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The Tradition: Thanksgiving in the Motor City


Thanks Giving

No other team in professional sports can claim to be as much a part of an American holiday as can the Detroit Lions with Thanksgiving. When you think of Thanksgiving, you think of football and the Lions.

The Thanksgiving tradition is older than 24 current NFL franchises, and Detroit’s passionate affair with the annual Thanksgiving Day game is evidenced by its growing popularity. Year after year, Detroiters look forward to not only spending Thanksgiving with their families, but they also enjoy sharing that time with the Lions.

The most recent illustration of this love affair has been shown by the support of the thousands of Lions’ fans who have flocked to the gates on Thanksgiving Day.

The 2016 schedule features the Lions’ 77th Thanksgiving Day Classic Thursday, November 24 at 12:30 p.m. ET vs. the Minnesota Vikings. This year’s game marks just the 4th meeting between the the Lions and Vikings on Thanksgiving and the first since a memorable 44-38 Lions win in 1995.

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The Origin of the Lions' Thanksgiving Day Game

It was, legend says, a typically colorful, probably chilly, November day in 1622 that Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated the new world's bounty with a sumptuous feast. They sat together at Plymouth Plantation (they spelled it Plimouth) in Massachusetts, gave thanks for the goodness set before them, then dined on pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, maize, cranberry sauce, turkey and who knows what else.

Actually, fish was just as predominant a staple. And history books say pumpkin pie really debuted a year later. But regardless of the accuracy of the details, that's how Thanksgiving Day is seen by Americans -- except Detroiters.

They may have most of the same images as everyone else, but with a new twist that began in 1934.

That's when Detroiters and their outstate Michigan compatriots found themselves at the dawn of an unplanned behavior modification, courtesy of George A. "Dick" Richards, owner of the city's new entry in the National Football League: The Detroit Lions.

--Larry Paladino
Lions Pride, 1993

The game was the brainchild of G.A. Richards, the first owner of the Detroit Lions. Richards had purchased the team in 1934 and moved the club from Portsmouth, Ohio to the Motor City. The Lions were the new kids in town and had taken a backseat to the baseball Tigers. Despite the fact the Lions had lost only one game prior to Thanksgiving in 1934, the season’s largest crowd had been just 15,000.

The opponent that day in 1934 was the undefeated, defending World Champion Chicago Bears of George Halas. The game would determine the champion of the Western Division. Richards had convinced the NBC Radio Network to carry the game coast-to-coast (94 stations) and, additionally, an estimated 26,000 fans jammed into the University of Detroit Stadium while thousands more disappointed fans were turned away.

Despite two Ace Gutowsky touchdowns, the Bears won the inaugural game, 19-16, but a classic was born. Since 1934, 69 games have been played with the Lions holding a series record of 33-34-2 (.493). And each game, in its own way, continues to bring back memories of Thanksgiving, not only to Lions' fans, but to football fans across the nation.

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All-Time Record vs. Opponents

TeamGPRECORDpct.silverdomeford fieldlast played
Arizona Cardinals 1 0-1-0 .000 0-0-0 0-0-0 11/25/48
Atlanta Falcons 1 0-1-0 .000 0-0-0 0-1-0 11/24/05
Boston Yanks 1 0-1-0 .000 0-0-0 0-0-0 11/28/46
Buffalo Bills 2 2-0-0 1.000 2-0-0 0-0-0 11/24/94
Chicago Bears 16 8-8-0 .500 4-3-0 1-0-0 11/27/14
Cleveland Browns 1 1-0-0 1.000 1-0-0 0-0-0 11/23/89
Denver Broncos 3 2-1-0 .667 2-0-0 0-0-0 11/22/90
Green Bay Packers 21 12-8-1 .579 1-2-0 2-3-0 11/28/13
Houston Texans 1 0-1-0 .000 0-0-0 0-1-0 11/22/12
Indianapolis Colts 2 0-1-1 .400 0-0-0 0-1-0 11/25/04
Kansas City Chiefs 4 2-2-0 .500 1-2-0 0-0-0 11/28/96
Miami Dolphins 1 0-1-0 .000 0-0-0 0-1-0 11/23/06
Minnesota Vikings 3 1-2-0 .333 1-1-0 0-0-0 11/23/95
New England Patriots 3 1-2-0 .333 1-0-0 0-2-0 11/25/10
New York Giants 1 0-1-0 .000 0-1-0 0-0-0 11/25/82
New York Jets 2 2-0-0 1.000 1-0-0 0-0-0 11/28/85
New York Yanks 1 1-0-0 1.000 0-0-0 0-0-0 11/23/50
Oakland Raiders 1 1-0-0 1.000 0-0-0 0-0-0 11/26/70
Philadelphia Eagles 2 1-1-0 .500 0-0-0 1-0-0 11/26/15
Pittsburgh Steelers 2 2-0-0 1.000 2-0-0 0-0-0 11/26/98
St. Louis Rams 3 0-3-0 .000 0-1-0 0-0-0 11/27/75
San Francisco 1 0-1-0 .000 0-0-0 0-0-0 11/24/66
Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers 2 0-2-0 .000 0-1-0 0-1-0 11/27/08
Washington Redskins 1 0-1-0 .000 0-0-0 0-0-0 11/22/73
Totals 76 36-38-2 .480 15-11-0 3-10-0 11/26/15

