Column: Remembering Thanksgiving games when Lions devoured Packers

  • Article by: BILL DWYRE
  • Updated: November 27, 2013 - 9:12 PM

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

A Thanksgiving Day feast means something totally different to former Green Bay Packer Paul Hornung.

“The Lions used to just eat us alive,” he says.

Hornung, a Hall of Famer, is 77. The golden era of the Golden Boy was the ‘50s and ‘60s. In those days, specifically a span from 1951 through 1963, the NFL on Thanksgiving Day was the Packers at the Detroit Lions.

One game. All eyes on Detroit. A Roman Colosseum awaiting the Christians. Packers lambs being led to Lions slaughter.

Hornung played in five of those games and missed two others, one because of an injury and the second, the final game of the Thanksgiving series, because of a one-year suspension in 1963 for gambling. Also missing that season was Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras, one of the best slaughterers.

“I don’t think I ever had a great game against them,” Hornung says. “None of us did. They were just too damn good on defense.

“Lucky their offense stunk most of the time. Who was one of their quarterbacks ... Milt Plum?”

In that 13-year span, the Lions had a 9-3-1 record against the Packers. They won the first five games and seven of the first eight.

Vince Lombardi didn’t show up in Green Bay until 1959, but even the legendary Packers coach seldom had his way in that game. He was 2-2-1, and one of his defeats, a 26-14 loss in the 1962 game, was one for the ages.

The Packers, defending NFL champions, were undefeated and riding high. Then the Lions rolled over them, sacking quarterback Bart Starr 11 times.

Hornung was out because of an injury, but his memory of the game remains healthy.

“We couldn’t block our own mothers in that game,” he says.

He also says that, especially in the early ‘60s, Detroit tackles Roger Brown and Karras and middle linebacker Joe Schmidt played those Thanksgiving games like heat-seeking missiles.

“I think that’s why (Packers offensive guard) Jerry Kramer isn’t in the Hall of Fame,” Hornung says. “He got the reputation of not being able to block Karras.

“I remember warning (fellow running back) Elijah Pitts one time that he had to always know where Schmidt was, because if you didn’t, he would come out of nowhere and clothesline you.

“Elijah went out, ran wide on a play, and Joe clotheslined him. He came back to the sideline and said, Yep, he got me.’

“Joe was a great player. We’ve become good friends.”

From the moment he arrived in Green Bay, Lombardi hated the Thanksgiving Day game. It was a short week, always in front of a hostile crowd. To him, always an ambush game. He lobbied hard to break the tradition and eventually persuaded the NFL to spare his team from being an annual drumstick.

“It screwed up his whole practice routine, his whole schedule,” Hornung says. “He hated it.

“I kind of liked to go over there. (Packers tight end) Ron Kramer was from Detroit, and Max McGee and I would go over early and have Thanksgiving dinner the night before at Ron’s house. It made Lombardi nervous, us over there alone on our own. Max and I shared a house in Green Bay, but none of the loopy women we had around in those days could make Thanksgiving dinner.”

Come game time, the Packers were usually cooked anyway.

“It was always ridiculous, never pleasant,” Hornung says. “You had to take on that great defense, and that was never pleasant.”

Thanksgiving Day football has a lore that stretches back to 1892, when the Lehigh Mountain Hawks allegedly beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, 21-0. Other record listings show Notre Dame’s Corby Hall winning all three of its Turkey Day games, 1911-13, by never allowing a point to be scored on them. Another classic apparently was the 1915 victory by the Conshohocken Athletic Club over the Norristown Billikens. They were apparently forerunners to the great Lions defenses. The score was 3-2.

Once Lombardi broke up the Packers-Lions Thanksgiving Day game, the NFL gravitated toward something less traditional and certainly more lucrative. Surprise, surprise.

This Thanksgiving Day’s NFL menu will have three games. The Oakland Raiders will be at the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Baltimore Ravens and - here we go again - the Packers at the Lions.

Hornung lives in Louisville, Ky., where he grew up and continues to stay active in sports. The Louisville Sports Commission has an annual award in his name for the most versatile college player in the country. UCLA’s Myles Jack is among the finalists.

Hornung also owns thoroughbred horses and had one, under the training of Wayne Lukas, start in this year’s Preakness. The horse’s name is Titletown Five - “Titletown” for Green Bay’s nickname and “Five” for his jersey number.

His dream is to have a Kentucky Derby winner.

“If that happened,” Hornung says, “I’d yank the jockey off the horse and ride him into the winner’s circle myself.”

He will be watching when the Packers take the field in Detroit Thursday. It shouldn’t be like the old days. The Lions haven’t won a Thanksgiving Day game since 2003.

But his memories won’t be able to keep him from worrying about what used to be, when his Packers took on the Lions in Detroit.

Gobble, gobble.

---

2013 Los Angeles Times

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