'It's our Super Bowl': What Lions' Thanksgiving game means to Detroit

DETROIT -- Bill Sciturro sat in his father’s cranberry Cadillac DeVille, stuck in traffic. They were late. The Detroit Lions made them so. Minutes earlier, Bill and his dad watched Detroit lose to Chicago in overtime on a kick return gone so wrong for the team he has spent his life rooting for.

His mom, Rose, was used to the routine by now. Bill would go with his dad, also named Bill, and his uncles to the Lions game on Thanksgiving. It started at 12:30 p.m. They’d usually be home by 4:30. Not on this day. Not in traffic. This was 1980. No cell phones. No email.

"Nobody left," Sciturro said. "Then we all got stuck in the parking lot getting out."

Bumpers collided. The Sciturro men -- Lions season-ticket holders since 1949 -- got out of the car looking like they might fight. Cooler heads stopped it. They got home. Late. The turkey was burned. Rose was mad, although this -- minus the fender bender -- was tradition.

The games, as important or unimportant as they might be, come and go. Results matter until they don’t. Sure, some games stand out -- the Jerome Bettis coin toss game, Roger Brown’s seven-sack game in 1962, a 40-10 shellacking of the Packers for the team’s first win on the holiday in nine seasons in 2013 -- but more than not, they run together.

The stories remain. The connections between family and friends, the memories that last and the things you recall almost four decades later signify so much about this holiday.

Other than a six-year hiatus during World War II, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1934, when then-owner G.A. Richards planned a game between the Lions and the Bears on the holiday. It wasn’t going to be a tradition then -- who really knows what will stick like that when you start it -- but it has turned into something in America like grilling on Memorial Day weekend or watching the fireworks on July 4.

Football on Thanksgiving is a way of life across America. The Lions are the early game everyone ends up seeing, followed by the Dallas Cowboys and, since 2006, a third night game between two other teams.

In the city of Detroit and its surrounding area, the game means even more.

"It becomes part of the language of the fall," said Sam Richardson, an actor, Detroit native and co-star of the Comedy Central show "Detroiters." "You can essentially tie that in with being in Michigan, which is such a place that looks like what football means, like fall weather, feels like football, you know.

"And maybe that’s because that’s what it means to me because I’m from Detroit. But like falling leaves, wearing a sweater, going outside and playing football with your cousins. It’s that, but on a professional level."

Don Muhlbach signed with the Lions on Nov. 9, 2004. A long-snapper who grew up in Texas, all he knew about Detroit other than Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Jason Hanson was what he saw every year on television.

Three weeks later, he played in his first Thanksgiving game, a 41-9 loss to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts that started a nine-year Thanksgiving losing streak. Muhlbach didn’t know what to expect then, other than that in the pre-Sunday Ticket days, his friends back in Lufkin, Texas, would be able to watch.

He had no idea what it meant to the city. Now, getting ready for Thanksgiving game No. 15, he understands it better than anyone on the Lions.

"Everyone just knows that all eyes are on us," Muhlbach said. "That’s our showcase game. Even with all the Monday nights and everything, Thanksgiving, that’s special. I just know that there’s a little more energy and a little more on that one."

It’s a feeling that spanned generations, from the original Fearsome Foursome to the Sanders era to the current iteration led by Matthew Stafford. The crowd is different on Thanksgiving, more excited, revved-up.

This is what the Lions and the city get excited for each year.

"You were known for that and how teams that we would beat wanted to opt out of that," said Brown, who played for the Lions from 1960-66. "They didn’t want to play Thanksgiving in Detroit because they were invincible."

Sort of. In Brown’s six years, the Lions were 2-2-2. The Lions have a winning record in just four of the decades they’ve played on the holiday (3-2 in the 1930s, 8-2 in the 1950s, 6-4 in the 1970s and 7-3 in the 1990s). In the 78 games Detroit has played on Thanksgiving, the Lions are 37-39-2.

Muhlbach was in Detroit for a lot of the lean years, including the 0-16 season in 2008, after which there was some questioning whether the Lions were still worthy of hosting the game. At that point, Detroit had been blown out year after year.

The players heard the conversation. They didn’t want to lose the game, even though they really had no say in it. The NFL added a third game in 2006 -- in part to quell questions about Dallas and Detroit always playing at home that day. In the offseason before the 2009 season, the conversation about taking the game away from the Lions once again gained attention (it had popped up at times before).

Even now, the topic leaves longtime Detroiters bristling.

"Don’t even bring it up in this city," said 60-year-old Tony Michaels, a lifelong metro Detroiter who runs the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade. "It’s a tradition. It’s part of our -- it’s our life. Thanksgiving here is Detroit.

