Turkey Day in Detroit: A History

Thursday November 26th, 2015

Mike O’Hara has covered the Detroit Lions since 1977, first for The Detroit News and currently for DetroitLions.com. This Thanksgiving game is his 38th year in the Lions press box. Along the way O’Hara has seen the Lions occasionally roast opponents, but more often than not get the stuffing beat out of them. Did we mention he’s an expert on Turkey Day puns? Years of writing Thanksgiving columns will do that to you. The MMQB spoke to O’Hara about the importance of the Thanksgiving game in Detroit and the best and worst games he's covered in nearly four decades.

The Lions hosted the Bears at the University of Detroit’s stadium in 1934, the beginning of a tradition that is now in its eighth decade.
Pro Football Hall of Fame/AP
The program from the first Turkey Day game in Detroit.
Pro Football Hall of Fame/AP

KALYN KAHLER: The Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving since 1934. How did the tradition of the Lions on Thanksgiving become so cemented in the NFL culture and in Detroit?

O'HARA: It goes back to the days of when the Lions moved from Portsmouth, Ohio, to Detroit. They played at the old University of Detroit Stadium. The owner, G.A. Richards, thought that if he had a game on Thanksgiving it could help with attendance. And it did. They had 26,000 for that home game, and it was by far their best attendance of the season. Thus was born the tradition. And then for 13 years from 1951 until 1963 they played the Packers on Thanksgiving. That was the only Thanksgiving game in the NFL until the Cowboys joined in 1966. In a lot of people’s minds it was like losing a member of the family when Vince Lombardi decided not to do it anymore and that the Packers wouldn’t be coming into town. I think the rivalry with the Packers is really what cemented it here in Detroit because the Packers were so good.

Bears-Lions, 1935.
From 1951 to ’59, Packers-Lions was the lone Thanksgiving NFL game. Here, the Lions defeat the Pack 18-6 in 1957.
Vernon Biever/AP

KAHLER: You grew up in Detroit. Did you go to any of these Thanksgiving day games before you became a Lions beat writer?

O'HARA: Yes, my family’s home became the focus of Thanksgiving for all the relatives to come in. And for the Green Bay game on Thanksgiving, we went for like eight or nine years in a row. The only game we missed in all those years was the ’62 game because we just couldn’t get tickets. Back then it wasn’t just the Thanksgiving football game; it was the parade too. There’s been a parade in downtown Detroit forever. There also was another element to it—the Detroit Red Wings played close to downtown at the Detroit Olympia, and on Thanksgiving night they would play either the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs. Back then all the players were from Canada, there were very few American players, so playing on Thanksgiving was no big deal to them because Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. It was just a really cool double-header. We would go from the football game to dinner to the hockey game. A lot of people did that.

The Lions manhandled Bart Starr in the fabled 1962 game, sacking the Packers QB 11 times in a 26-14 win.
AP

KAHLER: Have you ever had a “normal” Thanksgiving, one that isn’t centered on the Lions?

O'HARA: Oh, this is a normal Thanksgiving to me. I’ve been covering the Lions since 1977. I had a couple years in the Army, ’69 through ’71. Thanksgiving in the Army is different, but this is normal for me. The only year I haven’t gone to a Lions Thanksgiving game was in 2008 when I took a year off of writing, and incidentally that’s the year they went 0-16. This will be the 38th Thanksgiving game I’ve covered. For a lot of people just like me, Thanksgiving Day is the Lions game and the parade in Detroit. So that is what is normal to me. I go home and eat leftovers, and that’s just the way it is.

Norm Snead and the Eagles met the Lions in the mud in 1968.
Alvan Quinn/AP
Greg Landry was a Thanksgiving staple under center in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

KAHLER: What’s been your favorite of the Thanksgiving games?

