Historians consider the turkey and venison feast shared between Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Colony, Mass., in 1621 to be the origin of the Thanksgiving Day tradition. But some football fans might argue that a better tradition began in Detroit on Nov. 29, 1934. On that day the Lions played the Chicago Bears (above) and started the Motor City's Thanksgiving Day custom of hosting a game.
It all began in June 1934 when George A. Richards, a local radio-station executive, paid $8,000 for the NFL's Portsmouth ( Ohio) Spartans and moved the team to Detroit, renaming it the Lions. The team started that season 10-1, yet it was averaging just 12,000 fans per game, less than half the capacity of the University of Detroit stadium.
"Mr. Richards felt we needed something to get the people excited," says 89-year-old Glenn Presnell, the team's quarterback, kicker and safety. So Richards moved the Lions' upcoming home game against the Bears to Thanksgiving Day.
Using his radio industry connections, Richards got NBC to air the game on 94 stations across the country, the first time an NFL contest was broadcast live coast to coast. He also took out full-page ads in Detroit's three daily newspapers, while Lion coach Potsy Clark publicly promised that his team would eat "Bear meat" for Thanksgiving. Richards followed up on his coaches' declaration by having a real bear sent down from northern Michigan and slaughtered so that his team could make a meal of it after the game.
The hype worked and all 26,000 seats at the stadium were filled. Unfortunately for the Lions, they were beaten 19-16 and then had to suffer through a heavy meal. "We ate the bear," says Presnell, "but it didn't taste so good after we lost."
Still, the game endeared the Lions to the city and started a beloved tradition. Except for the period between 1939 and '44, Detroit has hosted a Thanksgiving Day game each year, going 26-26-2. And heading into Thursday's holiday contest against the Bills, there's no need for current Lion coach Wayne Fontes to have to plug the game like Clark did 60 years ago. Fontes probably prefers turkey to buffalo anyway.