by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Like almost everything else about 2020, Thanksgiving might not feel quite the same this year. To the rescue in a much-needed nod to good old normalcy, however, comes an odd hero in the form of the Detroit Lions. At least having the Lions to watch on TV this Thursday, against the Texans, will make Thanksgiving seem a little more natural.

We’ve written about Thanksgiving football history before, and one of these years ought to opt for a college angle and a retrospective on one of several “Games of the Century” that might actually have lived up to the hype, the 1971 “Great Prairie Shootout” between Nebraska and Oklahoma. If nothing else, we might want to simply re-print our TGS preview of that Cornhuskers-Sooners Thanksgiving classic, perhaps the most comprehensive and extensive game analysis we have ever attempted at TGS outside of subsequent Super Bowl writeups. Sadly, however, Nebraska-Oklahoma matchups are a thing of the past now, as the schools don’t face one another any longer after the Huskers moved to the Big 10 in 2011. We promise not to wait until the day Nebraska and OU might reschedule a home-and-home in the future, or by chance meet in a bowl game somewhere down the road, before revisiting the Great Prairie Shootout. At the appropriate time, we’ll recall that epic November 25, 1971 clash.

Whatever. Whether it be Nebraska-Oklahoma, Texas-Texas A&M (another bygone college rivalry often contested on Thanksgiving), or NFL games in Detroit, 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 daytime (at least the first two games) on Thanksgiving has always helped distinguish the holiday, especially the annual feature in Detroit, always the early kickoff, 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 13 seasons). We have addressed these dynamics before, but given the week, we might as well note them again. In the case of Detroit, while 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 lost 13 of their last 16 at Ford Field on Turkey Day, and have covered just 5 of their last 16 on Thanksgiving, too, at one point dropping nine in a row vs. the line.

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 struggle the Cowboys have, especially in recent years, dropping eight of their last nine vs. the number on the holiday, the only spread W by the narrowest of margins (winning 31-23 as 7½-point chalk) two years ago vs. the then-called Redskins.

Over the past 14 seasons, the various other home teams in Thanksgiving nightcaps have tended to fare better than the Lions and Cowboys (recently, the host Falcons just missed covering last year vs. the Saints after New Orleans turned the trick on Atlanta the previous season; Washington won three years ago at FedEx Field against the Giants). 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.

Regardless, 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 J.L. 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 Detroit parade continues to this day (this year in a TV-only, virtual format, before hopefully returning in a traditional form next November).

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 ball yard 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.

By us, however, there was a lot more drama associated with the 1963 game (reviewed on these pages last year, and still to be found on our website), as the Packers were involved in a torrid duel with the Bears for the lead in the NFL’s Western Conference, and entered Thanksgiving just a half-game behind Chicago in the standings. The Lions were having a difficult campaign in ‘63, but always seemed able to summon a special effort for the Packers. In a tense battle that kept the nation’s fans tuned to CBS, Lions QB Earl Morrall fired up an 80-yard, 20-play drive deep into the 4th Q that resulted in short TD dive by FB Nick Pietrosante in the final seconds to force a 13-13 draw. The game carried extra meaning for the national audience as it was the first nationally televised sporting event after the assassination of President Kennedy six days prior.

Forgotten among Detroit Thanksgiving memories, however, might be the 1965 renewal when the Colts visited old Tiger Stadium to face the Lions. The pulsating encounter set the stage for perhaps the most thunderous stretch drive in NFL history as the Western Conference roared to a conclusion in the subsequent weeks, and the subject of an upcoming book project (“December 1965") that we are embarking upon.

An early chapter of “December 1965" will actually focus upon November of ‘65 and Baltimore’s Thanksgiving visit to Detroit that, like the 1963 Packers-Lions game (and, to a certain extent, the Bears’ 27-24 win over the Lions in ‘64), kept the nation’s football fans glued to their TVs and on the edges of their seats.