Note: Prior to 1972, a team's winning percentage was calculated using wins and losses, disregarding ties. For example, Detroit's record in the 1960s was 2-6-2 and their winning percentage was .250 (two wins/two wins + six losses). Since 1972, ties have been calculated in winning percentage as a half-a-win.

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Memorable Thanksgiving Day Games

1934 - The Bears took a 19-16 win in the series opener. Chicago went on to post a 13-0 record, an NFL mark that stood until the 1972 Dolphins captured 17 straight wins.

1935 - The Lions took revenge from '34 by beating the Bears, 14-2, to clinch the Western Division title. Detroit went on to beat New York, 26-7, for the club's first NFL Championship.

1938 - Detroit beat the Bears 14-7 to end a streak of five straight Thanksgiving games vs. Chicago. The game also was the last holiday game until 1945 due to the outbreak of World War II.

1945 - Cleveland Rams QB Bob Waterfield passed for 329 yards including an NFL-record 303 yards to E Jim Benton in a 28-21 Detroit loss.

1949 - The Bears whipped the Lions, 28-7, before 24,835 frozen fans. DB Bob Smith intercepted a pass and returned it 102 yards for a then-NFL record. It was the Lions' lone score.

1950 - B Bob Hoernshemeyer rushed for 198 yards in a 49-14 win over the New York Yanks. Included in his big day was a 96-yard TD run, the longest in club history and the third longest ever recorded in the NFL. The Lions' offense racked up 582 yards of total offense, the most in team history in Detroit's first Thanksgiving Day win since 1938.

1951 - The highest scoring Thanksgiving Day game in history was the first of 13 straight Turkey Day appearances in Detroit by the Packers. QB Bobby Layne passed for four TD's and B Jack Christiansen returned two punts for a TD (89 and 72-yarders) to spark Detroit to a 52-35 victory. B Bob Hoernschemeyer also chipped in with an 85-yard touchdown run.

1953 - Green Bay led 15-7 at halftime but QB Bobby Layne connected with E Cloyce Box on a 97-yard TD play (now the third- longest in club history) and the Lions won 34-15 on the way to their second straight NFL crown.

1954 - Detroit beat Green Bay, 28-24, extending its streak of consecutive wins over the Packers to 12. It was the second time in five days the Lions defeated Green Bay as the clubs met the previous Sunday with Detroit edging the Packers at Lambeau Field, 21-17. Detroit finished the season 9-2-1 but lost the World Championship to Cleveland, 56-10, in a rematch of the 1953 contest.

1956 - A late-game QB Tobin Rote TD pass erased the Lions' title hopes in a 24-20 loss to the Packers. It was the first Thanksgiving Day game shown on national television, something now that is taken for granted.

1962 - The famed "grudge match" saw the Lions' "Fearsome Foursome" (DE Darris McCord, DT Alex Karras, DT Roger Brown and DE Sam Williams) sacked Packers QB Bart Starr 11 times for 110 yards in a 26-14 Detroit destruction of Green Bay. The Packers were 10-0 coming into the game and the Lions' win avenged a 9-7 last-second Green Bay win earlier in the season. It was the only loss of the season for the Packers, who went on to claim the World Championship.