"The Lions game is so important to this city, and when that came up, believe me when I tell you, it was beyond a hot topic because there wasn’t going to be a person in this city that was going to be willing to stand for that. Not one."

They didn’t have to. The Lions staved off the conversation. In recent years, they’ve been more competitive, snapping their nine-game Thanksgiving losing streak in 2013 and winning four straight prior to last year.

It helped, too, that the Lions moved back from the Pontiac Silverdome downtown to Ford Field. In many ways, it brought the Lions -- and the Thanksgiving tradition -- back home.

Mike Duggan received a video from his granddaughter earlier this month. In it, the 3-year-old is bragging. She’s excited about going to the Lions game, almost a month away, with her 60-year-old "papa."

When she shows up, she’ll be in a suite Duggan never planned on occupying. When the Lions expressed interest in moving back downtown in the 1990s, Duggan was the co-chairman of the city’s stadium authority. As part of the deal, he put in a provision that the city’s mayor had suites at Ford Field.

A longtime season-ticket holder back to the Silverdome days, he started going to the Thanksgiving game at age 12, sitting in old Tiger Stadium cheering on Mel Farr and Lem Barney as a child. He bought season tickets -- on the 40-yard-line -- but since 2013, he has switched locations.

He became the city’s mayor, and with that, he got the seats he negotiated. He probably will sit in them Thursday after going to the parade, a tradition that became much easier once the team moved back downtown.

"That’s what it means to everybody up here is getting together with family and watching," Duggan said. "The actual experience has changed. The years they were up in Pontiac, you would have to beat it out of the parade before it was over in order to get up in time for kickoff.

"Now you can walk, which is a totally different experience, and it feels like the Lions are back home. For those of us who grew up here, it feels like Detroit is whole."

Bringing the Lions back downtown, particularly around the Thanksgiving game, represented another piece for a city that had long been dealing with flight from the city, crumbling roads, a struggling school district and rising crime rates. The Lions left for the suburbs -- and the recently imploded but iconic Pontiac Silverdome -- in 1975. The football franchise just felt like another thing abandoning the city.

"It was just a reminder of people bailing on the city of Detroit," Duggan said. "It was pretty much representative of factories moving out, banks moving out, movie theaters moving out. It was a sad reminder every Thanksgiving when you had to get in the car and drive to Pontiac that the Lions weren’t here anymore.

"But for the last 10 years or so, it’s a day of celebration in the city."

The Lions' coming back -- way before the Pistons did and before the city’s current attempt at resurgence -- signified the start of something.

Richardson won’t get home this year for Thanksgiving. He has never been to a Thanksgiving Day game in the city. Now living in Los Angeles and in the midst of a hectic shooting schedule, it’s just not possible.

"It was a sad reminder every Thanksgiving when you had to get in the car and drive to Pontiac that the Lions weren't here anymore. But for the last 10 years or so, it's a day of celebration in the city." Detroit mayor Mike Duggan

As a kid, the 34-year-old did what so many others did in the city and around the country. He went to grandma’s house on the east side of Detroit, sat in front of the television and watched football, with his parents, uncle Bubba, cousins and extended family. Then they’d go outside and reenact what they saw on television when the Lions were playing. Even his parents, who are not as into sports as he is, would watch the game.

It’s part of what you do, particularly if you’re from Detroit. Richardson didn’t realize it until he left Detroit -- how much the football team, holiday and the city were all intertwined. For one game all season, the Lions are the team that matters to the whole nation.

"It’s our Super Bowl. That’s the Lions’ fans chance for our Super Bowl, that game," Richardson said. "You get a full show. You get the game. You get the halftime show, whoever it may be. You get a Detroit-centric artist.

"It’s Detroit’s Super Bowl, Super Bowl Detroit-style, and I love it. I hope that tradition goes on forever. And I hope that one year, we get two of them. We get the one in November and then one in January."

The Lions haven’t been to the Super Bowl. They’ve won only one playoff game since the merger. So this -- Thanksgiving -- is what matters most to them.

For Sciturro, that meant waking up early as a kid, watching the parades -- Macy’s in New York and the one in Detroit -- and eating a big breakfast before driving first to Tiger Stadium, then to the Silverdome and now to Ford Field. It meant sitting there with his uncles then and now his wife, cousins and some friends in his seats on the 50-yard line.

It means going home after, watching the Cowboys game and then Monday morning quarterbacking everything that happened. It’s Detroit. It’s Thanksgiving. It’s just what they do, generation upon generation, for as long as almost anyone in the city can remember.

"It’s the tradition of the years," Sciturro said. "What it means to people here, it’s like an iconic thing here for Detroit. We built a life around having the Thanksgiving game."