Professional Football on Thanksgiving Day, a Lion’s Tradition for Three Quarter’s of a Century


With 12:38 left in this year’s Lion’s Thanksgiving Day football game the Minnesota Vikings took the lead 13-10 on a 28-yard field goal by kicker Kai Forbath. The significance of this year’s game was evident as the fans rose in anticipation of the kick-off urging their Lions to pull off another comeback victory. Both Detroit and Minnesota entered the game tied for first, in the North Division of the NFL’s National Conference, with identical 6-4 records. However, the two team’s fortunes have been diverging as the season enters the final weeks leading up to the playoffs. The Vikings won their first five games before their October 16th bye week, since then the Vikings lost four straight until squeaking past the Arizona Cardinals 30-24 the week before their Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Lions. Whereas Detroit started the season 1-3 before winning five of their last six games to make the annual Thanksgiving Day classic one of the most important football games in the Lions recent history.

No other team in American professional sports is as closely associated with a holiday as the Detroit Lions are with Thanksgiving Day. New Year’s Day has long been the bastion of College Football, but the cast of characters changes each year as college football programs rise and fall. The first Lions game played on Thanksgiving was in 1934 and with the exception of the World War II years (1939-1944) the Lions have played every Thanksgiving Day against a National Football League team. In 1934 that opponent was the defending world champion Chicago Bears, the Bears were undefeated and led by the legendary George Halas who agreed to the game on the holiday to help new Lion’s owner G.A. Richards draw attention to his football club. Richards had purchased the team formerly known as the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved them to the Motor City as the Lions. The Thanksgiving Day promotion worked as the game was sold out and the Lions Holiday Tradition was born. Chicago won that first Thanksgiving contest 19-16 and went on to finish the season 13-0, a record that stood for 38 years until the 1972 Miami Dolphins posted a perfect 17-0 season to capture the NFL World Championship. The following year, 1935, the Lions topped the Bears 14-2 on their way to capturing the team’s first NFL Championship. The Bears and Lions played in the first five Thanksgiving Day classics until the series was interrupted by the war.

Lions Thanksgiving Football Tradition

Detroit football fans were happy to welcome the Thanksgiving Day classic back during the 1945 season although the Cleveland Rams defeated the Lions 28-21, the popularity of the holiday game had been established. The DuMont Television Network first televised the Lions Thanksgiving Day game in 1953, CBS began televising the games in 1956. With the national exposure television provided, the Lions were to be ever linked to turkey dinner, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and football on Thanksgiving Day. That 1953 game featured the Green Bay Packers as the Lion’s opponent, from 1951 to 1963 the Packers and Lions played 13 straight Thanksgiving Day games. Since 1963, the only team to play the Lions in back-to-back years on the holiday were the Chicago Bears in 1979 and 1980.

The Lions Thanksgiving tradition has produced some memorable games and moments as well as a treasure trove of interesting facts that even the most avid Lion’s fan may not be aware of. This year’s game was the 77th in the classic, the Lions record through the previous 76 games is 36-38-2. The Lion’s longest winning streak, six games 1950-1955; their longest losing streak, 9 games 2004-2012. In 1983 the Lions posted their largest margin of victory, 42 points, in a 45-3 win over the Pittsburg Steelers; their worst defeat came at the hands of the Tennessee Titans a 47-10 drubbing in 2008, the year the Lions finished 0-16. The series is older than 24 of the franchises currently playing in the NFL. The Lions have never played the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Changers Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, or Dallas Cowboys (who host their own holiday classic) on Thanksgiving Day. The most common opponents, the Packers 21 times and the Bears 16 times.; this year’s opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, are playing for the fourth time, the same number of times the Lions have played the Kansas City Chiefs, all other teams have played in the classic three times or less.

In 1951 the Lions and Packers combined for 87 points, Hall-of-Famer Bobby Layne threw four touchdown passes, and Jack Christiansen returned two punts for touchdowns to lead the Lions to a 52-35 win. In 1962 Alex Karras and his defensive line-mates got to Bart Starr for 11 sacks in a 26-14 win over the Packers. Vince Lombardi, Green Bay’s iconic coach, led the Pack to victory in every other game they played that year including their second straight NFL Championship game. The 1974 game marked the end of an era as Detroit lost to the Denver Broncos 31-27 in the last Thanksgiving Day game at Tiger Stadium. O.J. Simpson set an NFL record with 273 rushing yards in the 1976 classic but could not keep the Lions from posting a 27-14 over the Buffalo Bills. The 1980 game featured the first overtime for a Lions Thanksgiving Day game, unfortunately OT lasted only 21 seconds as the Bear’s return specialist David Williams ran 95 yards with the kick-off to give Chicago a 23-17 victory. The 50th playing of the Thanksgiving Classic in 1989 saw rookie running back Barry Sanders put up 145 yards against the favored Cleveland Browns as the Lions won 13-10. The 1993 game featured the Chicago Bears slipping past the Lions with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Bear’s quarterback Jim Harbaugh, the Lions also lost Barry Sanders to a season-ending knee injury. In 1997 the Lions blew out Chicago 55-20 with Barry Sanders contributing 167 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the victory as he passed Eric Dickerson to become the NFL’s second most productive running back.

The 47-10 blowout by the Tennessee Titans in 2008 came amidst what might be considered an extremely low point for the franchise. The Lions were in the midst of an extended Thanksgiving Day losing streak and had not posted a winning season record since 2000. Fans around the league were clamoring for the NFL to make a change to the Thanksgiving Day schedule. The league wanted a competitive contest on Thanksgiving Day to highlight the NFL brand and they were receptive to the suggestion of moving the home field to various other sites around the league allowing more teams the opportunity to host the Holiday Classic. The outrage from Detroit fans was deafening, the debate raged for the remainder of the season as the Lions finished 0-16, but the league had heard Lion fans loud and clear; the NFL announced the traditional Thanksgiving Day game would remain in Detroit.

Now with the Lion’s franchise once again on the rise under NFL MVP candidate, quarterback Matthew Stafford, and Head Coach Jim Caldwell; this year’s Thanksgiving Day game between division leaders takes on added significance. A win puts the Lions in excellent position to record their first division championship since the 1993 season. To put that statistic into perspective, every other NFL NFC team has won at least three division titles during that period-of-time.  That 13-10, 4th quarter lead held by the Vikings in this year’s game turned out to be short-lived. Stafford engineered a late game drive that was culminated by a Matt Prater 48-yard field goal with 1:45 to play in the game. With overtime a distinct possibility the Lions kicked off to the Vikings expecting Minnesota to be very conservative with the ball, especially considering Viking’s field position deep in their own territory. However, Viking’s quarterback Sam Bradford lofted a pass towards the side lines that the Lion’s Darius Slay stepped in-front of and intercepted with 30 seconds left in the game. One play allowed the Lion’s to set up the perfect angle for the winning field goal. Again, Matt Prater stepped in and nailed a 40-yarder to give the Lion’s a 16-13 victory.  Could that elusive division title be within reach? Can the Lions make a run deep into the playoffs? Is the Lion’s first trip to a Super Bowl a real possibility? These questions will be answered in the final weeks of the NFL season, but for now the Lions are again Thanksgiving Day Classic winners.