Since 1934, Detroit Lions football on Thanksgiving Day has been an American tradition. Recently, I asked three people – Frank Beckmann, the former Detroit Lions radio and television announcer, inductee into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame; Jim Brandstatter, the onetime U-M Wolverine who has analyzed Lions games on radio almost three decades, and Luther Bradley, a one-time Lions and Notre Dame Fighting Irish star, on what the tradition of pro football this holiday means to the Motor City.
Bradley said “This is one of the best fall traditions in our country. It doesn’t get any better than this in terms of national exposure and having the only game on TV for the entire country to watch. We always look forward to this event.”
Brandstatter added “I love the tradition here in Detroit. This tradition is uniquely Detroit. Before Dallas was added, it was only Detroit. The parade and the game go hand in hand. I truly believe we as a community feel an ownership of these events. The Lions may have a terrible record but on this one day of the year it’s not all about the Lions. The parade, and the tradition many families have surrounding these events involving visiting family, dinner with friends, etc., are all part of the day. It’s Detroit telling the nation we are alive and well, and while our football team may not be the best, we have not left the human race. We will survive and prosper.”
Beckmann said “Sadly, the Thanksgiving Day game has become the sole positive identification mark of the Lions franchise. Traditions in sports are important in providing a bridge from generation to generation, and the Thanksgiving Day game provides that to Detroit football fans.”
So what does it mean to the franchise and city to have this holiday game every NFL season on national TV?
Bradley: “This is the exposure that this city needs. We are not typically a large-market team with a first-place team. So this provides us with the exposure for our team and city to show that we do have some positive things going on here. We need positive stories here just like any other struggling economic city.“
Beckmann: “Again, the Thanksgiving Day game has become a reference point for the Lions’ franchise. It’s as distinctive as the Honolulu blue and silver uniforms or the lion on the helmet. The Thanksgiving Day game IS the Detroit Lions.”
Do you ever see a day when the game will be move from its traditional early-afternoon time slot or taken away all together?
Brandstatter: “I hope the game will never be moved from Detroit or its time slot. The league has always embraced its history and tradition. NFL Films became a huge outfit because it celebrated the league’s history and traditions. Players, rivalries, throwback uniforms (etc.) they’ve all been marketed to sell the league. Part of the league’s history and its tradition is the Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit. The league would be making a colossal mistake if they took the game away from Detroit. They would be thumbing their nose and their past.”
Beckmann: “I just think this would be a great loss to our city, the psychological sports equivalent of demolishing the Hudson’s building, or seeing an automaker go out of business. No one ever thought those were possibilities either but one has come to fruition and the other may not be far behind. No one’s life would change if the Thanksgiving Day game went away, but it would strike another blow to our psyche because the game has always identified Detroit as being special on that day.”
Bradley: “No. A few years ago the league (note: actually late Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt) tried to take the game away from us but Bill Ford Jr. fought vigorously to keep it. He did the right thing for the city and our franchise. We need our day in the sun just like most Super Bowls are in warm weather cities. Of course this has changed now with these indoor stadiums.”
As a Lions player who played in this game, must one get pumped to suit up on Turkey Day?
Bradley: “This game is always circled on our schedule. No matter who we played we wanted to show that we can compete and play with the best of them. Even this year, the Lions will be ready…you can take that to the bank!”
Beckmann: “Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of players complain about the short week or preparation and less time to get over injuries from the previous game. But almost universally, players loved playing in the game because they knew the rest of the league and the rest of the country was watching. They also knew there was a great meal waiting afterwards, and a longer recuperation period before the next game.”
Brandstatter: “If you can’t get up for this one you’ve got a problem. The entire league is watching. This isn’t regional TV, this is nationwide TV. It’s like Monday night football. It’s an event. It may only count as a regular season game, but it’s more. It’s why you’ve worked so hard your entire life to reach the pinnacle of your profession and, in this game, you are the only game football fans can watch. It is your stage alone. How can you not be pumped?”
GEORGE EICHORN is the long-time executive director of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association and sports editor and columnist for a Detroit weekly newspaper. For more than three decades, he has covered the Olympics, Super Bowls, World Series, NBA Championships, and Stanley Cup finals. His articles have been published in the Detroit News, Basketball Times, Basketball Digest, Red Wings Magazine, Baseball Bulletin, Sports Fans Journal, Soccer World, and Bowler’s Digest. During the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York, he proudly covered the historic “Miracle on Ice” hockey game when the United States shocked the Soviet Union. Through the years, he has won numerous broadcasting and writing awards, and most recently received the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame’s Special Recognition Award. In 2003, he authored a book about the rich history of Michigan sports broadcasting, Detroit Sports Broadcasters: On the Air, for which the late Detroit Tigers broadcast legend, Ernie Harwell, wrote the forward. He is the married father of two daughters and a graduate of Wayne State University.