BENAC: Lions have rich Thanksgiving history

Hopefully the vast majority of you are reading this column at home with friends and family and stuffing yourselves silly. I’m likely currently sitting in the catholic church hall in Hillman with my family eating turkey, potatoes, stuffing and rolls. By now, a group of my cousins have no doubt huddled around the ancient television set and are desperately adjusting the antenna to get the Lions game to come in, no matter how fuzzy the reception.

After all, in Michigan the only Thanksgiving tradition more beloved than a tryptophan daze is watching the Lions lose.

I kid, I kid.

Well, kinda: the Lions haven’t won a Thanksgiving game since 2003 when they beat Green Bay 22-14.

It wasn’t always that way: from 1982 to 2002, the Lions came out on top in 13 Thanksgiving games. Hopefully, this year’s matchup against the Packers will go better 2011’s 27-15 loss.

I’m not here to dwell on the successes and the failures of this year’s Lions team on this hallowed day of football. Instead, I’m interested in delving into the history of Thanksgiving football and the Lions in particular. Thanksgiving football has been around a lot longer than you might think.

So, for those of you who haven’t already decided to move on to read something a little bit more superficially exciting (such as updates on the Richie Incognitio fiasco), let’s jump head first into 1869 Yale college football.

This sudden shift in time and space is not meant to confuse, but to educate. For you see, Thanksgiving football did not start with the Lions.

The first Thanksgiving football game was held in 1869, two weeks after the first officially recognized football game took place between Rutgers and Princeton. It was a matchup between the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club in Germantown, Philadelphia, featuring heavily improvised rules.

The first Thanksgiving game tradition started with a five-year series between Yale and Princeton starting in 1876. This tradition influenced the Intercollegiate Football Association’s 1882 decision to hold an annual collegiate championship game every Thanksgiving for years.

Keep that important fact in mind as we move on to the Detroit Lions first season in 1934.

First of all, the Lions were not the first professional football team in Detroit. Earlier teams included the Heralds, the Panthers, the Wolverines and, no kidding, the Tigers. Yes: at one point in time, there were two Detroit Tigers teams in Detroit!

Most of these teams lasted only a few years or less,, but were inspired by the Thanksgiving collegiate championship game. As a result, these unrelated teams all hosted their own Thanksgiving games.

The Lions started life in Portsmouth, Ohio as the Portsmouth Spartans. The Spartans were bought by G.A. Richards, who moved the team to Detroit and renamed it the Lions.

Richards, aware of Thanksgiving tradition, decided to host a 1934 Thanksgiving game to draw attention to his team. After all, past teams in Detroit hadn’t lasted long due to competition with the Tigers and Richards needed something to boost the Lions’ sparsely attended games.

His first masterstroke was scheduling the Chicago Bears as the Lions’ first Thanksgiving opponent. If the Lions could put up a good show against a tough competitor, they could be established as a standout team that was worth the attention of Detroit fans.

Richards second masterstroke was convincing the NBC Radio Network to broadcast the game on more than 94 stations nationwide. Advanced publicity and curiosity pulled in 26,000 fans to a stadium that hadn’t seen more than 15,000.

Although the Lions lost 19-16, the game got the results Richards wanted: the Lions were national news and Detroit fans were excited by the Lions close call against the dominating Bears.

Attendance to games skyrocketed immediately and a Thanksgiving tradition was born.

Since then, the Lions are 33-37-2 in Thanksgiving games. They have faced the Packers 20 times with an 11-8-1 record. They have faced the Bears 15 times with a 7-8 record.

In fact, Detroit earned its first Thanksgiving win in 1935 against the Bears 14-2, taking the Western Division title. The ’35 Lions won the club’s first NFL Championship that year in a 26-7 victory over New York.

Let’s take a look a few of the most memorable Detroit Thanksgiving games.

In 1949, Lions defensive back Bob Smith intercepted a Bears pass and returned it for a record setting 102 yards. This was the only score for the Lions in a 28-7 loss.

A 1950 49-14 win over the New York Yanks included a 96-yard touchdown run by Bob Hoernshemeyer, a a team record that still stands and which remains the third longest in the NFL. The Lions’ 582 offensive yards also remains a team record.

In 2000, the Lions new coach, Gary Moeller helped the Lions blow out New England 34-9. Bryant Westbrook sealed the deal with 4:30 left in the game by intercepting a Drew Bledsoe pass for a 101 yard touchdown.

This touchdown is the second longest return in team history and is tied for the longest in the Pontiac Silverdome.

Finally, let’s focus on the last Lions Thanksgiving victory in 2003. The Lions won by forcing five turnovers and holding the Packers to 52 rushing yards.

Cornerback Dre Bly won FOX’s Galloping Gobbler that game for causing three turnovers by intercepting Brett Favre twice and forcing a fumble.

Of course, no Lions game of that period would be complete without a ridiculous amount of Jason Hanson field goals. Hanson kicked five, including three (!!!) in the fourth quarter.

That’s 15 points out of 22. Nothing against Jason, but imagine if the Lions had bothered to turn those touchdowns. The result? 42-14.

That’s the kind of result you’d love to see from the Lions on its longest running, most respected tradition.

Sadly, since then, we’ve seen nothing of the sort. The very next year, Indianapolis handed the Lions its worst Thanksgiving loss ever in a 41-9 romp. Since then, Detroit has scored 125 points to its opponents’ 251.

For those who don’t like math, that’s half the points.

Even worse was last year’s 34-31 loss against Houston, worse because it was so close to ending the Lions Thanksgiving dry spell.

Could this year be a turn around from its near decade losing tradition? Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers is promising, but after two ridiculous late game breakdowns in a row, its beginning to look like another bust for Lions fans this Thanksgiving.

Which is a shame. You can’t expect perfection, especially a team as up and down as the Lions, but when a tradition as long lasting as the Lions Thanksgiving tradition has been sullied by such poor performance, it’s hard not to grunt in protest through a mouthful of turkey every year when the Lions find a new way to shoot themselves in the foot.

Hopefully, this will be the year Detroit gets back its winning stride and make us proud to haul a television into the dining room to watch the game while soaking our potatoes in endless pools of gravy. Happy Thanksgiving!