As usual in those days, kickoff was at 12:15 PM Eastern time for the Thanksgiving ‘65 clash, allowing for a 15-minute pre-game show on CBS featuring Frank Gifford, who had made the quick hop from covering the Hudson’s parade on the network with former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur. As CBS would do for Thanksgiving or title games in those days, play-by-play duties would be split by half between each team’s respective announcer, in this case Detroit's Van Patrick and Baltimore’s Chuck Thompson. Don Shula’s 9-1 Colts, winners of 8 straight since a bitter 20-17 Week 2 loss in Milwaukee against the Packers, were prohibitive 11-point favorites vs. the inconsistent Lions, who had broken 3-0 from the gate and won at Green Bay three weeks earlier, but stood only 5-5 entering Thanksgiving.

Nonetheless, Detroit HC Harry Gilmer was confident. Well, sort of. “We can beat ‘em,” said Gilmer beforehand, who paused before finishing his thought. “If we play errorless ball.”

But Detroit was capable of rising to the occasion, such as when breaking a nine-game Colts win streak in Baltimore’s Western Conference-winning the previous season of 1964, and earlier in November at Green Bay. The Thanksgiving challenge was daunting, however, as Baltimore entered as the best team in the NFL up until that point in the season, which had included a 31-14 win over the Detroit at Memorial Stadium. Not only did the Colts feature their familiar offensive weapons such as QB John Unitas, RB Lenny Moore, and receivers Jimmy Orr and Ray Berry, but also one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, one that entered Thanksgiving leading the league against the rush. No matter, Baltimore had little margin for error in the standings, holding a one-game lead over Green Bay after ten weeks, but knowing a rematch with the Pack was on deck two weeks hence.

The “good” Lions, however, would show up on Thanksgiving, with 55,036 fans jamming Tiger Stadium and another 30 million watching the drama unfold on CBS on a cool, cloudy day framed by a slate-grey sky that seemed wholly appropriate for late autumn football. Hefty pointspread or not, the ensuing drama was almost predicable, as the Colts had been forced to rally for each of their preceding five wins.

This one against the Lions on Thanksgiving, however, would require some extra work.

It didn’t seem that way from the opening kickoff, when the Colts were immediately firing on all cylinders. It only took nine plays for Unitas to navigate easy 75 yards, capping the drive with a 5-yard TD pass to Alex Hawkins, as Van Patrick described it to the CBS audience.

Momentum, however, would soon do an about-face. Baltimore continued to move on its next possession before Unitas, flushed from the pocket by a fierce Lions pass rush led by DEs Darris McCord and Sam Williams, collapsing from the edge, and DTs Alex Karras and Roger Brown up the middle, tried to run on a busted play, then stopped short of the line of scrimmage to throw downfield. Big mistake; the ball was forced and was picked off by Detroit safety Bruce Maher, who brought the ball back 35 yards deep into Colts territory. Set up on the Baltimore 28, Lions QB Milt Plum, who played perhaps his sharpest half of football all season in those first 30 minutes, took only two plays to maneuver Detroit to the Colts 13, from where he lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone that was snared on a diving grab by flanker Pat Studstill to knot the score at 7. Lions fans began to smell the possibility of an upset and started to rock the old ball yard on Trumbull Street and Michigan Avenue.

The second quarter might have been Detroit’s best 15 minutes of the season. The defense jolted the Colts time and time again, shutting down their running game and incessantly harassing Unitas on his pass plays. Top target Orr was being smothered by double-teams, while All-Pro CB Dick LeBeau was effectively shadowing Berry. Meanwhile, the Lions offense was clicking as it had rarely been all season. Plum was dazzling, hitting on 8 of 10 darts in the first half.

