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Dan Shaughnessy

In Detroit, they eat this stuff up

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 25, 2010

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It’s part of the holiday, right there with the Macy’s parade, the smell of cinnamon-sprinkled apple pie, and Uncle Joe succumbing to tryptophan and taking a nap on the couch.

The Lions play today. On Thanksgiving.

There is comfort in this. U-hauls in the Back Bay tell me it’s Labor Day, Charlie Brown on TV means it’s Christmas, and if I awoke from a coma and saw silver and blue helmets on the plasma, I’d be pretty sure there was turkey in the oven. You can’t hide those Lion guys.

The Lions are famous for being America’s Thanksgiving team. Nothing more. They are never good, but we love them anyway. They are inadvertent guests in our homes on one of the best days of the year. Every year.

There has been talk of taking the Thanksgiving game away from Detroit because the Lions have been bad for so long. Holiday football is a TV hit, and big shots wonder why they should waste a primo national telecast on the lowly Lions.

Because the Lions have been playing at home on this day since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, that’s why. It’s a constant. It reminds us that there are some things we still can count on — like the L Street Brownies swimming on New Year’s Day, and the Red Sox Groundhog/Truck Day on Van Ness Street.

Most years, we don’t actually watch the game. The Lions are Thanksgiving elevator music; just another part of the holiday; white noise to accompany cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy. But we’ll be watching closely today. For only the third time in franchise history, the Patriots get to play in this feature game, and the significance is not lost on Bill Belichick.

“I know what a big game that is for the Lions and how much that is a part of that city and that franchise and the tradition that has been there,’’ Belichick said. “They are always ready to go on Thanksgiving.’’

Belichick was an assistant coach with the Lions in 1976 and 1977. His dad, Steve Belichick, was a fullback with the Lions in 1941. Even though the Sunday-Thursday turnaround makes for a dreaded short week for the Patriots, New England’s grid guru warms to the topic of football on Thanksgiving.

“I think Thanksgiving is a great day for football,’’ he said. “It’s a great day for high school football and obviously for the NFL. The doubleheader is now a tripleheader. And that is a great day for everybody to be with their family and eat turkey and watch football.

“That’s kind of what that holiday is. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s a great day for all of us to be thankful for all of the opportunities that we have.

“Football is football, and everybody looks forward to Thanksgiving Day.’’

Especially in Detroit.

The first Thanksgiving game in Detroit was in 1934 when the Lions played George Halas’s Chicago Bears. The tradition was interrupted for a few years during World War II, but the Lions have been home every Thanksgiving since 1945, and this will be their 71st turkey game.

“It was a game that you knew every year was your game,’’ Belichick recalled. “You knew you were going to be playing at home. You knew you were going to be playing at noon, and whatever the weekly routine is, in getting ready for it, it was the same thing you did last year. It was something you were comfortable with and you actually looked forward to and you didn’t have to travel.

“I think it’s a great game for Detroit, the Lions, the city, and for football. It’s a traditional game. I think it adds a lot to the holiday.’’

The Lions haven’t had a winning season since 2000. They were 0-16 two years ago and are 2-8 this week. They have not won a playoff game since January of 1992. Thanksgiving games have been sold out since 1994, but it’s not unusual for Lions games to be blacked out on local television.

In many ways, the Lions mirror the economic climate of their region. The big three automakers are on life support. Manufacturing jobs have vanished and people went away with them. Once the fourth-largest city in America, Detroit today can’t crack the top 10.

At the turn of this century, NFL bosses floated the idea of rotating the Thanksgiving games. Detroit boss Bill Ford Jr. successfully smothered the notion, and it was shot down by a 26-5 vote.

I hope it never changes. The Lions are Thanksgiving comfort food. America’s turkey team. In every way.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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