Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Metro Detroit's Thanksgiving Football Tradtion Worth Keeping

As the Detroit Lions continue to stumble towards the finish line of one of the more miserable seasons in their 75-year history, journalists of local and national flavor alike have bantered the possibility of Detroit losing their signature Thanksgiving Day game.

It's never good when the home team loses, loses a lot and loses in a manner that's of an embarrassing nature, week after week, and this subject matter that threatens the viability of the Turkey Day game is a by-product of that losing culture. However, losing this game would be a great injustice for many reasons, but it's a subject rooted in America's ugly side of entitlement more than any other reason. The donut-eaters who fill press boxes at national sporting events feel compelled to tell you that they deserve an amazing, competitive game to cover, write about, televise or report upon every year. Yes, there's truth that the National Football League ought to be concerned at the long stretch of uncompetitive games, seasons and Thanksgiving Day contests the Lions' have played in the last 10 years. At the same time, this game, it's roots and traditions go back to a time when the NFL was struggling to earn a national fan base of any kind, and it leaned on the passionate Detroit football fans in 1934 to begin a rite of passage in America that's survived nearly five generations.

What's also of interest is what was sacrificed in the southeastern Michigan region from the Thumb to the state line in Toledo for this national-televised Thanksgiving Day game. Specifically, many high school and collegiate traditions that were shuttered in the 1950s and 60s, resurrected only when the Lions opened play in the Pontiac Metropolitan Stadium, better known as the Silverdome.

Many marquee, signature games within the prep landscape in Michigan were played on Thanksgiving Day. In metro Detroit, Royal Oak High's Acorns and Birmingham High's Maples played 45 times on Turkey Day, starting in 1915 or 1916, the first year of play unconfirmed. It was Royal Oak High's Eva Moore, a counselor at the now-closed school on Washington Avenue, who drummed up the idea for a trophy, a ceramic brown jug. Birmingham end John Sheppard painted the jug red, white and blue to symbolize the school colors of both schools. The Acorns to the south end of Woodward Avenue took 24 wins to Birmingham's 14, while seven games ended in a tie. Royal Oak forfeited the 1925 game but it's '35 squad earned recognition as the state's football champion.

In Saginaw, Arthur Hill High and Saginaw High commenced their spirited rivalry on the famed Thursday day of feast. Former Detroit Tiger broadcaster Paul Carey watched many a game from the sidelines as his father, a long-respected game official, worked the contest as the game's Referee. These games were the staple of the high school season for many years in the Midland-Bay City-Saginaw region. Yes, there's a tradition in 'The Valley' that speaks to basketball prowess but before the hardwood game came to prominence as we know it today, football was king in Saginaw.

The Goodfellows Game at Briggs Stadium pitted the Detroit's Catholic League champion versus the Detroit public school league champion, then known as the Metropolitan League. Often the winner earned distinction in state media polls as the state's title winner. That game ceased in 1967, but it's legacy lives on in the memories of so many former players and coaches.

Today, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) stages the championship games of it's annual football tournament on Thanksgiving weekend at Ford Field. From 1983-2002, prep title games were played in one of the only facilities to host a Super Bowl after the Silverdome successfully hosted Super Bowl XVI, still one of the highest-rated Super Bowl in television history. After Detroit successfully hosted Super Bowl XL, the same will be said of every championship game played at Ford Field since 2006.

How many state associations can say that? For what was sacrificed to make the pro game possible here, should our football community have to lose the charter Thanksgiving Day game just because the Lions are lacking in the left side of the win-loss ledger?

These traditions, along with Detroit's Thanksgiving Day parade and NFL football game, were built upon the backbone of Detroit's prep football history and the region's sporting passion. It was WWJ-950 AM that took the initiative of broadcasting the first professional Thanksgiving Day game to a national radio audience, a 19-16 victory that the Chicago Bears took from the Lions at the now-demolished University of Detroit stadium. The Bears, under legendary coach George Halas, were gross favorites that day but were entangled in a dogfight by the Lions, who had recently relocated from Ohio, where they were known as the Spartans. It was that game effort that endeared the Lions to their new neighbors. NFL football on Turkey Day was then just a dream that became reality in Detroit.

Thanksgiving Day in Detroit and the traditions that surround this one game go back further than any of us have been alive, and that should be taken in account by the many journalists, executives, and decision-makers that offer, make or enforce opinion as it relates to the Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.

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