by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

In a blink, it seems, the 2021 football campaign is into the home stretch, with one of the annual late-season markers on tap this week. Thanksgiving football has always retained the capacity to stir gridiron imaginations, and with its own traditions has managed to retain relevance even with the NFL expanding its midweek schedule several years ago to include a Thursday game every week. We’ve always thought the fact that the NFL plays in the day (at least the first two games) on Thanksgiving has always helped distinguish the holiday, especially the annual feature in Detroit, as something unique. Indeed, events unto themselves with their own history, a bit different than the weekly midweek fare offered during the rest of the year. The fact the Lions (since 1934, with a break only during the war years 1939-44) and Cowboys (since 1966, yielding twice to the Cardinals in 1975 & '77) have been Thanksgiving staples for so long has also formed a further and unique holiday link for football fans with those particular teams.

Still, we brace every year for the commentary from many about the dynamics of Thanksgiving football. In particular, that Turkey Day must be a significant advantage for the recurring hosts Lions and Cowboys. (The NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving mix back in 2006 and has been rotating the nightcap among various home teams the past 15 seasons). Yet it might surprise many that the opposite has tended to be true. In the case of Detroit, it has often lost, consistently so, on Sundays and the occasional Mondays over the decades, but its mark during recent memory on Thanksgiving has been particularly tepid; the Lions have failed to cover the past four years on the holiday, and while they did cover the four previous Thanksgivings, they didn’t cover any in the nine preceding Turkey Days. At 4-13 vs. the spread the last 17 on Thanksgiving, playing at home on the holiday doesn’t seem like it‘s been much of an edge for Detroit. But while Lions shortcomings on any day of the week are usually not big news, the fact that Dallas has struggled on Thanksgiving might come as a bit of a surprise. But struggled the Cowboys have, especially in recent years, dropping nine of their last ten  vs. the number on the holiday, the only cover across tthat span in 2018 when  squeezing out a narrow spread W (winning 31-23 as 7½-point chalk) gainst the injury-hampered, then-called Redskins.

Over the past 15 seasons, the various other home teams in Thanksgiving nightcaps have tended to fare better than the Lions and Cowboys (during last year's Covid season, only the Lions and Cowboys games were played on Thanksgiving).  But as far as Detroit and Dallas have been concerned at least, playing at home on the holiday hasn’t translated into much success in recent years.

Still, Thanksgiving football retains the capacity to stir the souls of most football fans, and for those of a certain age, that connection to Detroit in particular is a bit special. For years, along with the annual Macy’s Day Parade each Thanksgiving in New York City, and the Gimbel’s Parade in Philadelphia, the JL Hudson’s Parade in Detroit was featured on CBS each Thanksgiving morning, when there would usually be mention of the upcoming Lions game to be telecast. (After the AFL-NFL merger, NBC would telecast the Detroit Thanksgiving game from 1970-72, before CBS next aired the Lions in ‘73). Though the Hudson’s department stores ended their sponsorship of the event in 1979, the parade continues to this day.

Mention of the Lions on Thanksgiving often recalls the classic 1962 game vs. the Packers, who were the annual Turkey Day opponent of the Lions thru the following season in 1963. Perhaps Vince Lombardi’s best-ever Green Bay side rumbled into old Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving Day 1962 (a year after the big ballyard changed its name from Briggs Stadium) with a 10-0 record and appearing en route to unbeaten gridiron immortality. But the ‘62 Lions were formidable, just two lengths back at 8-2, and still seething from a bitter 9-7, last-minute loss at Green Bay earlier that October. Vowing to avenge that defeat, the Lions, in particular the defensive line of Alex Karras, Roger Brown, Darris McCord, and Sam Williams, tore into the Pack, displaying a collective ferocity rarely seen in NFL annals. Packers QB Bart Starr was alternately bounced and thrown off the dirt/turf by a voracious pass rush that recorded a staggering 11 sacks. A couple of late consolation TDs (one of those on a fumble recovery by DE Willie Davis) for Green Bay were mere afterthoughts in a dominant 26-14 Detroit win. The Packers, held to a season-low 122 yards of offense, eventually managed to hold off the Lions down the stretch and would win their second consecutive NFL title on a bitterly cold and windy day at Yankee Stadium against the Giants in late December. That Thanksgiving loss, however, would be the only blemish on the Green Bay record in 1962, a year in which many observers thought the NFL’s best team might have instead resided in Motown.

While the ‘62 game has resonated for a couple of generations, for sheer drama and backdrop, the following year’s game in ‘63 was its own landmark. Consider the calendar, and the Thanksgiving date, November 28. Then remember the year...1963. Indeed, the nation was still reeling from the assassination of JFK just six days earlier in Dallas, and was collectively hoping for something, anything, that would hint at a return to normalcy. Thus, sports became a great national healer in a time of mourning. And while it’s not incorrect to consider the following week’s Army-Navy game as the moment the nation really got moving again (as important a game as we can recall in the TGS era, and an all-time classic matchup we hope to examine in more detail soon), we have always thought the Packers-Lions game on Thanksgiving helped begin the nation’s road to recovery.

