History Lesson : Thanksgiving (in Detroit, not Plymouth)

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Thanksgiving.

You’re thinking turkey, of course. Probably family and pie, too. But you’re also thinking football, right? Aside from the Super Bowl itself, I doubt there’s a day of the year more synonymous with football than Thanksgiving.

So…why? How did that get started?

It began with the Lions. Hence the annual Lions game on Thanksgiving, for better or for worse (and, sorry, Detroit – it’s usually for worse). In 1934 the Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit and became the Detroit Lions.

(Although, aren’t we all just a little surprised that there isn’t an NFL team named the Spartans? Especially in the company of Cardinals and Ravens and Dolphins and Colts…a veritable zoo of animals that will leave the terror right out of your heart?)

(I realize I’m a fan of the Packers, which doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the heart of an opponent by name alone. But it’s such a rich history! Maybe that will be a history series in the future: team name origins.)

(Have I digressed?)

So, in 1934, the Spartans catch the midnight train to Detroit and become the Lions. Local radio executive George A. Richards purchased the team and was looking for a way to get a little of the limelight off of baseball and onto football. So he opted for a holiday game in an attempt to lure fans in during the team’s first year in the city.

And lure he did! The 26,000 tickets for the game sold out 2 weeks in advance, and it was estimated that nearly double would have been sold had they been available.

Not too shabby for their first year in town!

This was no homecoming game, no easy victory set up so that the home team comes out on top. This was a clash of the titans: the hometown Lions, who had lasted 8 straight games without allowing a touchdown (um, wow) and had a 10-1 record, and the rival Chicago Bears, who were one game better at 11-0 coming into the game.

They left 12-0.

The Bears took the division title that year, but roles would be reversed in the following year, when Detroit went on to win the Thanksgiving game (again against the Bears) and the 1935 Championship as well.

And, save for a small streak in the late 30’s and early 40’s, the Lions have played every Thanksgiving game since in one of the best Thanksgiving traditions since turkey. The Cowboys became a perennial Thanksgiving staple during the 60’s, and teams have rotated in and out of the Turkey Day schedule ever since it began, but it all started with the Lions.

Good job, Detroit. We’re thankful for you.

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