Once only Lions and Packers roamed wild on Thanksgiving Day

Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions.
Ron Borges

There was a time in America when television was in black and white, dreams were in Technicolor and the only Thanksgiving Day game was the Lions against the Packers. If you were a kid who loved football back then, you wanted to see the Lions more than the turkey.

That’s how it was from 1951 through 1963, although pro football was played on Thanksgiving as early as 1920 when Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs squared off against the Akron Pros in one of six games played that day.

Since 1945, however, the Lions have been a Thanksgiving Day staple, as much a part of Thanksgiving in America as stuffing and a turkey leg, and for 13 glorious years their annual opponent was the Packers. At the time it seemed like God had deemed it that way.

That would change after Vince Lombardi got tired of fighting tooth and nail with those great Lions’ teams of the early 1960s and demanded the league make somebody else suffer.

“The big reason I’m against it is four days is not enough time to get ready for a game,’’ Lombardi said in the dressing room at Tiger Stadium following a 17-9 win in 1961. “And now, with the new television contract, every club will receive the same amount. If we are to continue in this game, I feel we should receive additional revenue.’’

Even in 1961, the NFL was all about the Benjamins.

Two years later, the Packers and Lions would play on Thanksgiving for the last time -- after Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced Green Bay would no longer be forced to travel to Detroit to play that day. Rather, the Lions would face a rotating schedule of opponents from among the Western Conference teams.

Green Bay would not play another Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit until 1984 (although it would play in Dallas in 1970, four years after the league added a second Thanksgiving Day game hosted by the Cowboys).

But in the days before the Benjamins took over, Thanksgiving belonged to the Lions and Packers. A kid who loved football would spend the morning watching the Macy’s Day Parade while the smells of a browning turkey, simmering gravy and warm pies wafted through a small, six-room apartment that sat above an upholstery shop and a garage half-filled with bolts of fabric. The turkey smelled great but it was the Lions he really wanted to see.

That game was first televised nationally in 1951 on the DuMont Television Network and it marked the first time the Packers were ever seen on national TV. According to Packers’ team historian Cliff Christl, what was then known as Briggs Stadium in Detroit seated 57,598, which was 4,863 more people than the entire population of Green Bay, Wisconsin that year. As an aside, while that game was televised nationally that did not include Green Bay, because in 1951 the city didn’t yet even have a local TV station. If you adjusted your TV’s rabbit ears just right in Green Bay and put a little tin foil on them, you might pick up the broadcast on WTMJ in Milwaukee, but don’t count on it.

Today games are so plentiful you feel you can miss any one of them and another will come along in short order. Or you can just DVR it and watch it when you want as if time had stopped. But in black-and-white TV America you had the old set’s tubes warmed up well in advance of kickoff to be ready for what was becoming an American Thanksgiving Day tradition.

Now many of those 13 Lions-Packers games were memorable but the one you would never forget if you watched it was the Thanksgiving Day Massacre on Nov. 22, 1962. In those pre-hype days when, believe it or not, pre-game shows didn’t begin six hours before kickoff on three networks, no one expected what was about to happen. As good as the 1962 Lions were, nobody, not even Vince Lombardi, imagined the mighty Packers would get pantsed in public.

The defending NFL champions had gotten the best of the Lions, 9-7, on Oct.7 when a late interception throw by Milt Plum set up a game winning field goal by Paul Horning that infuriated the Lions’ defense. That defense had five future Hall of Famers in its lineup but the offense was, to be kind, pedestrian. Once, after the Lions intercepted a pass, All-Pro defensive tackle Alex Karras turned to Plum as he jogged onto the field and said, “Do you think you can hold ‘em?’’

He couldn’t, which left the Lions’ locker room split. The defense blamed Plum and the offense for the loss to the Packers even though receiver Terry Barr had slipped in the mud and fallen as the ball was being thrown. Regardless, the Lions’ defense was still smarting from that loss more than a month later.

“Ever since that game we were waiting for Thanksgiving Day,’’ Lions’ defensive tackle Roger Brown once recalled. Apparently no one was waiting for it with more than he was.

Brown would sack Bart Starr six times in the rematch, force a fumble that led to defensive end Sam Williams’ touchdown return and tackle Starr for a safety in a 26-14 rout that was far more imposing than the score indicates.

The Lions were ready for everything Green Bay tried, including Lombardi’s decision to go with a short passing game to slow down Detroit’s rush. Lions’ defensive coordinator Don Shula had expected that screen game and sent a wild blitz on the opening play that resulted in Starr being sacked for a 15-yard loss. As it turned out, that sack was a warning shot.

By halftime it was 23-0 Lions and most folks were sitting down at the kitchen table and carving up the bird the same way the Lions were carving up Starr. As the mashed potatoes were being passed, kids like the one in the apartment over that upholstery shop kept running into the other room to see what the Lions would do next.

There were no phones or iPads to stream the game on next to your plate. No TVs in every room. Usually there was only one monster machine with a tiny screen in the corner of the living room. It had three channels, no clicker and, on every Thanksgiving Day for 13 years, Lions roaming around chasing Packers.

That’s the way the NFL was in its infancy, a league that didn’t force feed you too many games with too much analysis and way too many replays. Thanksgiving Day football back then wasn’t as overstuffed as your uncle Louie was by the time he left the dinner table with squash pie stains on his shirt.

There was just one game and you waited all day for it. Lions-Packers. And when it came on Nov. 22, 1962 it turned out to be a beating that nobody who watched it would ever forgot.

Certainly Vince Lombardi didn’t.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
brian wolf
brian wolf

Great article Ron...

"Four days is not enough time to get ready for a game"...If only these fatcat owners, network suits and Vegas would listen to Lombardi, but instead, every week, we get Thurs night football.

As for Thanksgiving games, I can remember more Cowboy games than Lions games, but when Dorsett, Sims, Sanders and Smith played, it was Must See TV...

Nowadays, there are three games but the Lions are still, well...the Lions, a team I feel, will never win a championship until after the Ford Family sells them. Hopefully to the public at large, like the Packers.


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