The Detroit Lions began playing on Thanksgiving Day in 1934, with the game annually broadcast nationally, first on radio and later television.
For the vast majority of those years, the rest of the country — and in particularly bleak stretches, Detroit as well — has recoiled at the concept. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a joyous day.
The Lions don’t exactly spread holiday joy, other than to opposing fan bases in search of an easy victory. Detroit is 37-44-2 all-time on Thanksgiving, but just 4-15 since 2004, and losers of six consecutive.
Consider that the Lions have won just a single playoff game since 1957, and routinely field non-competitive teams, there have been, seemingly, just two periods of time when people wanted to spend Thanksgiving watching a Detroit game:
In the 1990s, when Barry Sanders played.
These are heady days for the Lions, and not just because they are 8-2 for the first time since … 1962.
They host rival Green Bay while holding a 2.5 game lead in the NFC North, which the Lions have never won despite the division existing since 2002. (The Packers have won it 12 times).
This year's Lions are just good; they’re exciting. They won a wild 41-38 shootout two weeks ago in Los Angeles against the Chargers and rallied from 12 down in the final five minutes to beat Chicago on Sunday.
They do it behind a likable, and daring coach Dan Campbell, who tries to push the envelope at every chance. What about the fans that find his aggressive play calling and fourth-down decisions nerve-racking?
“I tell my family this, ‘Wear a diaper before some of these games,’” Campbell said.
That sounds a little more entertaining than Minnesota 23-0 (1988), Indianapolis 41-9 (2004), Tennessee 47-10 (2008) or so on and so on as everyone asks if the turkey is done yet.
Of course, there was that decade (1989-1998) when Sanders thrilled like few players ever, his combination of elusiveness, bowling ball balance, sheer power and speed playing out like a real life video game.
Sanders is the greatest Lion of all-time and one of the greatest football players ever. And he was often at his best on Thanksgiving — he scored 12 touchdowns in 10 games and five times rushed for over 100 yards. In 1997 alone, he busted Chicago for 167 yards and three TDs. Detroit went 7-3 on the holiday during that stretch. Alas, other than a lone playoff victory after the 1991 season, most of Sanders’ genius was lost.
The story is the subject of a highly enjoyable new Amazon Prime Video documentary out this week, "Bye, Bye Barry." It explores a humble, complicated and talented player and man who wound up walking away from the game at age 31 and just a season from breaking Walter Payton's all-time career rushing mark.
Had Sanders not become so frustrated playing for a cheap, mismanaged franchise — and so uninterested in records – his 15,269 career yards could have exceeded well past 20,000 and likely never been broken (Emmitt Smith’s 18,355 has stood since 2004).
The release of the documentary coming on Thanksgiving week during a period of near unprecedented Lions success creates an almost unheard of moment for the franchise: pride.
In the present, of course. In the future possibilities, too. Even, oddly, in the past, because Sanders’ inherent goodness and forgiveness makes what is essentially a sad and frustrating story — outside forces wasting an incredible talent — upbeat and celebratory.
Not winning frustrated Barry, but only so much. As the documentary shows, he was content with himself and his career and his place in football history regardless. He still lives in Detroit. He still hangs around a franchise that screwed him. His statue, unveiled earlier this season, sits outside Ford Field downtown.
That’s where the current Lions will host the Packers, chasing a division crown and a No. 1 seed in the NFC, looking to get to 9-2 for the first time since the days of John F. Kennedy.
The Lions have dragged down almost everyone and everything in its wake through the decades. Barry Sanders was one of them, although he simply survived it. Plenty of Thanksgiving afternoons likely couldn’t.
It’s a new day though. Perhaps.
Documentaries and playoff dreams; an exciting team finally worthy of its high-profile time slot.
Thanksgiving is Thursday. It’s finally time to look forward to watching the Lions.