Already in ‘63, it was known that the Packers had requested to opt out of their annual Turkey Day trip to Detroit, as Lombardi had told commissioner Pete Rozelle that the short week always put his traveling Green Bay at a disadvantage. (The NFL would swap Chicago into the Pack's place for ‘64 and continue a revolving series of visitors that endures to this day.) Things were a bit different for both teams from the previous year, as each had star players suspended (the Lions’ Karras and the Packers’ Paul Hornung) for the entire season by Rozelle for suspected gambling involvement. But while the Lions had dropped off considerably from their contending form of 1962, entering Thanksgiving a subpar 4-7, Lombardi’s Green Bay remained right in the mix in the Western Conference, hot on the heels of the Bears, with Chicago just a half-game ahead in the standings into Thanksgiving (though ties were counted as “no game” in the standings until 1972.) Importantly, Packers-Lions would also be the first nationally-televised sporting event since the assassination; Rozelle had dubiously decided the NFL would play the preceding weekend (I should know, I was at the Colts-Rams game that Sunday at the L.A. Coliseum), though none of the games would be televised. A nation trying to get back onto its feet would thus have its TVs tuned to CBS for the call of the game by legendary announcers Ray Scott (Packers) and Van Patrick (Lions), who would alternate play-by-play as was done in those days by CBS for championship or otherwise special games. (The familiar voice of Lindsey Nelson would work the CBS college game later that day between Texas and Texas A&M).

Though not an artistic masterpiece, the Packers and Lions delivered just what was prescribed, a tense and drama-filled battle that the nation badly needed after the trauma of those preceding days. The unique acoustics of Tiger Stadium, due to its seating configuration, accounted for a slightly delayed, rumbling roar from the crowd on telecasts, adding further dramatic texture to the TV presentation.

The game was conducted with all the grace of a mule train, with Green Bay and Detroit bumping into one another and hee-hawing all afternoon, a familiar trait of the old “Black and Blue” era, as the subsequent NFC Central of a few years later would be labeled. But it was an oddly compelling battle, full of tension, as the favored Packers could simply not shake the dogged Lions. The first half was mostly trench warfare, with a total of 11 punts and a minimum of offense. Detroit would finally draw first blood midway in the 2nd Q with a 27-yard field goal by Wayne Walker. Starr, however, would finally fire up a smart 65-yard Packer advance that would culminate in a 3-yard TD run by Hornung’s replacement, Elijah Pitts. Importantly, John Gordy would block Jerry Kramer’s PAT, keeping the score at 6-3, and when Walker booted a 37-yarder just before the end of the half, the score was level into intermission.  

The tension continued into the second half. Finally, Green Bay seemed like it was ready to forge an advantage when Starr, without the benefit of an effective infantry (rugged FB Jim Taylor was held to 28 YR, and Pitts, despite his TD, would end with 0 YR on 8 carries; the Pack would only gain 31 on the ground all day), uncorked a long drive from his own 2-yard line to
the Lion 3 as the third quarter moved into the fourth quarter. The march, however, would stall, and when J. Kramer (who replaced Hornung as the PK in ‘63) pushed wide a 10-yarder (that’s right, 10 yards! Remember, goal posts were at the goal line in ‘63), the score stayed at 6-6. Indeed, it was not a day for kickers, though their inconsistencies were part of the game in that era; Walker would miss three FG tries from 42, 52, and 40 yards, while Kramer missed from 49 as well as the 10-yarder. But Starr made his next possession count as, after a Lions punt, the Pack would roll 62 yards with Starr passing to TE Ron Kramer for the go-ahead TD from 7 yards out. With 9:06 to play, Green Bay seemingly had control with a 13-6 lead.

The Pack,  however, never had time for another snap. Painstakingly, Lions QB Earl Morrall, mostly managing to avoid heavy pressure all afternoon, willed Detroit 78 yards in 20 tension-filled plays. Morrall would hit 8 of 11 passes on the drive, including a clutch 22-yard completion to Dale Cogdill on a third down that moved the ball to the Green Bay 14. On the next play, Packer DB Jesse Whittenton was flagged for a controversial interference against Cogdill, and the ball would advance to the 2. Green Bay was also now down All-Pro LB Ray Nitschke, who suffered a broken arm on the drive. The nation’s football fans were indeed getting the dramatic ending they needed, but had to wait a bit for the Lions to level the score. A TD run by Danny Lewis on the next play was nullified by a Lions off-side penalty, pushing the ball back to the 7, before Lewis would then slash to the one. Morrall was then denied in a sneak before rugged FB Nick Pietrosante would crash-dive into the end zone on third down. Though Pietrosante didn’t have the ball when he landed, he was ruled to have crossed the goal. Only 14 seconds remained when Walker converted the tying PAT. In those days, there was only time for an ensuing kickoff & return, as the clock would wind after being spotted following a kickoff or punt.

The tie, however, created an intriguing possibility for a West playoff if the Packers could win out and hope someone else could beat Chicago. “This makes it no different than it was before,” Lombardi tried to rationalize after the game. “Somebody still has to beat the Bears. The only thing it means is that if they lose one and we win two, we’ll have to have a playoff.” Chicago would subsequently tie the Vikings, but not lose, ending 11-1-2 vs. the Pack’s 11-2-1 to claim the West by a narrow margin, before beating the Giants 14-10 in a brutal title game at an arctic Wrigley Field.

The 13-13 draw left neither team satisfied but gave the nation what it badly needed. Which is why, for those of us of the TGS generation, Thanksgiving football memories are a bit special.

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