It was the Lions stop unit again that forced the big play in the 2nd Q. Unitas, under pressure, was intercepted again, this time by LeBeau, who brought it back nine yards to the Lions 34. Detroit’s infantry was also in gear and began to tear away at the Colts’ injury-depleted defensive front minus DE Ordell Braase, as well as LBs Don Shinnick and Ted Davis, with big backs Pietrosante and Amos Marsh alternately plowing ahead for good yardage, while Plum was mostly on target with his throws. En route, Gilmer gambled on a 4th and 1 at the Baltimore 45 and converted, practicing for another eventual 4th-and-goal situation at the end of the drive from the Colts’ 1-yard-line, from where Marsh would barge over for a 14-7 lead.

Backs against the wall, Baltimore tried to answer, though a Unitas-led march would stall at the Detroit 35, from where left-footed Lou Michaels would come onto the field and punch a 42-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-10. The Lions, however, would push the Colts completely onto the ropes before the half concluded. Just inside of the 2-minute warning, the big, fast 6-2, 220-lb. Marsh, who a few years earlier had featured as an end for Tommy Prothro at Oregon State and also had landed in Tom Landry’s Dallas doghouse, took a handoff from Plum on what looked like basic running play. But Marsh would instead slash through left tackle and break clear on a 62-yard gallop for the end zone, outrunning speedy Baltimore corner Lenny Lyles en route, the longest jaunt in the NFL up to that point in the season. Marsh was on his way to his season-best 146 YR, and Detroit was fully in command by a 21-10 score at halftime.  

Tiger Stadium was buzzing, with the loud din of the happy crowd serving as a nice backdrop for the halftime marching band entertainment.

The Lions might have had a chance to deliver a knockout blow early in the 3rd Q when the jack-of-all-trades Studstill brought a short Tom Gilburg punt back to the Baltimore 35. A touchdown here and Detroit would have moved three scores ahead, and Plum quickly marched the Lions to the Colt 4, where the drive stalled and dual-threat LB/PK Wayne Walker would boot a 12-yard field goal to extend the lead to 24-10...but keeping the Colts within striking distance.

Late in the 3rd quarter, the Baltimore offense finally started to stir. Unitas, to that point enduring his worst day of the season, and working on 10 straight incomplete passes, finally kick-started a drive that chugged to near midfield as the quarter ended. On the second play of the 4th Q, from his own 49, Unitas had enough time in the pocket to fire a downfield strike to big TE John Mackey, who caught the ball at the Detroit 13 between Detroit’s Bobby Thompson and Tommy Vaughn and charged into the end zone to cut the margin to 24-17, captured eloquently on CBS by Colts play-by-play man Chuck Thompson, whose masterful voice inflections and sense for the dramatic heightened the excitement for the home viewing audience..

Momentum was now on Baltimore’s side, and Lions QB Plum had cooled after his sizzling first half. In fact, in the second 30 minutes, Plum would only complete two passes...one to the Lions, one to the Colts. The Baltimore catch was made by CB Bobby Boyd on Detroit’s next series and took the ball to the Lion 47. From there, Unitas, not in the midst of his best day as en route to completing only 14 of 34 passes, was nonetheless able to fire up another march that seemed destined to level the score at 24 apiece. An interference call on Detroit S Maher as he battled the physical Mackey would help move the ball into the red zone. But at the 4-yard line, RB Tom Matte, in briefly for Lenny Moore, would fumble away the ball, and the drive was stopped.

Quickly forcing Detroit’s Mr. Everything, Studstill, to punt again, fearless Baltimore returner Alvin Haymond, famous for routinely eschewing fair catches, fielded the kick on his own 40 and weaved all of the way to the Detroit 33, and might have scored if not being errantly hit by teammate Alex Hawkins, trying to make a block. Unitas, however, could not complete the drive, ending up misfiring on a 4th down pass to Mackey. Detroit’s lead was holding at 24-17 as the big crowd at Tiger Stadium was seemingly willing the Lions to make the key defensive plays to maintain the precarious lead, as the Packers and Green Bay fans watching on TVs in Wisconsin were cheering along.

