On June 30, 1934, George A. Richards bought the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans for $7,952.08 and moved them to Detroit to make some big-market bucks in the 14-year-old National Football League.
That handsome sum of money — the equivalent of $142,489.83 in 2016 currency — made Richards a bit of a financial daredevil pushing up the cost of NFL franchises. After all, Art Rooney had just bought the Pittsburgh Steelers for $2,500 in 1933.
The Lions won their first 10 games. But while the Motor City loved its baseball Tigers, it was slow to embrace the Lions, who played seven of their first 11 games at home in front of crowds of no more than 15,000 at the University of Detroit’s 26,000-seat stadium.
That changed starting Nov. 29, 1934, when Richards scheduled George Halas’ defending world champion Chicago Bears for the Lions’ first Thanksgiving Day game.
Football on Thanksgiving wasn’t new, of course. It dated to 1876, when Yale played Princeton. Pro football followed in the 1890s with the Allegheny Athletic Association of Pittsburgh and continued after the NFL was formed in 1920. Even Detroit’s first four pro teams — the Heralds, Tigers, Panthers and Wolverines — played Thanksgiving Day games from 1917 to 1928.
But Richards started something bigger in 1934 when a sellout crowd watched the undefeated Bears, led by former Gophers great Bronko Nagurski, beat the 10-1 Lions 19-16. Thousands were turned away at the gate, but fans throughout the land could listen to the game because the 94-station NBC Radio Network, with coaxing from Richards, made this the first NFL game to be broadcast coast to coast.
Thursday, the annual tradition continues for the 77th time when the Lions (6-4) play the Vikings (6-4) at Ford Field for first place in the NFC North. To date, 4,307,635 fans have watched in person as the Lions have gone 36-38-2 on Thanksgiving Day.
Times have changed
The Vikings are 5-1 in Thanksgiving Day games. But they haven’t played one since young Randy Moss tortured the Cowboys in Dallas for not drafting him in 1998. In a pair of victories in 1998 (46-36) and 2000 (27-15), Moss had 10 catches for 307 yards and five touchdowns, including scores of 51, 56 and 56 yards in 1998.
“Why’d you have to bring that up?” joked Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who was Dallas’ defensive backs coach in 1998 and its defensive coordinator in 2000. “Those are bad memories.”
Not for the Vikings. On Thanksgiving, they’re 3-0 against Dallas and 2-1 with two shutouts against the Lions. The first Thanksgiving Day game in franchise history — Nov. 27, 1969 — was a 27-0 win played in drastically different conditions than Zimmer’s team will find Thursday.
Thursday’s game will be played indoors on perfectly-kept FieldTurf while fans around the world watch replays on giant HD screens to determine whether an official blew an out-of-bounds call by a single blade of plastic grass or one minuscule rubber pellet.
“In ’69, there was a snowstorm and you couldn’t even see the other team across the field,” said running back Dave Osborn, who scored the game’s first points on a 1-yard run. “It wasn’t that cold [36 degrees with a 12 mile-per-hour wind], but it was those real big snowflakes, and they were piling up. A miserable game to play, but a fun one to win.”
“It was old Tiger Stadium, and the fields weren’t kept up like they are now,” coach Bud Grant remembered. “It was a baseball park with half grass and half dirt. That day, it was all mud and snow. But we were used to those conditions.”
Before Grant arrived from the CFL in 1967, the Vikings were 3-8-1 against the Lions. Grant turned things around, going 26-8-1 against Detroit. Today, the Vikings are 71-37-2 against the Lions. Zimmer’s mark fell to 2-3 on Nov. 6 when he lost 22-16 in overtime after Detroit trailed by three with 23 seconds left, no timeouts and the ball at its own 25-yard line.
“There’s definitely a strong feeling of wanting to play those guys again after what happened three weeks ago,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We’re looking forward to playing in front of the whole country.”
Party at Marshall’s
Watching football on television on Thanksgiving already was a big deal when the Vikings joined the NFL in 1961. Team owner Max Winter happened to own a club at 620 Hennepin Ave. It was called The 620 Club, “Where Turkey is King.”