1968 - The Lions fell to Philadelphia, 12-0, in the "Mud Bowl" at Tiger Stadium, the lowest scoring game in the series' history.

1970 - The Lions scored 14 fourth quarter points on the way to knocking off the high-flying Oakland Raiders, 28-14. RB Mel Farr rushed 21 times for 121 yards propelling Detroit from a 14-0 deficit. It was the Lions' first Thanksgiving Day win since 1962.

1974- In the last Lions game at Tiger Stadium, Detroit lost to Denver, 31-27.

1976 - Bills RB O.J. Simpson rushed for a then-NFL-record 273 yards but the Lions defeated Buffalo, 27-14.

1978 - DT Doug English went on a rampage by sacking Denver QB Craig Morton four times in a 17-14 Detroit win over the defending AFC Champions.

1980 - QB Vince Evans scored on the last play of the game, and KR David Williams returned the overtime period's opening kickoff for a 95-yard touchdown as Chicago stunned Detroit, 23-17. The game, at the time, was the shortest OT (21 seconds) in NFL history.

1983 - RB Billy Sims scored two TD's and rushed for 106 yards as the Lions stunned the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, 45-3. The Lions' defense also did their part by picking off five Steelers' passes. It was Detroit's first win over Pittsburgh since 1962.

1984 - The Lions came from behind to trim the Packers, 31-28, in Green Bay's first Turkey Day appearance since 1963.

1985 - The Lions bombed the playoff-bound New York Jets, 31-20, as QB Eric Hipple passed for four touchdowns, including three to WR Leonard Thompson. The Lions' defense overshadowed the New York Sack Exchange by sacking Jets QB Ken O'Brien seven times.

1986 - A wild 44-40 Packers' win saw the come-from-behind Green Bay victory clinched when KR Walter Stanley returned a punt 85 yards for the winning score with 41 seconds left in the game. The 40 points are the most points ever scored by the Lions in a loss.

1989 - The 50th Thanksgiving Day game revealed an inspired Lions effort in a 13-10 upset victory over the heavily favored Cleveland Browns. Rookie RB Barry Sanders rushed for 145 yards and caught two passes for 44 yards in the Detroit victory.

1990 - The Lions posted their second straight Thanksgiving win as RB Barry Sanders ran for 147 yards and scored twice in a 40-27 thumping of Denver. QB Bob Gagliano threw three touchdown passes for Detroit as the Lions piled up 421 total yards.

1991 - The Lions turned back the Bears 16-6 in Detroit's third consecutive Thanksgiving victory. The Lions' cause was aided by six Chicago turnovers -- four interceptions and two fumbles. K Eddie Murray booted three field goals, from 21, 50 and 37 yards and QB Erik Kramer connected with WR Robert Clark on a nine-yard touchdown pass to provide the Lions' scoring.

1993 - The Chicago Bears tripped up the Lions, 10-6, with the help of a 42-yard TD pass from QB Jim Harbaugh-to-WR Terry Obee. Detroit RB Barry Sanders sustained a knee injury in the game that forced him out of action for the remainder of the regular season.

1994 - Detroit easily controlled the four-time AFC Champion, Buffalo Bills, 35-21, with reserve QB Dave Krieg at the helm for the injured QB Scott Mitchell. The Lions set the tone on the second play of the game as Krieg used the flea-flicker to connect with a streaking Herman Moore (seven receptions for a then-career-high 169 yards) on a 51-yard touchdown strike. DT Kelvin Pritchett sacked Bills QB Jim Kelly three times and Lions S Willie Clay intercepted the first two passes of his career, returning the second 28 yards for a touchdown.

1995 - A record-breaking offensive explosion paved the way for a 44-38 win over Minnesota. The Lions’ gobbled up 534 yards of total offense and QB Scott Mitchell (30-45 for 410 yards and four TDs) set records for most passing yards in a game and most completions and attempts in a season. And for the first time in club history, three players eclipsed the 100-yard mark in receiving yards -- WR Brett Perriman with 12 receptions for 153 yards and two touchdowns, WR Johnnie Morton with seven catches for 102 yards and a touchdown, and WR Herman Moore with eight grabs for 127 yards and a score.

1997 - The Lions used 38 second half points to cruise to a 55-20 win over Chicago. The 55 points are the most ever scored by a Lions team in regular season play, and are the most points ever allowed by a Bears club. Also, RB Barry Sanders' 167 yards rushing (and three TDs) allowed him to pass Eric Dickerson into second-place on the league's all-time rushing list.