O'HARA: The ’62 game is the absolute classic. It’s been written about a million times. Detroit defensive tackle Roger Brown was in on seven of the sacks and Detroit sacked Bart Starr 11 times. Of all those games that my family went to, that was the one we couldn’t get tickets for. The Lions were 11-3 and the Packers were 13-1, and a lot of these polls that you’ve seen over the years have graded the Packers as the best team of all time. It was just a great, great football team. The backdrop on that game is that in the third or fourth week of the season the Lions go to Green Bay and they have a 7-6 lead late in the game. Then they have a pass intercepted by Herb Adderley, and he runs it back to the 10-yard line and the Packers kick a field goal to win on the last play. The Lions really thought they had the best team in the league that year, and maybe they did, but that game fueled the rivalry, and they beat the living crap out of Starr on Thanksgiving Day. The next great victory over Green Bay was in 2013, when they just slaughtered the Packers. The score was 40-10 when Matt Flynn was starting quarterback and Aaron Rodgers was out. It’s always been a Packers rivalry. But that was a big game.

Joe Namath and Jets talked Turkey with the refs at Tiger Stadium in ’72.
Richard Sheinwald/AP

I’ll give you three more big games. These really are off the top of my head.

Thanksgiving 1979: The Lions ended the season 2-14 and the Bears are going for the playoffs, and they ultimately make it. The Lions were just horrible that year—they went through three or four quarterbacks. On Thanksgiving Day they have this undrafted rookie linebacker named James Harrell, and they told him before the game, “James, you’ve got Walter Payton.” Harrell said, “Okay, thank you very much, but I think he’s got me.” But he just hounded Payton that whole game. There was one play down the right sideline where I swear Harrell went up and he looked like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, just ripped the ball out of the air. The Lions ended up winning that game, and it was just a huge upset.

O.J. Simpson ran for a then-NFL record 273 yards at the Silverdome in ’76.
AP

Thanksgiving 1995: The Lions beat Minnesota 44-38 and what was cool about that to me is that on the last drive of the game, the Vikings throw a pass in the end zone for Cris Carter. Well, the Lions had Herman Moore, the All-Pro wide receiver, playing deep safety, and he knocked the ball away from Carter to preserve the game. Plays like that are things you remember.

Walter Payton and the Bears ran over the Lions in 1977.
AP

Thanksgiving 1998: The controversial coin flip game, where Jerome Bettis possibly called heads and tails before overtime and the Steelers thought they won the toss and were going to kick off and win. But instead the referee gave the ball to the Lions because he said Bettis had called both heads and tails. And the Lions won, 19-16. 

Barry Sanders on Thanksgiving is what many new players to the Lions say they know about Detroit.
Werner Slocum/AP

KAHLER: Worst game you’ve covered on Thanksgiving?

O'HARA: This is an absolute no-brainer. 1988, I’ve got the media guide here just for reference, but this is something I do remember. It’s 1988 and the Lions get beat 27-0 by the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving Day to an announced crowd of 46,000 and change at the Silverdome, and it seats like 81,000. The Lions were so horrible, I mean so horrible, they changed coaches during the season, Wayne Fontes was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach after the 11th game. The Thanksgiving game was his second game, they win the first game and beat the Packers, and then they come home to play on Thanksgiving Day, and they don’t get a first down until the last offensive play of the third quarter on a deflected pass. And what was left of the crowd, maybe 10,000 of them, just gave him the most sarcastic cheer you can imagine. It was just horrible. They must have counted everybody three times when the attendance was announced.

Billy Sims, another great Lions back, meets the crowd in 2005.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
The “Millen Man March” in ’05 was one of many Turkey Day fan demonstrations against a stagnant Lions team in the ’00s.
Paul Sancya/AP

KAHLER: Which game was the most miserable Detroit moment?

O'HARA: There are so many, but I tell you, it was the 2006 season, and the Lions had gotten rid of quarterback Joey Harrington. It was like a forced marriage that didn’t work, an arranged marriage I should say. They end up trading him to Miami, and he comes back and throws three touchdown passes on Thanksgiving Day here and the Lions get absolutely shredded by the Dolphins, 27-10. Harrington was the player of the game. The fans hated him, the media didn’t care for him all that much either, and he wasn’t warmly embraced by his teammates, but here he is as the star of the game. I think the game was on CBS and he got the Turkey Leg Award. It was just a complete embarrassment for the franchise. Here’s this guy that they ran out of town, and he came back to beat them on Thanksgiving Day.

