Let's play word association. When we say "Detroit Lions," you think …
Odds are "visionary ownership" didn't come to mind. The Lions are one of the worst-performing teams in recent sports history, as the Matt Millen era and a 0-16 record in 2008 so readily attest.
And yet the Lions once had an owner who made Dallas Cowboys boss Jerry Jones look like a cookie-cutter executive by comparison. That man is responsible for one of the most enduring traditions in football.
His name is G.A. Richards, and in 1934 he bought the Lions and moved the team from Portsmouth, Ohio, to the Motor City. Right away, the radio entrepreneur had an issue: the Tigers. Detroit's baseball team was dominant, making it to the World Series that year and bearing down on its first championship in 1935 with stars like Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Jo-Jo White and Schoolboy Rowe. The Lions were an early version of the USFL Michigan Panthers, talented but a side dish at best. Richards needed something to set his team apart.
So he decided to play a game on Thanksgiving Day.
It wasn't a first for the NFL. Thanksgiving Day football dates back to 1920, and Red Grange actually made his debut on Thanksgiving in 1925. But Richards, like Jerry Jones today, made the spectacle bigger and bolder. He cut a deal with NBC to broadcast the game nationwide. And he booked the best opponent possible.
That would be the defending champion Chicago Bears, under George Halas. Richards was so intent on building the rivalry that he had a bear shot in Northern Michigan and asked that it be prepared and served to the Lions players after the game.
The gimmick worked. A team that never drew more than 15,000 fans could have sold three times that many tickets if the University of Detroit stadium had been big enough. The Lions and Bears staged "a masterful exhibition of offensive football," reported the Detroit Free Press, and Bronco Nagurski scored the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
The Lions lost the game, but they certainly won the day. The following year, Detroit beat the Bears on Thanksgiving on its way to a football title. And one of the most memorable games in NFL history took place 50 years ago this week, as the Lions (with the late Alex Karras) bulldozed Vince Lombardi's undefeated Packers in the 1962 "Thanksgiving Day Massacre."
Thursday's home game against the Houston Texans will be the 73rd hosted by the Lions on Thanksgiving, a tradition interrupted only by World War II.
The Cowboys' version of the Thanksgiving Day game began quite late relatively, in 1966. It was a risk then, too, but Richards had already taken the ultimate chance in 1934. It was Richards who came up with the anthem that's still played after every Lions home touchdown, and it was Richards who chose the Honolulu blue and silver that look good even when the team looks bad. His radio station, WJR, is still going strong today, known as the "50,000-watt great voice of the Great Lakes." It's where for generations Ernie Harwell called most Tigers' games.
Over the years, a lot of pundits have wanted the Thanksgiving Day game taken from Detroit, as it's rarely featured a contending home team. (This year is no exception, as the Texans can clinch a playoff spot while the Lions are all but done for the year with six losses.) But Thanksgiving football in Detroit is one of the oldest traditions in the NFL, predating the AFL merger, the Super Bowl and many of the teams currently playing in the league (including the Cowboys). The Lions' first Thanksgiving Day game, in fact, came only 28 years after the first legal forward pass.
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So while word association with the Lions doesn't lead you to thoughts of winning, word association with "Thanksgiving Day" does draw the mind to the Lions. The Thanksgiving entry on Wikipedia even has three mentions of the Lions. That has made the franchise important to the NFL, no matter how many games Detroit loses on the holiday (eight in a row, but who's counting?).
"[Richards] means everything," says Bill Dow, who has chronicled Lions history and reported the story about the bear entrée for the Free Press. "If it wasn't for G.A. Richards, we wouldn't have pro football in Detroit. "
In the end, G.A. Richards' dream came true. The Lions, owned by the Ford family, currently reside in a football cathedral right next door to where the Tigers play. It's a far cry from 1934, although there was a positive omen for Richards all the way back then. You see, there's an old photo of a sports hero at an NBC microphone in Detroit, taken right after Richards brought the Lions to Michigan. The athlete is dressed in a suit jacket with his hair slicked back and shiny shoes on. The photo is addressed to the renegade Lions owner. It reads: "To G.A. Richards: Best of luck to your football club."
It's signed, Babe Ruth.
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