1998 - It marked only the second time in 59 games that the Thanksgiving Day contest went into overtime. The Lions, on a 42-yard Jason Hanson kick, defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 19-16 in front of a sold out Silverdome audience. Though RB Barry Sanders was held to only 20 yards rushing, he became only the second back in NFL history to reach 15,000 career-rushing yards during the contest.

2000 - Detroit won its third-straight game under new Head Coach Gary Moeller (replaced Bobby Ross Nov. 6, 2000), as the Lions dominated the New England Patriots 34-9. The win was solidified when CB Bryant Westbrook intercepted a Drew Bledsoe pass and returned for a Silverdome-tying record 101 yards (also second longest in team history) with 4:13 left to play in the fourth quarter.

2003 - The Lions’ defense forced a season-high five turnovers and limited the Packers league-leading rushing attack to just 52 yards en-route to a 22-14 holiday victory. CB Dré Bly intercepted Green Bay QB Brett Favre twice and forced a WR Javon Walker fumble, earning FOX’s inaugural ‘Galloping Gobbler’ award for his efforts. Detroit K Jason Hanson contributed with five field goals, including three in the fourth quarter.

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Lions' Thanksgiving Day Results

1934 Chicago Bears L, 16-19
1935 Chicago Bears W, 14-2
1936 Chicago Bears W, 13-7
1937 Chicago Bears L, 0-13
1938 Chicago Bears W, 14-7
  (1939-44: Series Interrupted During WWII)  
1945 Cleveland Rams L, 21-28
1946 Boston L, 10-34
1947 Chicago Bears L, 14-34
1948 Chicago Cards L, 14-28
1949 Chicago Bears L, 7-28
1950 New York Yanks W, 49-14
1951 Green Bay W, 52-35
1952 Green Bay W, 48-24
1953 Green Bay W, 34-15
1954 Green Bay W, 28-24
1955 Green Bay W, 24-10
1956 Green Bay L, 20-24
1957 Green Bay W, 18-6
1958 Green Bay W, 24-14
1959 Green Bay L, 17-24
1960 Green Bay W, 23-10
1961 Green Bay L, 9-17
1962 Green Bay W, 26-14
1963 Green Bay T, 13-13
1964 Chicago L, 24-27
1965 Baltimore T, 24-24
1966 San Francisco L, 14-41
1967 L.A. Rams L, 7-31
1968 Philadelphia L, 0-12
1969 Minnesota L, 0-27
1970 Oakland W, 28-14
1971 Kansas City W, 32-21
1972 New York Jets W, 37-20
1973 Washington L, 0-20
1974 Denver L, 27-31
1975 L.A. Rams L, 0-20
1976 Buffalo W, 27-14
1977 Chicago L, 14-31
1978 Denver W, 17-14
1979 Chicago W, 20-0
1980 Chicago L (OT), 17-23
1981 Kansas City W, 27-10
1982 New York Giants L, 6-13
1983 Pittsburgh W, 45-3
1984 Green Bay W, 31-28
1985 New York Jets W, 31-20
1986 Green Bay L, 40-44
1987 Kansas City L, 20-27
1988 Minnesota L, 0-23
1989 Cleveland W, 13-10
1990 Denver W, 40-27
1991 Chicago W, 16-6
1992 Houston L, 21-24
1993 Chicago L, 6-10
1994 Buffalo W, 35-21
1995 Minnesota W, 44-38
1996 Kansas City L, 24-28
1997 Chicago W, 55-20
1998 Pittsburgh W (OT), 19-16
1999 Chicago W, 21-17
2000 New England W, 34-9
2001 Green Bay L, 27-29
2002 New England L, 12-20
2003 Green Bay W, 22-14
2004 Indianapolis L, 41-9
2005 Atlanta L, 27-7
2006 Miami L, 27-10
2007 Green Bay L, 37-26
2008 Tennessee L, 47-10
2009 Green Bay L, 34-12
2010 New England L, 45-24
2011 Green Bay L, 27-15
2012 Houston L (OT), 34-31
2013 Green Bay W, 40-10
2014 Chicago W 34-17
2015 Philadelphia W 45-14
  Overall Record 36-38-2

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