Detroit’s Thanksgiving Game: A Tradition That Shapes Lions Players

Dominic Raiola played center for the Lions for 14 years and loved every Thanksgiving game. Win or lose (for him, mostly the latter), the Turkey Day tradition helped make him the player he was and the man he is
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Like most Detroiters, Dominic Raiola has plans Thursday afternoon: “I’ll be home. I’ll be locked in.” The Lions play their annual Thanksgiving Day game—this year, against the Vikings—in the closest thing the NFL has to a college tradition. It’s not built on a history of winning. It’s not a marketing tool for the league. It’s a ritual. It’s what Detroiters have always done, going back to World War II.

Raiola, a Lions center from 2001 to 2014, understands. He hopes the current players understand, too. The Lions play so many national TV games these days, and the league has Thursday games every week now. This might feel like just another game to them. It’s different for Raiola: “You couldn’t wait for that week. There was always a different energy in that building.”

Raiola looked forward to the Thanksgiving Day game the way Army looks forward to Navy or Mississippi State looks forward to Ole Miss. He played his 200th game on Thanksgiving. He made his 200th start the next Thanksgiving. He remembers beating Brett Favre on Thanksgiving and seeing cornerback Dre Bly display Fox’s Galloping Gobbler award in his basement.

“We always play good on Thanksgiving,” Raiola said over lunch in suburban Birmingham last week.

To which I said: We?

He laughed.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever lose that,” he said.

That’s good. Raiola has lost enough. In a way, this is a story about a man who is thankful for all the times he lost.

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The Lions were 71-153 in Raiola’s 14 years. They had two winning seasons.  Raiola realized fairly early in his Lions career that his uniform should include a life preserver. Detroit went 2-14 when he was a rookie. The next year, 3-13. That fall the Lions went into overtime against the Bears in Champaign, Ill., while Soldier Field was being renovated. Coach Marty Mornhinweg told Raiola if he won the coin toss, he should ignore possession and take the wind at his back. Raiola thought that was insane. But what could he do?

The coin flipped.

The Lions won.

Raiola stood across from Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and declared that the Lions would take the wind.

“Urlacher,” he says, “laughed at me.”

Raiola meekly told Urlacher, “My head coach said that.”

The Lions lost, of course. They almost always lost. They lost so much that Raiola knew they would lose. In 2008, they became the only team in league history to go 0-16, and by that point they had been so bad for so long that 0-16 wasn’t even a surprise.

“We’d go into games, and in my head, I’d just think, Don’t be the reason why we lose this game,” he says. “Don’t let them use you as an excuse and fire you. Call it selfish, but the team had already lost the game before it started.”

With every loss, Raiola remained competitive on the field and gregarious but feisty off it. He once spit in the face of a Bears fan who called him “a fatass,” only to find out the guy was a state trooper. Raiola says he gave him eight tickets and $2,000 worth of gift-shop gear to not press charges. (It was cheaper than an NFL fine.) In 2004, as he watched a Pistons playoff game with Lions quarterback Joey Harrington, a fan started heckling Harrington.

 “I said, ‘Say one more f---ing thing we’re going to go meet under the [stands],’” Raiola recalls. “He said one more thing. I got up and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Joey was like, ‘Hey, stop.’”

Raiola stopped, but only because Harrington held him back.

“I would have done it,” Raiola says, “One hundred percent.”

He learned to restrain himself, but only because, “I know how much actual fights would cost me. These millennials, they want to sue you.” Every year, it seemed, he gave the finger to a heckler.

But … well, here is a story: Raiola once got so mad at Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski that he put tape on the floor around his locker and told Kowalski not to step inside it. At the end of the season, the media gave Raiola its Good Guy award. His fellow lineman Rob Sims was incredulous: That guy? Raiola giddily put the plaque on display in his locker.

That was Raiola: If you spent every day around the guy, you found yourself liking him. He talked to everybody. He had a sense of humor. He got mad, but he didn’t stay mad. He got into tussles with fans, but he also wanted to win for them.

And he stayed the same through all the losing. His agent kept asking him if he wanted to play somewhere else. Raiola looked around at an awful franchise in a decayed, bankrupt city and said: No way.

Detroit had grown on him, and being a Lion had become part of his identity. His first house was next door to Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood’s. Raiola and Osgood used to stay up until dawn, drinking beer and hanging out. His second house was next to fellow Lions lineman Jeff Backus’s; they never hung out. Raiola jokes that the only time he saw Backus was as Backus pulled into his garage.

He met Bob Ritchie, a.k.a. Kid Rock, through fellow lineman Stephen Peterman, and they became close friends and traveling partners. If you see two adult males wrestling on a private airstrip anywhere in America, it’s probably just Kid Rock and Dominic Raiola.

