Detroit Lions owner G.A. Richards was merely trying to come up with a way to sell some tickets back in 1934, when he decided the Lions — whom he had just moved to the Motor City from Portsmouth, Ohio — should host a game on Thanksgiving Day. Suffice to say he had no idea that playing on Thanksgiving Day would remain the only way for the Lions to remain relevant 76 years later.
The Lions will once again serve as background noise to dinner and/or a welcome diversion from feuding family members Thursday, November 25, when they host the New England Patriots at 12:30 p.m. EDT in the first of three National Football League games on Thanksgiving.
And just as it was in 1934, playing on Thanksgiving Day will provide a rare burst of attention for the Lions. The Lions didn’t draw more than 15,000 people to any of their first four home games in their inaugural season, but 26,000 turned out for the Thanksgiving Day game, which was broadcast nationwide by the NBC Radio Network.
The present-day Lions annually sell out Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day — no small feat for a team in the midst of the worst funk in NFL history and playing in a city ravaged by the recession. The Lions, which have had one blackout this season and had four last season, sold out the Thanksgiving Day game with seven days to spare, the quickest sellout of the season.
Joel Schwartz, the owner of Big Time Worldwide in Michigan, told TicketNews that “demand is still good” for Thanksgiving Day tickets even when the Lions are struggling. “We’ve got tremendous interest,” Schwartz said. “It’s a great tradition.”
In addition, as usual, the Thanksgiving Day game will mark the only national TV appearance of the season for the Lions. “To be perfectly honest, the Lions have not been a preeminent team,” longtime Lions kicker Eddie Murray said in a published interview in 2000. “In a lot of years, it was the only TV game the Lions had.”
And that was back when the Lions were respectable — they made eight playoff appearances between 1982 and 1999. The Lions are 2-8 this year and are all but assured of missing the playoffs for the 11th straight year. They endured the NFL’s first 0-16 season in 2008 and are a remarkable 35-119 since 2001, which was also the last season in which they appeared on Monday Night Football. The Lions have not been on Sunday Night Football since it began airing on NBC in 2006.
The Lions are one of just four NFL teams to never play in the Super Bowl, which makes Thanksgiving Day their Super Bowl — and explains why the Lions and the NFL are both so protective of the Lions’ spot on the Thanksgiving schedule, which annually features the Dallas Cowboys in a 4 p.m. game. And, since 2006, a third game airs on the NFL Network that night; this year the New York Jets host the Cincinnati Bengals.
Lions executive William Clay Ford Jr. said the NFL was “very mean-spirited” when it discussed rotating the sites of Thanksgiving Day games in the late 1990s. And Lions president Tom Lewand told MLive.com in 2009 that taking the Thanksgiving Day game away from the Lions “…hasn’t been an issue at any of the [NFL] meetings for more than 10 years.”
The Lions have lost six straight Thanksgiving games, but fortunately for those at the game and watching on TV, they tend to make things entertaining, win or lose. The Lions have scored at least 40 points eight times on Thanksgiving Day, including a franchise-record 55-point outburst in 1997 — and have given up at least 34 points in four of their last six losses. In 1976, the Lions surrendered a then-NFL record 273 yards to a Buffalo Bills running back by the name of O.J. Simpson, but won anyway.
In 1998, referee Phil Luckett misheard Pittsburgh Steelers running back — and Detroit native — Jerome Bettis call “heads” when he actually said “tails” during the overtime coin toss. The Lions elected to receive, won the game on their first possession and the NFL changed coin toss rules so that the player making the call had to announce it before the coin was flipped.
That wasn’t the first memorable overtime moment the Lions experienced on Thanksgiving Day. In 1980, the Chicago Bears returned the opening kickoff of overtime for a touchdown to win, 23-17 — the only time in NFL history a game has ended on an overtime kickoff return.
“I remember trying to chase the guy down and not doing a very good job of it,” Murray said. “It was absolutely stunning. All the people were rushing to the bathrooms and the concession stands to get ready for a nice overtime game, and by the time they came out, the game was over.”