On Thanksgiving Day in 1983, I took my seat in the Pontiac Silverdome and gazed around, waiting for kickoff between the Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I saw a banner hanging from the facade of the upper deck—one of those jobs done with an old bed sheet.
It had an image of “The A-Team” actor Mr. T, with he saying, “I PITY PITT.”
“That’s cute,” I thought.
I had no idea how prescient that homemade declaration would be.
It’s been 35 years now, yet another example of the adage, “My, how time flies.”
Thirty-five years since I witnessed something that I probably wouldn’t have believed unless I had seen it in person.
The Detroit Lions—that dysfunctional franchise that its fans hate to love—demolished the four-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 45-3, turning the Steel Curtain into window sheers.
Yeah, the Lions beat the Steelers, 45-3. Perhaps you’re too young to remember it. Maybe some old-timer like yours truly sat you on his lap and told you about that game, bouncing you on his knee.
I was there. I saw it all. When it was over, the Steelers were a picked over turkey carcass.
The Lions, over the years, have saved some of their most famous and infamous moments for the fourth Thursday of November.
There was 1962, when the Lions, angry over a bitter, self-induced loss in Green Bay earlier in the season, terrorized Packers QB Bart Starr in handing the Pack their only loss of the year, 26-14.
There was 1970, when the Oakland Raiders invaded Tiger Stadium, took a quick 14-0 lead, and were seen laughing on the sidelines. That didn’t go over well with the Lions, who stormed back to win, 28-14, highlighted by two acrobatic Charlie Sanders TD catches.
There was 1978, when the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos came to Pontiac and were beaten, 17-14, behind a maniacal sack-laced performance by the “Silver Rush” defensive line of the Lions.
There was 1980, when Lions playoff hopes were hamstrung by the Bears’ Dave Williams, who took the overtime kickoff 95 yards for a game-ending touchdown.
There was 1982, when the Giants’ Lawrence Taylor intercepted a Gary Danielson pass near the goal line in the fourth quarter and took it 97 yards to the house, sparking a 13-6 win.
And there was 1983.
I saw it all.
The Steelers came into the contest with a 9-3 record, playoff-bound yet again. The Lions, as usual, were scrambling to keep their season alive, with a 6-6 mark. Typical.
The Lions had first possession. QB Eric Hipple faded back to pass on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Someone behind me said, “Uh-oh. Trouble.” On the first play. Such is the life of the Lions fan.
When the gun was fired as the first quarter ended, the Lions had raced to a 17-0 lead, behind a Billy Sims run and a TD catch by tight end Ulysses Norris.
It was 24-3 at halftime, thanks to a second TD grab by Norris.
The Lions kept pouring it on in the second half, the big play being an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Robbie Martin in the fourth quarter to make the score 38-3 as television sets flicked off across the country—except in Detroit, where a sellout enabled the hometown fans to watch the carnage on NBC.
The Lions held the Steelers—quarterbacked by Cliff Stoudt, not an aging, injured Terry Bradshaw—to just 218 total yards and 10 first downs. Stoudt and relief pitcher Mark Malone combined to complete just 11 of 33 passes, with five interceptions. The Lions held the football for 38 minutes.
It was one of the worst beatings the Steelers had ever endured, and before the 1970s, the football franchise in Pittsburgh was lousy for decades.
Of course, my friends and I stayed to the end. We wanted to lap it up as much as possible. The shuttle from the Silverdome to our parking lot was raucous after the game. I saw some downtrodden Steelers fans among the crowd.
As for Steelers coach Chuck Noll?
“This is just an awful experience,” Noll said after the game. “Detroit ruled us. They out-hit us, out-blocked us and ran over and around us. The best thing we can do now is to forget about it.”
The Steelers went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs, 38-10, to the Raiders. The Lions went to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve and created another bad memory, losing 24-23 to the 49ers when Eddie Murray missed a 43-yard FG attempt as coach Monte Clark prayed.
But on Thanksgiving Day in 1983, the Lions turned the tables on a franchise that actually knew what it was doing.
I saw it all.