Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

What's it like to be at a Lions game on Thanksgiving? Let me tell ya: Camaraderie & turkey hats!

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now …”

— Simon & Garfunkle, America

I groggily woke up in Memphis at 4 a.m., only having arrived in town less than 20 hours earlier. But it was time … time to catch a flight to another town, and time to finally experience something I had watched on TV every year for as long as I could remember, and always wondered what it was really like:

Look at that turkey.
Look at that turkey.
Image: Rich O’Malley

I was going to enjoy the Detroit Lions doing very Detroit Lions-y things on Thanksgiving Day.

It was November 23, 2017. I was on Day 15 of a whirlwind tour of 41 games in 53 days across North America. The previous five days had seen me traipse through Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, Detroit (yep), St. Louis and now Memphis. The next five would see me in Detroit, Minneapolis (again!), Detroit (again!), Cincinnati and … Winnipeg. Why was I doing this? Was I having an episode? No, I was writing a book. One Lucky Fan: From Bleachers to Box Seats, Chasing the Ultimate Sports Dream to Visit All 123 MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL Teams was to be my magnum opus. I had spent the better part of 25 years chasing down games across the world of sports and taking in all the sights and sounds of stadiums and arenas across the land. And I wanted to share that vagabond lifestyle with other sports fans in the hopes that maybe they’d be inspired to take that trip of their own they’d always dreamed of. Or at the least, to live vicariously through my roaming.

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(Ed. note: So, you know, buy it or something. It’s fun. That’s it. That’s the sales pitch. Now back to the story.)

My roaming plopped me down in Detroit Wayne County Airport that cold and cloudy day filled with giddy anticipation. Yes, it was just another football game on a trip that would see me attend eight others. But none of those carried the weight of a tradition dating back to 1934. I didn’t watch any of those others annually while the aroma of turkey wafted through grandma’s house, with my uncles swearing to me that the Lions and Cowboys were always sure bets to cover the spread on Thanksgiving Day, no matter what their records may be. (In point of fact, dear uncles, they are both 7-10 over the past 17 years so … great life lessons for your nephew, there!)

Upon entering Ford Field I was immediately overwhelmed. That place is like a city unto itself.

 Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving crossed off the bucket list.
Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving crossed off the bucket list.
Photo: Rich O’Malley
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And the mood was indeed festive. I felt like I had just walked into a giant family reunion (and don’t think I didn’t just wince writing that here in the fuckfest that is the year of our lord 2020). I’ve been to every NFL stadium there is, and some that no longer are, and I’m telling you, I have never felt an ambiance like I did that day. It seemed like everyone knew everyone! The halls were teeming with people all talking to each other. I’ve been a season-ticket holder before, for the Jets (did I mention I am also a masochist?), so I know how it is to get to know the folx in the seats around you. But this? This was that, but stadium-wide. People were talking to me! An interloper parachuting in for a story!

It was one of the few times in my life where I truly felt the unifying power of sports. It didn’t hurt that there were games like Plinko available to play and special Thanksgiving wares for sale — and don’t you know I plopped down my money as quick as a sailor on shore leave for that hat you see above. Best. Souvenir. Ever.

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The game itself was completely unmemorable. The Lions Lion-ed about and got everyone’s hopes up late and then folded like a cheap suit on the culminating drive: 30-23, Vikings win. But everyone was all shits and giggles anyway as we piled out. That fanbase certainly knows how to take a loss, and, as a Jets fan, I felt a certain camaraderie there. But really these fans were there for the annual tradition, not the actual game that particular day. It’s been a rare season where it meant a ton to that year’s vintage. No, it was the chatter in the halls, the regaling of what’s on the menu later and swapping of recipe secrets, the trite — but sincere — “See you next year!”s that brought us all together that day. And would bring most of them back the next.

And the next ...

Not me, I had other cities, teams and games to attend to and a book to write. And a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat at a friend’s house out in the burbs first.

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But what I took away from that game was the satisfaction of knowing that sometimes the trappings of sports do live up to or even exceed your expectations. So if you’ve ever wondered for yourself, I simply cannot more highly recommend Turkey Day in Detroit (and I am sure down in Jerry Jones’ Pork Palace in Dallas as well). Just … not today. Maybe next year. Let’s all be good and wear masks and socially distance and see if we can’t make that possible, yeah?

It absolutely crushes my soul to know that the building will be empty today. Yes, cancelling the game was something our own Jesse Spector called for weeks ago, and I’m really bummed that, while the game will go on, those fans who talked to the likes of me won’t be there for it. Then again, Thanksgiving has always been the most nostalgic of holidays for me, so I’ll be a bit on the melancholy side today anyway what with not being able to be with the usual wide assortment of friends and family.

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But tradition, such as it is, will abide. Eventually. Trust that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, 18 minutes of Alice’s Restaurant isn’t going to listen to itself, speaking of gobble-y traditions.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at Deadspin to you and yours.

Deputy Editor, Deadspin. Author, "One Lucky Fan: From Bleachers to Box Seats, Chasing the Ultimate Sports Dream to Visit All 123 MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL Teams." Earthwalker.

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