THE TELEVISION set arrived on a Wednesday. It sat for a day in
the farmhouse in Elgin, Iowa, as intriguing as a spaceship
freshly landed from Saturn or someplace. A magic carpet in a
box. How far could a man travel with this new machine? What
magical worlds could he see? The year was 1954.
"I had only seen television once before in my life," Kent Falb
says. "We had moved into this new house, though, and the first
thing my father did was buy this set. It couldn't get anything
until the men arrived the next morning with the antenna."
That was Thursday. Falb remembers the antenna being attached to
the barn, a huge antenna to a child's eyes, a tower. The
excitement of the moment is hard to translate, 41 years later.
Television is everywhere a man turns, a part of modern life
virtually from conception, but at that time a first set brought
to a house was the answer to a sorcerer's dream. The antenna's
metal rods reached into the sky, and the plastic-covered wire
was stretched into the house and connected to the back of the
set, and the men fiddled with the controls and....
"The first people I saw on that television were the Detroit
Lions," says Falb, now 55, the Lions' head trainer for the past
29 years. "Through all that black-and-white interference, there
they were. It's amazing, when you think about where I wound up.
They were playing the Green Bay Packers. Then again, it wasn't
so amazing. The Thursday was Thanksgiving."
Thanksgiving. The Lions. Of course.
The game seems now as if it always has been part of the
Thanksgiving tradition, as basic to the day as a 28-inch,
cable-ready monster in the corner of the living room. Turkey and
television and the Lions. Pass the mashed potatoes and adjust
the vertical hold to see the next punt by Yale Lary. A little
more stuffing? No, thank you, but maybe a few more sweeps by
Billy Sims. Cranberry sauce and those silver helmets. Didn't
Captain Miles Standish first ask John Smith to see if Priscilla
Alden thought the Lions would cover the spread? Something like
"You think about it," Falb says. "We're into the third
generation that has always associated the Lions on television
First held in 1934 as--surprise!--a way to make a few more dollars
for a franchise whose new owner, G.A. Richards, had just moved
the team from Portsmouth, Ohio, the game in Detroit on this day
has become a unique national attraction. The Dallas Cowboys
might have come along with their own game in 1966 to provide a
television doubleheader package, but the Lions still are
Thanksgiving's chosen children. They are the football pilgrims
of the day, quiet for the rest of the year but inflated out of
proportion and held high as any Macy's balloon for one important
walk across the holiday stage.
"Thanksgiving always was the most magical game of the year for
us," says Doug English, who played on the Lion defensive line
from 1975 to '79 and again from '81 to '85. "It was just a great
day, a sacred time for us."
"It has been a ritual for me for all my life," Gary Danielson, a
Lion quarterback from 1976 to '84, says. "I grew up in Dearborn,
just outside Detroit, so my earliest memories involve the Lions.
The entire day revolved around the football game. I remember
playing touch football in the backyard in the morning,
pretending I was Gale Cogdill, number 89, with that single bar
on the helmet, but I had to be inside by 11:30 to sit with the
men and watch the game. It doesn't sound so politically correct
now, but that's the way it would be: the men watching the game,
the women in the kitchen preparing the meal. Then, later, when I
actually got to play in the game...."
"That was usually our only opportunity for the nation to see
what we could do," says Charlie Sanders, a Pro Bowl tight end
from 1968 to '77 who is now the Lions' receivers coach. "That
was our Monday night game, our Super Bowl, our chance to have
all the attention. We got revved up for it."
As a lower echelon team most years, one of only eight teams
never to have played in a Super Bowl, the Lions traditionally
have used the day to refurbish their image. No matter what their
record, this was a day of late-season, one-day incentives. Is
there ever a better time to have a home field advantage than on
this day when everyone wants to be home? The work week was
shortened dramatically. The playbook was cut in half. The stakes
were quietly raised. Make a mistake and the world will see. Lose
the game and ruin the family dinner.
Strange things can happen in these kinds of circumstances. This
lower-echelon team has a 27-26-2 record in the 55 games that
have been played on Thanksgiving (for five years, between 1939
and 1944, the holiday game was suspended).
"I've always thought that part of our success was that the
coaches didn't have time to change everything," Danielson says.
"They couldn't install something that, say, the San Francisco
49ers had used to success the week before. They had to stick
with what we knew. That always seemed much better to me."
For every grim afternoon like the 41-14 drubbing by the 49ers in
1966 or the 23-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in 1988, there
has been a corresponding 40-27 surprise over the Denver Broncos
in 1990 or a 45-3 romp over the favored Pittsburgh Steelers in
1983. A shock like the 1980 finish, when quarterback Vince Evans
scored on the final play of regulation and David Williams
returned the overtime kickoff 95 yards to give the Chicago Bears
a 23-17 win, has been more than balanced by a 145-yard rushing
performance by rookie Barry Sanders in a 13-10 upset of the
Cleveland Browns in 1989.
Even in their worst seasons, like 1979, when they were heading
for a 2-14 finish, the Lions have been able to put together a
20-0 shocker over the Bears.
The 1970 game illustrated, as well as any, the magic that can
take place. The Lions were playing the Oakland Raiders, who had
made the playoffs for three straight years and would again that
season. The Lions not only had to win this game to keep their
playoff chances alive, they had to win every game for the rest
of the season. They immediately fell behind, 14-0.