Many pro athletes leave town as soon as the season ends. Raiola, who grew up in Hawaii, somehow became even more of a Detroiter. A few months after the 0-16 season he flew to Pittsburgh for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. He expected the Red Wings to win the Cup for the second straight year, and he expected to celebrate properly. He sat in the stands next to Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo. The Penguins took a 2-0 lead, but when the Wings’ Kris Draper scored to cut it to 2-1, Raiola started screaming: “YEAHHH!”

Pittsburgh fans started throwing stuff at him. Izzo tucked his head down and said, “Dom, you’re going to get us kicked out.”

Raiola said: “Tom, we’re fine! We’re good!”

Izzo had just made another Final Four. The Wings were annual contenders. The Pistons were coming off six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances. The Tigers were in a renaissance. Raiola’s team kept losing. In the reductive analysis of many sports fans and analysts, players on losing teams are often considered losing players, and the best players on the worst teams get most of the blame. Even Raiola started to wonder.

“You ask yourself, is it me?” he says, and he always came to one conclusion: “I’ll let the head coach decide that.”

When Mornhinweg got fired, Steve Mariucci came in and kept Raiola. When Mariucci got fired, Rod Marinelli kept him. Then Jim Schwartz. Then Jim Caldwell. Raiola never made a Pro Bowl, but his coaches and teammates knew he was a winning player—tough, smart, completely committed to doing the best job for his team.

This is odd for a guy who became known for his confrontations with fans, but Raiola was basically a fan at heart. He just couldn’t give up on his team. He believed someday the Lions would win, and someday Detroit would come back, and he wanted to be there for both.

Back when the first round of the draft was during daytime, Raiola made it a point to work out at the Lions’ facility that day, to be part of it: “Help was coming, right?” In 2005 he watched the Lions take USC receiver Mike Williams with the 10th pick, even though a) they had taken receivers in the first round the previous two year, and b) Williams had not played football in a year. Raiola recalls his reaction: “What the f--- was that? I can’t believe it.” Williams was overweight and ineffective—figuratively and literally a large bust.

Raiola’s Lions tenure is dotted with names that only Lions fans remember. Boss Bailey. Kalimba Edwards. Ikaika Alama-Francis. Jordan Dizon. Daniel Bullocks. In 2002 they used their fourth-round pick on John Taylor of Montana State, which even Taylor said was a “total surprise.” He was just hoping to get drafted.

 “It’s not the player’s fault at that point,” Raiola says. “They are who they are. They run what they run. They test how they test. Their film is their film. And when you draft them that high, whose fault is that?”

Raiola says: “Players I played with, they weren’t just cut. They were out of the NFL.”

He says all the losing made him tougher. It also made him look forward to Thanksgiving every year. He admits this tradition wouldn’t mean so much to the Patriots or Steelers, teams that are used to winning Super Bowls. But it’s the one thing the Lions have.

“It was fun because, you win that game, the weekend is awesome,” he says. “You get to really enjoy yourself. Now when you lose, it’s s----y, but there were years there when the whole season was s----y, so you didn’t put more weight on it.”

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The truth is that the Lions don’t always play well on Thanksgiving. Raiola knows that. He remembers the time Peyton Manning blew them out. And there was 2008, when the Lions were on their way to their famous 0-16 season. Raiola was hurt—it was the only Thanksgiving Day game he missed. But he saw the Titans and Lions in warm-ups, and ...

“We lost the game before it started,” he says. “These [Tennessee] guys are doing live 9-on-7 [drills] before the game. The Lions are kind of putzing around pregame. I mean, we had no chance. No chance.”

The Tennessee defensive coordinator, the bright and cocky Jim Schwartz, took over the Lions the next year. On one Thanksgiving, Schwartz impetuously threw a challenge flag before a play was over … only to watch the play end in a touchdown, meaning it was automatically reviewed and therefore not challengeable. Schwartz’s mistake turned what should have been an 8-yard-run into an 81-yard touchdown. Raiola remembers that one well, too.

The Lions are 36-38-2 on Thanksgiving, which might not sound impressive, because it’s not. Remember: All those games were at home. But consider the team’s awful history (one playoff win since 1957). And consider that, especially in the modern era, the NFL has scheduled marquee opponents on Thanksgiving. The Lions have faced Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning on nine of the last 15 Thanksgivings. For the Lions, 36-38-2 isn’t so bad.

This year’s game with the Vikings may decide the NFC North title. But in many years, the Lions’ Thanksgiving Day game meant both less and more: The team stunk, but this was the one day all year when the rest of the country had to pay attention.

Raiola’s vision is coming true: The city of Detroit is finally coming back, and the Lions may win their division. Raiola says: “You can kind of connect those dots.” He knows he is just one of thoese dots in Detroit sports history, a good player on a bad team for a long time. But he is a proud and grateful dot.

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