If it seems like the Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving since it became a national holiday, it’s because they actually started seven years earlier.
True, the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in October of 1621, but the custom faded, resurfacing only when George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt promoted the idea as a national tonic in troubled times. FDR tried to move the unofficial holiday back a week to expand the shopping season, but Congress put an end to all the feast-fiddling in 1941, when it fixed Thanksgiving’s date forever and declared it a national holiday.
George Richards was way ahead of them. In 1934 Richards bought the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans, for $7,952.08, moved them to Detroit, and renamed them the Lions. Incredibly, they won their first 10 contests to tie the Chicago Bears for first place with three games left. The bad news: only about 12,000 people seemed to care. If the Lions couldn’t catch on at 10-0, Richards knew, their days in Detroit were numbered.
Richards needed a hook – and fast – so he invited the Bears to play on FDR’s unofficial Thanksgiving Day, and drew an overflow crowd of 26,000. The Bears may have won the game, 19-16, but the Lions won the war.
They had started a tradition that’s now older than 22 of the NFL’s 32 current teams. They rewarded their fans the next season by beating the Bears 14-2, on Thanksgiving, en route to their first league championship, the same year the Tigers, Red Wings and Detroit native Joe Louis all won titles, earning Detroit the nickname, “City of Champions.” (If this sounds unbelievable, we understand.)
The Dallas Cowboys started the second half of this holiday biathlon in 1966, when they stuck the powerful Cleveland Browns with a 26-14 Thanksgiving turkey. The Cowboys have played every year since, having successfully fought to keep their tradition protected by the NFL, too.
The annual tradition invariably inspires the Lions’ best effort. “I don’t know what it is about the Thanksgiving game,” says former All-Pro lineman Keith Dorney. “Maybe it’s the holiday or the national television, but there’s magic in the air for the Lions.”
Call it magic, motivation, or Full-Moon Football, on Thanksgiving the Lions have traditionally been over-achievers, and never more so than in 1962, against Vince Lombardi’s undefeated Green Bay Packers. The Lions jumped out to a shocking 26-0 lead, to give the Packers their only loss that year – one “so distasteful in Green Bay,” writes Lombardi biographer David Maraniss, “that not even the championship win over the [New York] Giants completely erased it.”
There hasn’t been much magic for the Lions the last six seasons, when they’ve lost every Thanksgiving Day game. But these days, they’re usually on national TV just once a year – and that’s something the whole country can be thankful for.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.