"Fred Biletnikoff beat Lem Barney twice for touchdowns," Charlie
Sanders remembers. "It looked awful. Someone said the Raiders
were laughing at us. We ran a play, though, that was a long post
route to me in the end zone. Greg Landry threw a ball that was
way over my head. I didn't think there was any way I could catch
it. I dove anyway and remembered what my high school coach told
me: 'Always put out your hand, because someday a bird might crap
in it.' Well, this was the day."
"I still don't know how he caught that ball, stretched flat
out," says Landry, who played quarterback for the Lions from
1968 to '78. "It turned the whole game around. We won 28-14 and
won the rest of our games and made the playoffs. The next year
something almost stranger happened. We were playing Kansas City
this time. I throw a pass and Charlie slips. The ball goes over
him and right at Johnny Robinson, the Chiefs' All-Pro safety.
The ball hit Robinson in the chest, bounced in the air and
landed in Charlie's hands while he was lying on the ground. I
said, 'Well, maybe this is going to be all right.'"
The result of the Thanksgiving game would always determine the
mood for the rest of the day. Landry, single then, would hurry
from the locker room to the airport, where he would catch a
flight to Boston. He would sit in the empty first-class section,
celebrate with a glass of wine, then meet with college friends
from the University of Massachusetts that night. On Friday he
would eat a belated turkey dinner at his parents' house in
Sanders would join family and friends in Greensboro, N.C., for a
late dinner on Thursday. He would never eat very much. "That's
the way I was my entire career," he says. "I'd get so excited
about the games, I couldn't eat usually between Wednesday and
Monday. I'd be happy if we won, but I still couldn't eat."
The charmed decade for the Lions was the '50s, when they won
eight of the 10 Thanksgiving matchups. The Lions won three
pre-Super Bowl NFL titles--in 1952, '53 and '57--with Bobby Layne
running wild at quarterback before, during and after the games.
Television was reaching across the country and those were the
teams that first made people watch. And almost every year
Detroit seemed to be teaching the Packers a holiday football
"Those were just wonderful teams," Marc Falco, a Detroit
restaurant owner, says. "I was in high school then. My father
and his brother owned the restaurant. I had special permission
to leave school early every day. I went to the restaurant, where
my father had prepared this enormous pot of soup. We'd put the
pot in the back of the station wagon and I'd drive to the
stadium, where they would let me drive right onto the field.
Practice would stop and two football players would come and take
out the pot and everyone had soup. The players had a song that
they would sing: 'Hooray for Petey Falco, he brings us
minestrone....' Could you imagine players today doing that?"
"I thought the series, playing the Packers every year [from 1951
to '63], was the best thing," Darris McCord, a member of the
NFL's original Fearsome Foursome (page 66), says. "The most
memorable game was 1962. We'd lost 9-7 in Green Bay earlier in
the season, and now we played them again in Detroit. We sacked
Bart Starr 11 times and won the game 26-14. That was the only
loss Green Bay had all year. Vince Lombardi was so upset that he
refused to play us on Thanksgiving after 1963."
A tradition within the tradition, the Great Detroit Rookie
Turkey Chase, was started during that time. Middle linebacker
Joe Schmidt and equipment man Friday Macklem were the
originators. Macklem posted a notice on the locker room
blackboard that free turkeys were available at a certain store
in the old Eastern Markets section of the city. Schmidt passed
around a list for rookies to sign, with a space next to each
name for them to designate how many pounds they wanted their
free turkeys to be and whether they wanted them frozen or fresh
killed. All the rookies had to do was drive to the Markets the
day before the game to pick up the birds. Of course there was no
store handing out free turkeys. Of course the rookies invariably
became lost and frustrated and, in the end, chagrined. Of course.
"They'd get to the Markets, which was a confusing place anyway,
and just sort of mill around a lot," Schmidt says. "It was
something we continued doing every year."
"The guys who were fooled the most one year became the ones who
became most active in keeping the joke going the next year,"
The game has moved to the suburbs, to the Silverdome in Pontiac,
but the chase continues. (Shhhhh. Don't tell the rookies.) The
destination last year was a suburban supermarket. Video cameras
awaited. The rookies were recorded in their foolishness.
Progress. The Lions won the next day, a typical Detroit
Thanksgiving, as they bounced the defending AFC champion Buffalo
Bills 35-21. On the second play of the game tailback Barry
Sanders took a handoff from quarterback Dave Krieg, then turned
and passed the ball back to Krieg, who threw it 51 yards down
the field to wideout Herman Moore for a touchdown. The Bills'
All-Pro quarterback Jim Kelly was intercepted twice by
cornerback Willie Clay and sacked three times by defensive
lineman Kelvin Pritchett. Krieg threw for 351 yards and three
"We tell players, when they come here, that this day is going to
be different," Falb says. "The crowd is different, noisier than
on any other day. The excitement is different. The entire city
is involved. When you play here on that day you are part of a
Turkey, television and the Lions.
Pass the gravy. Heat up the apple pie. Watch a good forearm
shiver or two as the men in the silver helmets run past. The
picture remains the same.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOREN LONG [Football player running with turkey during game]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOREN LONG [Pilgrims watching football on television]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOREN LONG [Football players standing around steaming pot]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY LOREN LONG [Woman pulling football out of oven]