I’m a huge football fan and I know the Lions playing on Thanksgiving is tradition, but not gonna lie – I never knew the reason (I’m ashamed).  Many fans want Thanksgiving games to feature better teams, but the history may change their minds.


The Lions once had an owner who made Dallas Cowboys boss Jerry Jones look like a cookie-cutter executive by comparison. That man is responsible for one of the most enduring traditions in football.

His name is G.A. Richards, and in 1934 he bought the Lions and moved the team from Portsmouth, Ohio, to the Motor City. Right away, the radio entrepreneur had an issue: the Tigers. Detroit’s baseball team was dominant, making it to the World Series that year and bearing down on its first championship in 1935 with stars like Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Jo-Jo White and Schoolboy Rowe. The Lions were an early version of the USFL Michigan Panthers, talented but a side dish at best. Richards needed something to set his team apart.

So he decided to play a game on Thanksgiving Day.

It wasn’t a first for the NFL. Thanksgiving Day football dates back to 1920, and Red Grange actually made his debut on Thanksgiving in 1925. But Richards, like Jerry Jones today, made the spectacle bigger and bolder. He cut a deal with NBC to broadcast the game nationwide. And he booked the best opponent possible.

That would be the defending champion Chicago Bears, under George Halas. Richards was so intent on building the rivalry that he had a bear shot in Northern Michigan and asked that it be prepared and served to the Lions players after the game.

The gimmick worked. A team that never drew more than 15,000 fans could have sold three times that many tickets if the University of Detroit stadium had been big enough. The Lions and Bears staged “a masterful exhibition of offensive football,” reported the Detroit Free Press, and Bronco Nagurski scored the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

The Lions lost the game, but they certainly won the day. The following year, Detroit beat the Bears on Thanksgiving on its way to a football title. And one of the most memorable games in NFL history took place 50 years ago this week, as the Lions (with the late Alex Karras) bulldozed Vince Lombardi’s undefeated Packers in the 1962 “Thanksgiving Day Massacre.”

Thursday’s home game against the Houston Texans will be the 73rd hosted by the Lions on Thanksgiving, a tradition interrupted only by World War II.

The Cowboys’ version of the Thanksgiving Day game began quite late relatively, in 1966.