In the mostly inglorious history of Thanksgiving football in Detroit, the Lions have dragged themselves onto the field with a variety of emotions.
They’ve been prohibitive underdogs, the Turkey Day game their only appearance on national TV, where they’ve been the Washington Generals to their opponent’s Harlem Globetrotters.
They’ve come in as hopeful spoilers, trying to be the scrappy group of rejects that ruins their more formidable opponent’s playoff run.
They’ve run onto the field with false bravado, perhaps even with a winning record, determined to show the nation why they deserve respect.
They’ve laid eggs, played the game of their lives and suffered stinging and sometimes cruel defeats.
They may as well play these games on February 2, because there’s a Groundhog Day aspect to Thanksgiving Day football in Detroit.
Every fourth Thursday of November, Lions fans wake up, wash and stuff their bird, jam it into the oven, flick on the parade on the tube (or traipse downtown to see it in person), and can’t wait until 12:30 p.m. to arrive. As if last year didn’t happen.
This is because a myth has been propagated for decades: that the Lions always turn in a fine performance on Thanksgiving Day.
The facts don’t bear that out, and recent results are finally starting to hack away at that Redwood of a myth.
The Lions, in the past 11 years, have won one Thanksgiving Day game, and that came way back in 2003.
Just call them the Myth-Busters.
But of all the emotions the Lions have carried with them onto the gridiron on Thanksgiving, only once have they strapped on their helmets with sheer, unadulterated rage.
It happened 50 years ago to the day of this year’s holiday game.
November 22, 1962.
The Lions played the Green Bay Packers that day, and never before or since did they take the field with such a chip on their shoulder, regardless of the date, regardless of the situation.
The Lions’ crankiness could be traced to their first meeting with the Pack in ‘62, about a month or so prior, in Green Bay.
In the rain, on a muddy field, the Lions let one slip away—literally.
Nursing a 7-6 lead and with the football near midfield in the closing minutes, the Lions had the undefeated Packers on the ropes. Perhaps one more first down, just one more, would salt the game away in the gloom of Green Bay. The date was October 7.
Then the Lions made their slip-up.
The Lions defense mauled the Packers that day, limiting the defending NFL champs to two measly field goals all afternoon. And that defense was on the sideline, watching its offensive counterparts about to commit football harakiri.
Football 101 says that in the situation the Lions found themselves in—a lead late in the game, with the football—the course of action is to keep the ball as grounded as a wayward teenager.
In that moment, only a loon would call a play requiring quarterback Milt Plum to fade back and dare a forward pass. Only a stark, raving madman would suggest anything other than a nice, safe running play—especially in the unsure footing that day.
As the Lions defense looked on helplessly and in horror, Plum shot a pass toward the sideline, where intended receiver Terry Barr slipped in the mud. Plum’s throw was easily picked off by cornerback Herb Adderley, who galloped downfield, deep into Lions territory.
Moments later, Paul Hornung booted a field goal in the waning seconds and the Packers shocked the Lions, 9-7.
The Lions trudged off the field, losers of a game they had in their hip pockets, that is until someone—it wasn’t initially known who it was—foolishly called for a pass. Even if the Lions hadn’t made that first down on the ground, they could have punted and pinned the Packers deep, with not much time remaining.
That loss divided the team, maybe for years—certainly for the rest of that season. In the locker room afterward, it was demanded of Plum which birdbrain called for that pass. Plum didn’t give the inquisitor—it may have been Alex Karras or Joe Schmidt—a satisfactory answer.
Karras’ helmet flew past Plum’s head and smacked against the wall, hurled by its enraged owner.
Defense vs. offense.
The Lions played on after the game in Green Bay, dropping a tough one to the New York Giants a couple of weeks later. The Packers kept winning, and they were still unbeaten when they squared off against the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Green Bay was 10-0; the Lions were 8-2, though both teams knew that the records should have been an identical 9-1 for each side.
Raging with anger, the Lions defense tossed the Packers offensive line around like rag dolls in their relentless pursuit of quarterback Bart Starr. Karras, Schmidt and the rest of the defense played the game of their lives that Thanksgiving, sacking Starr 11 times (the stat was unofficial back then) in front of a national TV audience.
The Lions roared to a 26-0 lead and won, 26-14. The champion Packers didn’t have a prayer.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The Packers finished the season 13-1; the Lions, 11-3. No Wild Cards back then. The Lions finished in second place; the Packers returned to the championship game and beat the Giants for the second year in a row.
Had the Lions not let that game in Green Bay slip away, both teams would have finished 12-2 and met in a divisional playoff contest.
And never in the past 50 years have the Lions played any Thanksgiving Day game with the fury they displayed against the Packers on November 22, 1962.
Disrespected? Yes. Dismissed? Yes. Hopeful? Yes. Enraged? Not for a half-century.
But they sure have caused such rage, haven’t they?