The Lions at Ford Field: The History of a Famous Thanksgiving Tradition

For most Americans, the fourth Thursday of November is a time for celebration. But while many are tucking into their Thanksgiving feasts, many families across the country are turning their attention away from the table and toward the TV. That’s because Thanksgiving isn’t just a day for eating and being merry – it’s also a day for watching football. Surprisingly, Thanksgiving and football go way back, even to the origins of the game itself. That’s especially true in Michigan, home of Ford Field and its home team, the Detroit Lions.

The Invention of Football and the Thanksgiving Tradition

While the origin of football itself is a little murky, many sports historians trace its history back to the late 1800s, where it was popular among college players. Around that time, universities such as Yale, Princeton, and the University of Michigan started a tradition of hosting football games on Thanksgiving, as this was a day that most workers had off. Some now say that a game between Michigan and the University of Chicago in 1893 was the first Thanksgiving football game, though others argue that the practice really began years earlier, shortly after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an American holiday in the 1860s.

The Lions and Thanksgiving

The National Football League began in earnest in 1920, which the Detroit Lions joined ten years later. An interesting bit of trivia: the Lions were originally an Ohio team named the Portsmouth Spartans, but after only a few seasons, relocated to their long and current home, Detroit. The first Lions Thanksgiving game actually took place during their first year in Detroit at the University of Detroit stadium, where there were so many attendees that some had to be turned away. While the Lions lost the game that day against the Chicago Bears, the tradition had begun.

Detroit and Ford Field on Thanksgiving

Over the years, the Lions would play game after game in Detroit, first at the University of Detroit stadium and then at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, from the 1970s. It was during the 1990s, one of the best decades for Lions football, that the idea of a new stadium in downtown Detroit started floating around. Ford Field, named of course after the car company that made Detroit so famous–and the family that has a major stake in the Detroit Lions–opened in 2002, where the Lions carried on their Thanksgiving tradition. Nowadays, Thanksgiving in Detroit is an all-out event, with both the game at Ford Field and Detroit holding its own parade than runs down Woodward Avenue, the city’s main drag.

For many, Thanksgiving and the Lions at Ford Stadium are two events that are inextricably linked. The idea was so successful that the Dallas Cowboys took on a similar tradition in the 1960s, followed by an NFL tradition of an additional game held on the day as well. While the Lions’ Thanksgiving record of 33-34-2 isn’t all that spectacular, the fact that they’ve played nearly 70 Thanksgiving games and show no signs of stopping – well, that’s something worth celebrating.

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