting cast in the Detroit backfield with a big, talented line anchored by Frank Christiansen.
Even though he knew there was some risk in scheduling a game on Thanksgiving Day, Richards also recognized that his Lions were taking a back seat to the baseball Tigers on the sports pages. So as one way of attracting Motor City fans during the team’s first season, he opted for the Thanksgiving Day contest.
The matchup between the Lions and the World Champion Chicago Bears proved to be an all-time classic. The 1934 Lions had not allowed a touchdown until their eighth game and entered the game with the Bears with a 10-1 record. But with 11 straight wins, Chicago had an even better record. Still a win would put the Lions into a first-place tie with the Bears with only a game left, a repeat clash with the Bears in Chicago, just three days later on December 2.
The 26,000 tickets for the Turkey Day clash in the University of Detroit Stadium, were sold out two weeks in advance of the game. It was estimated that another 25,000 would have attended had there been seats available.
The Bears edged out the Lions 19-16 in the classic holiday struggle and then prevailed 10-7 three days later to clinch the NFL Western Division crown.
Not despondent over the last two losses, Richards reasoned that his team had done well in its first year in Detroit. His confidence was rewarded the next year when the Lions won the 1935 NFL Championship. The key game in the title drive came on Thanksgiving Day, when the Lions defeated the Bears 14-2 to clinch the West championship.
Thus the football-on-Thanksgiving tradition became firmly established in Detroit. With the exception of a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944, the Thanksgiving Day game has been played with no interruptions.
In recent years, the Lions’ poor performance led many to question their entitlement to the Thanksgiving game year-in and year-out and even call for their removal from the game. To take from a team that had so little going for it that one special thing it did have seemed pretty heartless, even by NFL standards. Even in its worst years (and even if they didn’t win), the team seemed to rise to the occasion, playing tough to preserve legacy and pride on what was likely to be their only nationally televised game of the season. Our family went to one of these games, when the Lions hosted the Bears at the Silverdome in the 90s. I can’t remember which year it was, but after reviewing the old schedules and doing some mental math, I’m going to go with the 1997 meeting, a 55-20 Detroit victory over Chicago.
This year’s meeting, at the Lions’ Ford Field against the undefeated Packers is a critical matchup for two teams with playoff aspirations. On both sides of the ball, the run game will be important to Detroit’s chances for victory. If resurgent Kevin Smith continues to act like old Kevin Smith and the Lions’ defense suddenly discovers a way to stop the run, they could hand the Packers their first loss of the season. Knocking Aaron Rodgers unconscious would help too.