When Joey Harrington, a first-round QB who’d fizzled with Detroit, came back as in ’06 as a Dolphin and threw three TD passes in a Miami win, it was the ultimate Thanksgiving insult.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

KAHLER: In the past when the Lions have played poorly there has been some noise among media about rotating Detroit’s Thanksgiving game to more successful teams. Do you think Detroit will ever lose the Thanksgiving game?

O'HARA: I remember they went through just a terrible stretch from 2000 to 2009 where there were people who thought that they might lose their Thanksgiving game. There’s never really been a big push for it, but I remember Lamar Hunt once wanted to introduce it as a talking point at the owner’s meetings. This was back in the mid-’90s, possibly rotating the game between all the teams and not just letting Detroit and Dallas do it. There’s never been any real indication that the Lions are going to lose the game, and I don’t think they should. They are the franchise that went out on a limb to help give the NFL a tradition that it really maintained, and they deserve some credit for that. Whether centuries from now they will still be doing it, I don’t know, but it works for now.

In the winless 2008 season, sad-sack fans went incognito at Ford Field.
Rebecca Cook/Reuters

KAHLER: Does the Detroit media family have any special Thanksgiving traditions?

O'HARA: Not really, but one Thanksgiving press box meal stands out. It was 1997, my first year covering Thanksgiving game as a beat guy. The Chicago Bears were in town, this was at the old Pontiac Silverdome, where they played from 1975 to 2001. And on that Thanksgiving, they served roast beef sandwiches for the pregame meal. It was roast beef sandwiches on that kind of spongy white bread where you touch it and it leaves your fingerprints on it. One of the Chicago columnists there, Ron Rapoport said, “You think they could at least have warmed up the meat!” It was this pile of white bread and dry roast beef. It was just the pits.

Fried Turkey at a tailgate in 2011.
Paul Sancya/AP

KAHLER: From a writing perspective, would you consider yourself an expert on Thanksgiving puns?

O'HARA: I don't know how many times I think I have written the line, “For once, the Detroit Lions make somebody else sick to their stomach,” or something like that. Or maybe in ’79 when they beat the Packers, my lede might have been something like, “The season of miracles really does begin on Thanksgiving.” Sometimes I will look at something and I’ll go, man, did I write that before? And the answer is probably yes. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, and you can only arrange them so many ways. But every once in awhile I will look at it and say, no, no you’ve done that before, try to figure something else out. I can’t tell how many times I’ve written that the Lions have gotten the stuffing beaten out of them on Thanksgiving.

Win or lose, Detroit prides itself on being the home of Thanksgiving football.
Rick Osentoski/AP

KAHLER: What do Lions players think of playing on Thanksgiving?

O'HARA: I don’t think players do this anymore, but it used to be that they would pull a prank—they’d get like five or six rookies, and they would put a note in their locker to go to such-and-such place to pick up their free turkey. The rookies would show up to the address, and they would be at a cleaners or someplace. Some guys got really angry about it, but here’s the one thing that has always stood out to me, especially lately since 1989 when Barry Sanders was drafted here. When the Lions would draft a player, I don’t care if it was the first round or the seventh round, you would ask a guy, what do you know about Detroit? They’d say two things: Number one, “I watched them on Thanksgiving Day,” and number two, “I love watching Barry Sanders.” It was back-to-back. It’s not so much Barry anymore—it might be Calvin Johnson now—but still, Barry’s last season was 1998. Some of them were four or five years old. But for years, that was the Detroit Lions” touchstone to the kids out there who would become NFL players of the future.Yeah, we watched them on Thanksgiving Day, and we would run out and play in the yard after watching Barry Sanders. That was the connection, as much as the game itself means to the city of Detroit,  those two things, that the kids who came in here to play, their identity with the Lions was Thanksgiving and Barry.

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