- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Nov. 26, 1934, the Detroit Lions played their first Thanksgiving Day football game, starting a tradition that has endured for three-quarters of a century.

In homes across the country ever since, American males gathered in front of first radios and then televisions while the womenfolk prepared the stuffing and baked the turkey. Many people also attended local high school or college games. Football and Thanksgiving seemed to go together no less than Santa Claus and Christmas.

The Lions lost that first game to the Chicago Bears 19-16, which wasn’t the foregone conclusion such a contest might be today. The Detroit team, newly imported from Portsmouth, Ohio, had won all 10 of its games, the first seven by shutout.

The NFL had staged Thanksgiving games in various cities since 1920, its first season, but the Motor City edition quickly became a fixture. From 1951 through 1963, the Green Bay Packers always came to town; since then, various teams have done the honors. Starting in 1966, the Dallas Cowboys made it a double serving of Turkey Day football most seasons. In 2006, a Thanksgiving night game was added.

Lately, however, there have been cries for the NFL to abandon Detroit on Thanksgiving because of the Lions’ continuing ineptitude. The franchise hasn’t won a championship since 1957 or even enjoyed a winning season since 2000. Over the past nine years, the toothless Pussycats are 33-105, including 2-24 the past two seasons after Sunday’s 38-37 upset of Cleveland.

Ouch!

No, make that Yikes!

All across cyberspace, bloggers and Twitterers have been urging the league to sack the Lions in favor of a more competitive Thanksgiving team. Respected Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King speculated on SI.com that the NFL will reassess its holiday plans when the current schedule rotation ends after this season. Commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed that the subject has arisen in league meetings.

So is another body blow in store for one of the nation’s hardest-hit cities during the economic downtown? And if it is, how many people will care? A decade of nearly nonstop losing - much of it orchestrated by former general manager Matt Millen - can turn off even the most loyal fans.

Last winter, newly named Lions coach Jim Schwartz said he wanted to “put barbed wire” around the Thanksgiving game just to keep it going at Ford Field. But Schwartz, of course, doesn’t have any say in whether it lives or dies.

This Thursday’s game will be the 70th Thanksgiving date in Detroit - the series was interrupted for several years during World War II - but the excitement level figures to be much lower than in the distant late autumn of 1934.

Detroit’s first Thanksgiving contest was dreamed up by Lions owner G.A. “Dick” Richards, who had brought the franchise to town. Despite the rousing early success of a team starring halfback Earl “Dutch” Clark, who returned to the NFL after a year as coach at the Colorado School of Mines, the Lions had drawn no more than 15,000 paying customers to University of Detroit Stadium.

With the undefeated and defending champion Chicago Bears coming in, Richards wanted a big payday - and he got one. The holiday game drew a sellout crowd of 26,000 and was broadcast over a national radio network of 94 stations. Just like that, a classic was born.

How memorable was the game between two unbeaten elevens? Wrote sports editor Bud Shaver in the Detroit Times: “Many Thanksgiving Days will roll into eternity before [the spectators] will forget that one.”

Thanksgiving was then celebrated on the last Thursday in November in accordance with a tradition established by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. In the 1940s, Congress passed legislation fixing the holiday on the fourth Thursday of the month.

Regardless of the date, the Lions didn’t enjoy the Thanksgiving period much in 1934. They played the Packers four days earlier and the Bears again three days later, losing all three games in an eight-day span for a final 10-3 record.

Could that trio of defeats have been a portent of pathetic times to come?

When the Lions and Packers tangle this week, a Motown-themed halftime show thankfully might take the minds of Detroit fans off football momentarily. Maybe, though, a dirge would be more appropriate.

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