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Why do the Lions always play on Thanksgiving?

Over 80 years ago, the NFL’s first Thanksgiving tradition was born.

NFL: NOV 22 Bears at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Lions are one of two teams who play on Thanksgiving every season. The other is the Dallas Cowboys, but the tradition started with the Lions decades ago.

This season, the Lions played the Bears in an NFC North matchup for the second year in a row. For some, it might not be the most attractive game with the biggest names, but it is the one that carries the most history.

Here’s the history behind the game, maintained by the Lions.

It started in 1934 when the Lions moved to Detroit

The first owner of the Lions, G.A. Richards moved the Lions from Portsmouth, Ohio to Detroit. In 1934, they played their first Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Bears and legendary coach George Halas.

Richards had NBC cover the game across the U.S. via radio, with 26,000 fans in attendance. While the Bears won the game, a new tradition was born. It was a success that has been carried on ever since — one that’s older than 24 of the 32 NFL franchises today.

There’s the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” game in 1962

The Lions topped the Packers by a final score of 26-14. The Packers would go on to be champions that season, with the Thanksgiving loss their only of the year.

While sacks weren’t an official stat until 1982, historians of the game credit the Lions with 11 sacks. Roger Brown had six of those, one of which resulted in a safety.

The most infamous moment, however, came in 1998

The Lions were going into overtime in 1998 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Jerome Bettis would call for heads or tails on the coin toss.

Bettis alleges he called for tails, and it was tails. But referee Phil Luckett rewarded the Lions with the ball, claiming that Bettis had called “heads-tails” instead.

Poor Luckett.

Trash talk led the Lions to an easy win over the Packers in 2013

Green Bay Packers guard Josh Sitton was asked during the week if he believed the Lions would hit Aaron Rodgers hard during the game.

Sitton didn’t hold back, calling the players dirtbags, and criticizing then-head coach Jim Schwartz via NFL.com:

"Absolutely," Sitton told WSSP-AM in Milwaukee (via the Detroit Free Press). "I don't think there's any question about that. They go after quarterbacks. Their entire defense takes cheap shots all the time, that's what they do, that's who they are. They're a bunch of dirtbags, or scumbags. I mean, that's how they play."

"It starts with their frickin' coach," Sitton said. "Starts with the head coach. Schwartz, he's a (expletive), too, I wouldn't want to play for him. ... Starts with him, their D-coordinator and their D-line coach. They're all just scumbags, and so are the D-line."

The Lions responded to the criticism with a big game. Green Bay ended up playing without Rodgers, as Matt Flynn started the game. The result? a 40-10 Lions win.

The Lions are a shade under .500 on Thanksgiving

The Lions are 37-41-2 on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve had their stretches of winning and losing streaks, but none greater than the nine-game losing skid they had from 2004 to 2012.

After that streak ended, they won four in a row until a loss to the Vikings in 2017 broke the streak. They’ve currently lost three straight Thanksgiving games after falling to the Bears in 2019.


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