Detroit Lions: A Brief History of Football on Thanksgiving Day

Derek TislerContributor INovember 23, 2011

On Thanksgiving Day, all the focus is on the three “f’s”: food, family and football. In Detroit, the football part has even more meaning.

Every year, people from all over Michigan get together with their loved ones to see their home team take part in the NFL’s Thanksgiving Classic. Over the years, the Detroit Lions have left us with exciting victories and heartbreaking losses, each one leaving great memories to share with those closest to us.

As a Detroit fan, I feel very thankful that such a strong and loyal fan base has been rewarded all these years by being a part of this annual tradition. For the 72nd time, Detroit will host a game on Thanksgiving Day in one of the greatest traditions in all of sports.

Although records of football games being played on Thanksgiving Day date all the way back to 1887, the first NFL matchup came on November 25, 1920, the same year the league was founded.

In 1934, the Portsmouth Spartans were purchased by George Richards and moved to Detroit. The team was renamed the Detroit Lions. As a gimmick to boost attendance for the new team, the Lions' organization scheduled a game on Thanksgiving Day. Richards arranged for the Detroit Lions to play the Chicago Bears in the University of Detroit Stadium and for the game to be nationally televised on NBC.

Although the Lions lost this game, 19-16, the Thanksgiving Day experiment was a huge success for the new franchise. Detroit continued to host this annual game against the Chicago Bears until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The Lions went 3-2 against the Bears during this time.

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 12:  Stefan Logan #11 of the Detroit Lions tries to get around A.J. Hawk #50 of the Green Bay Packers on December 12, 2010 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit won the game 7-3  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions resumed the Thanksgiving Day game in 1945, with a game held against the Cleveland Rams. Since that game, the Detroit Lions have hosted the NFL’s Thanksgiving Classic every year. Detroit was the only team to do so until the Dallas Cowboys began hosting their game in 1966. The format was then changed again in 2006, when the NFL scheduled a third Thanksgiving game that would rotate between different teams to highlight key matchups of that week.

In the 71 games that the Detroit Lions have hosted on Thanksgiving Day, they currently have a record of 33 wins, 36 losses and two ties. This year's Thanksgiving opponent, the Green Bay Packers, has played on Thanksgiving Day 33 times, with 13 wins, 18 losses and two ties. The Lions and Packers have played each other 19 times on Thanksgiving, with Detroit leading the series 11-7 with one tie.

In recent history, the Detroit Lions' Thanksgiving game has often become background noise during meal time. The lack of success in past years has made for a very unexciting matchup in most cases, and led to outcry from NFL fans to revoke Detroit’s rights to the Thanksgiving Day game.

This year, however, not many people are complaining. The Detroit Lions vs Green Bay Packers matchup has been one of the games most looked forward to in the 2011 season.

Green Bay, who has completely dominated opponents all year, looks to improve to 11-0, on their way to a potentially perfect season and repeat Super Bowl.

To do this, they will have to get through a Detroit team that has surpassed everybody’s expectations and has proven to be an explosive team with legitimate playoff possibilities.

This year, all Thanksgiving meal plans are going to have to wait till after the clock hits 0:00 in Ford Field. For the people of Detroit, they finally have a team they can be excited about watching.

As a lifelong Lions fan, I am so thankful for all the great memories that I have shared with my family in front of the TV, cheering on our team. Hopefully this year will provide another great moment for all football fans across the country.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


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