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The history of the Detroit Lions and Thanksgiving: Best, worst moments

Taking a look back at this festive tradition.

Atlanta Falcons vs Detroit Lions - November 24, 2005 Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Who’s ready for some Detroit Lions football on Thanksgiving day? Who’s ready for the possibility of Tim Boyle vs Andy Dalton? Who’s ready to forget the game happened and eat until you pass out?

Well, until that day comes around, let’s talk about the long history of the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. Let’s jump right in:

The First Time

People always ask why the Lions play on Thanksgiving. Perhaps one of the reasons there’s always football in Detroit on Thanksgiving is because it’s been happening since the early 1900s. The Detroit Heralds started the tradition in 1917 when they played against the Canton Bulldogs in a 7-0 loss.

The Heralds played again in 1920. then the short-lived Detroit Tigers football team played the Chicago Staleys in 1921. The Detroit Panthers played in 1925 and 1926, and the Detroit Wolverines played in 1928. Thanksgiving football in Detroit has been happening for 104 years.

After a six-year break, the Detroit Lions, a new NFL franchise that had just moved from Portsmouth, Ohio, made their Thanksgiving debut against the Chicago Bears. The reasoning behind this was all about marketing. Baseball was king back then, and the Lions were losing money and nobody was showing up to the game.

Lions owner George A. Richards, who some credit with the idea to have football on Thanksgiving every year, decided to try a football game on Thanksgiving day to bring in some money. Despite other teams playing on Thanksgiving, the Lions were the first team to have a Thanksgiving Day game broadcasted. It was on the radio, but it was broadcasted on 94 NBC affiliates across the country. It certainly helps that Richards owned one of those 94 stations and was able to negotiate that nationwide broadcast.

Since then, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving every single year except for the short period of time between 1942 and 1944 when games were shut down during World War II. So there you go. When people ask why the Lions play on Thanksgiving every year, it’s because they invented football broadcasts on Thanksgiving.

Random Stats

The Lions are 37-42-2 all time on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve played the Bears 13 times on the holiday since 1947, earning a 5-8 record in those games. The Lions’ last win over the Bears on Thanksgiving was a 34-17 drubbing in 2014. The Lions last win altogether was a 16-13 win over the Vikings in 2016. The Lions have had three different head coaches since then.

The Lions have played the Packers the most on Thanksgiving. The NFC North rivals have faced each other 21 times. The Lions have also played two different teams named the Yanks. The Boston Yanks and the New York Yanks.

Worst Memory

There’s a lot of them sadly, but one sticks out more than any other. It’s a game that feels pretty relevant at the moment. The winless 2008 Lions took on the Tennessee Titans and got absolutely demolished 47-10. It seemed like the Lions defense took the Oprah route when trying to stop the run. “You get a rushing touchdown, you get a rushing touchdown, everyone gets a rushing touchdown!”

Both Chris Johnson and Lendale White rushed for over 100 yards and two touchdowns each. The good news is that the Lions defense didn’t allow a single touchdown in the second half. They allowed Rob Bironas to kick four field goals, but they didn’t allow a touchdown. Success!

Best Memory

I’m tempted to say it was the Lions demolition of the Eagles in 2015, but in my opinion, it’s the 2013 40-10 win over the Packers. I, frankly, do not care that Aaron Rodgers did not play this game. The Packers are probably the most hated team in Detroit, so it was nice to see the Lions bomb a 40 burger all over them.

Game Dive

Let’s talk more about this game. There was a lot more going on here than immediately meets the eye. Yes, Aaron Rodgers was out, but this was revenge on Matt Flynn. You might remember Flynn from the time he threw six touchdowns on the Lions in Week 17 of the 2011 season. The Lions got Flynn paid, but on this day, the Lions made Matt Flynn pay some of it back.

Flynn threw an interception, got sacked seven times—including one for a safety—and he fumbled twice. Revenge was a sweet, sweet dish on this day.

On the Lion side, a flurry of names you probably don’t remember put points on the board. Who remember Kevin Ogletree? He caught a 20-yard touchdown pass. How about Jeremy Ross? He caught a 5-yard touchdown. What about Dorin Dickerson? He didn’t score, but he did catch a pass for 26 yards before he went off to NXT.

This game wasn’t without its problems. The Lions did turn the ball over four times. This game was also a mirage at the end of the day. The Lions were in the driver's seat to win the division. Everyone in the NFC North was hurt except the Lions. This win made it seem like they were on their way to finally winning the division and making the playoffs. They would go on to lose the next four games and miss the playoffs. The Packers won the division again. Ugh.

Watch the highlights here.

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