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Why the Detroit Lions Play on Thanksgiving

The Detroit Lions are rarely one of the NFL’s top teams, but they play every Thanksgiving. The tradition dates back to 1934.

Why do the Detroit Lions Play Every Thanksgiving?

To make a long story short, the reason why the Detroit Lions play everything Thanksgiving is because the team started the NFL tradition of Thanksgiving Day football broadcasted on a national level.

The Lions played the Bears on Thanksgiving Day in 1934. That season marked George Richards’ first year as owner of the Lions. Richards also owned a few radio stations affiliated with NBC. He worked out a deal for NBC to carry a radio broadcast of the Lions vs Bears Thanksgiving Day game across the country.

The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving Day game ever since.

Despite a popular myth, the Lions were not the first NFL team to play on Thanksgiving. The NFL held Thanksgiving Day games all the way back to its inaugural season in 1920, when the league was known as the APFA (American Professional Football Association).

Famous Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day Games

1962 Green Bay at Detroit Thanksgiving Game

The Packers entered the game undefeated at 10-0. They were the NFL’s defending champion. No team had won the league championship game after an undefeated regular season at the point in NFL history, although teams had gone undefeated through the regular season. The 1929 Green Bay Packers were declared league champions and went undefeated, however, their record featured one tie and the NFL had yet to play its first championship game.

Green Bay was favored coming into the 1962 Thanksgiving game against Detroit, although the Lions gave Green Bay trouble in recent seasons. The teams split their two annual season matchups in 1960 and 1961. 

The Lions struck early. Quarterback Milt Plum threw two touchdowns to Gail Cogdill and the Lions led, 14-0. The Lions defense struck next. Sam Williams returned a fumble for a touchdown. Detroit’s Roger Brown tackled Packer quarterback Bart Starr in the end zone for a safety soon afterward. The Lions built up a 23-0 lead and eventually won, 26-14.

Detroit’s defensive coordinator in 1962 was Don Shula. He became head coach of the Baltimore Colts the next year. He later won two Super Bowls as head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

1980 Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Game

The Lions were in first place in the NFC Central with a 7-5 record. Detroit was powered by rookie running back Billy Sims, the first-overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft and the 1978 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma. The Bears owned a losing record coming into the game, but always owned a chance with Walter Payton in the backfield.

Detroit jumped out to a 17-3 lead. They owned that lead as the fourth quarter started. Bears quarterback Vince Evans rallied the team with two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. He scored the winning touchdown with no time left on the clock. The score sent the game into overtime, tied at 17. The Bears won the toss and Chicago’s Dave Williams returned the overtime kickoff for a touchdown, and the Bears won 23-17.

Bears quarterback Vince Evans talked about the game on our NFL history podcast.

Photo Below: The Lions get a taste of John Madden’s famous “Turducken” — a mix a turkey, duck, and chicken.

Embed from Getty Images

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