“You could put up on the bulletin board how many people you were going to have for dinner at Max’s,” said Fred Zamberletti, the Vikings’ first head athletic trainer (1961-2003) and now their team historian. “Some of the guys would put down 25 people. And Max would cook it. Dressing, potatoes, everything. We might practice early on Thanksgiving, and guys would take that food home after practice.”
Chances are most of the players ended up at Jim Marshall’s house for a party and some football viewing. From the team’s inception in 1961 until 1979, Marshall never missed a game, a practice or a captain’s responsibility to lead a tight-knit group on the field and off.
“Some of those guys probably would have paid you to go to training camp,” Zamberletti said. “Do a little drinking, play a little cards and run around. Those guys had fun playing football.”
Thanksgiving was a time to let loose at Marshall’s house.
“They’d raise hell, especially on days when Green Bay was playing Detroit, which was usually the case back then,” Zamberletti said. “One of my favorite memories is of Marsh one year when he was hurt and we weren’t sure he was going to play on Sunday. I says to Marsh, ‘Jim, I’m going to have my wife make some turkey sandwiches and you and I are going to spend all day in the training room.’ Marsh, with a straight face, looks at me and says, ‘You can’t interfere with me thanking the Lord on Thanksgiving.’ ”
Coal buckets and cape fires
Something else you won’t see at Ford Field on Thursday?
Old coal buckets filled with smoldering charcoal set on the sidelines to keep players warm. And players scrambling to put out a fire when one of them got too close and accidently ignited his sideline cape.
“Bud, of course, didn’t allow any heaters or anything like that when we played at home,” Osborn said. “But I do remember the cape catching fire, probably at Detroit.”
Whether it happened during that Thanksgiving snowstorm has been lost to 47 years of fading memories.
But there is one play from that game that everyone remembers, even though they had trouble seeing it through the snowflakes. In fact, even the legendary Grant calls it “one of the greatest plays in football history.”
The Vikings led 17-0 in the fourth quarter when Marshall intercepted a pass. He ran 30 yards down the right sideline and was about to be dragged down at the Detroit 15-yard line.
“Then, without looking back, he takes the ball in his right hand, reaches to his left and flips the ball around the defender to Alan Page, who runs it in for a touchdown,” Grant said. “How Jim Marshall knew Alan Page was there, I have no idea. And Alan said he didn’t yell out to Jim.”
Marshall said the no-look pass was similar to ones he and teammates did routinely on the practice field the day after games. Grant didn’t hold Monday practices, but he had the players loosen up their bruised muscles with what essentially looked like a team of grown men playing a school-yard game of tag.
“Yes, I remember flipping the ball and doing all of that in practice,” Marshall said. “The lateral in the game was like that. There’s not much more to say about it.”
Grant was a stoic leader whose calm routine replaced Norm Van Brocklin’s volatile chaos on March 10, 1967. Everything the Vikings did was precisely structured, including a pregame ritual of the entire team arriving at the stadium with only enough time to be fully dressed 30 minutes before kickoff and then take the field for 20 minutes of warmups before returning to the locker room.
One time in Philadelphia, one of the team bus drivers got lost on the way from the team hotel to the stadium.
“One bus made it and the other didn’t,” Osborn said. “I was on the bus that made it. It’s getting close to game time and the other bus still wasn’t there. Those of us who were at the stadium got together and were trying to decide who would play what positions until Bud and the other guys showed up. They weren’t going to delay the game. Fortunately, the other bus showed up just in time.”
Monday night football didn’t exist in the 1960s, and the NFL didn’t play on any other day except Thanksgiving. The Vikings were the league’s dominant team in 1969. They went 12-2 and won the last NFL championship before the merger, beating the Browns en route to their first of four Super Bowls.
“That first Thanksgiving game was a real break in our routine,” Grant said. “But the flip side was we’d have three days off after. We won the game and it gave me a chance to go deer hunting that weekend. So it wasn’t too bad.”