This week is usually a big one for NFL fans. The first week of August marks the Hall of Fame game. It is a week-long celebration of football where this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class is officially enshrined as one of the sports greats. But more than anything, it marks the return of football.
The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers were set to play the first professional football game since the Super Bowl on Thursday. It would have been fans’ first taste of the sport after a long offseason, and while it is never a game that features any real players of note, it is great appetizer for the upcoming season.
Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame game, along with the rest of NFL preseason, was cancelled this year due to COVID-19. That means fans will not be able to watch professional football until early September.
With no Hall of Fame game this year, I decided to use this gap to take a look into the past. The Detroit Lions have featured in the game three times—the teams playing in it are often picked from the teams the players inducted that year played for—and today we are going to look back at the times Detroit had the honor in playing in football’s first game of the season.
September 12th, 1965
Detroit Lions - 3
Washington - 20
Neither Washington nor Detroit had a player selected in the Chicago Bears-heavy 1965 Hall of Fame class, but both were chosen to play in the game anyways. This game is so far in the past it predates the NFL merger by five years, though both teams were obviously in the NFL at the time. There is no recorded box score of this game that could be found, but Detroit was clearly outmatched, losing handily by three possessions.
The teams would meet again in Week 3 of the regular NFL season, and the Lions showed up when it really mattered. A pick-six by Wayne Rasmussen and a 4-yard touchdown run by Joe Don Looney (an incredible 1960’s name) was enough for the team to win 14-10 and earn a 3-0 start to the season. Don’t fret, though, as the Lions of old will be familiar to modern fans. The 1965 team collapsed at mid-season and ended the year with a losing record.
July 24th, 1976
Denver Broncos - 10
Detroit Lions - 7
Detroit appeared in the legendary game 11 years later against the Denver Broncos. Like the Lions’ previous appearance, it came in a year where neither of the teams playing in the game had a player enter the Hall of Fame the year before.
Being a preseason game from almost 50 years ago, records of the actual game are hard to find. We do have this excerpt from a New York Times article from 1976 though:
Dennis Franklin threw a scare into Denver with a last‐quarter touchdown catch and then with a kickoff fumble recovery, but the Broncos held on to defeat the Detroit Lions, 10‐7.
Franklin caught a 10‐yard pass from Joe Reed after the Lions had recovered a Denver fumble in the fourth quarter.
On the kickoff after scoring his touchdown, Franklin again excited the 17,639 fans when he recovered a fumble on the Denver 12‐year line.
Dennis Franklin would end up playing nine games for the Lions in 1975 and 1976. His short career was entirely spent in Detroit. While he did not quite have a legendary career, he certainly made a name for himself with a few big plays in the Hall of Fame game. Unfortunately, it was enough as the Lions fell to 0-2 all-time.
July 27th, 1991
Detroit Lions - 14
Denver Broncos - 3
Detroit met their Hall of Fame game rival once again in 1991. Once again, neither team had a player inducted into the Hall of Fame that year, but were scheduled to meet at Canton anyways.
Records from the game, too, are sparse. We have a final score, and we know from an official Pro Football Hall of Fame record that the Broncos scored a field goal in the first quarter, before a 14-point second quarter was enough to put Detroit ahead. The Lions would win after a scoreless second half.
The 1991 Hall of Fame game became a lucky charm of some sort, as both teams ended up playing in their respective conference championships in 1991. Unfortunately, that was the end of the road for them as they both finished a game short of playing in the Super Bowl.
It has been 29 years since Detroit has been invited to play in Canton. Every other NFL team has appeared in the Hall of Fame since the Lions last have. All 31 of them.
Detroit has had a few notable Hall of Famers since then as well. Barry Sanders received a nod in 2004, Dick LeBeau earned a bust in 2010. In 2020, former defensive tackle Alex Karras was given his spot in Canton.
Unfortunately, the league seems to have determined the team not marketable enough. The Cowboys vs. Steelers game scheduled for 2020 has been pushed to 2021, meaning the team is confirmed to hit the 30-year mark in their drought between inclusions in the game. It also means that they miss a clear chance to earn a spot in the game, as wide receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. may enter the Hall of Fame next year.
It may be a blessing for the team, though, as players are often unhappy with being selected for the game. Still, it feels like another honor the team has been left out of over the years.