Plum, however, was having no luck getting the Detroit offense to move, and once again it was that fearless return man Alvin Haymond who would set up the Colts offense in great field position. This time, it was a 33-yard return of Studstill’s next punt, brought all of the way to the Detroit 14. Two plays would lose a yard, but this time Unitas would not be denied, drilling a 15-yard TD pass to his favorite target of the day, the big TE Mackey, to tie the score at 24-24 after Lou Michaels converted. Only 1:51 remained!

By now, Detroit was in neutral, however, and Plum could not move the offense, forcing yet another Studstill punt, away from the dangerous Haymond, and all of the way back to the Baltimore 19, from where Unitas could try to navigate downfield with just over a minute to play. But the Lions’ defense, urged by the capacity crowd, punished Unitas again and pushed the Colts back to their 4-yard line from where Gilburg was forced to punt out of his own end zone as the clock ran to less than a minute to play. Tiger Stadium shook once more, the big audience thinking that maybe the Lions could pull out the game after all.

Here is where things began to get very curious.

With all of their timeouts remaining, Lions HC Gilmer inexplicably did not signal defensive captain Joe Schmidt (in those days, players, specifically captains, were the only ones authorized to stop the clock) to use one of them, wasting an extra 17 seconds before Gilburg’s punt, out to his own 42, was fair-caught by the ever-present Studstill with 24 seconds remaining.

The correct call at that very point, as the astute Chuck Thompson reminded the CBS audience,  would have been the little-used “free kick,” which had been used the previous year by Green Bay’s Paul Hornung in a game vs. the Bears. A “free kick” is lined up as would a regular kickoff, but the kicker has the opportunity to kick the ball as if a regular field goal. At his own speed, and against no rush. It can only be used immediately after a fair catch, which Studstill’s actions had allowed the Lions to do. Walker, who had been booming his kickoffs from his own 40, into the end zone all day, would have been a good bet to connect on one of those thru the uprights (in those days on the goal line) to win the game in the final seconds.

Detroit and Gilmer, however, had miscalculated. Badly.  In those days the clock would not stop inside of the 2-minute warning on a fair catch. Which should have not presented a problem as the Lions still had the use of three timeouts; the situation simply called for the Lions to use one of them and send Wayne Walker on the field to try the free-kick. But Detroit was panicked, instead Plum and the offense rushed out on the field, and all Milt could do was throw a pass out of bounds with 3 seconds remaining. Which stopped the clock...but also precluded the opportunity for Walker to try a free kick.

Now, it would have to be a traditional field goal try, against a rushing defense, from almost 50 yards out. No Matt Prater from 55 years ahead in 2020; Walker mis-hit the field goal try, topping it, as the kick wobbled and came nowhere close. The game would end 24-24. The fans sat in disbelief; injured Detroit end Terry Barr, watching the game in the press box, nearly broke his crutches in anger when the Lions botched the final seconds.

Lions HC Gilmer tried to explain away the final seconds, thinking he wanted to get Walker closer for a field goal try, but he was swimming upstream with his explanations after blowing the time-out situation and the chance at the free kick.  As for the Colts, they had thought they had dodged a bullet, and would be ahead of the second-place Packers no matter what at the end of the weekend. We’ll get to what the Vince Lombardis did against the Rams (a game we attended) in a future update.

But things were only warming up in the NFL Western Conference that Thanksgiving weekend, 1965. With every team in the conference capable of causing trouble, and three teams (Chicago having joined the fray) thundering down the stretch in search of the lead and a spot in the title game, December of ‘65 would provide one of the greatest photo finishes in NFL history. The fun and drama was just beginning on Thanksgiving.

Let’s hope we get something as memorable from the upcoming Thursday trifecta; check out our NFL Analysis to see what we think of these and other upcoming pro football games this week!

(Be on the watch for subsequent excerpts from “December ‘65" in upcoming issues of TGS.)

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