Thanksgiving Past; The Lions last hurrah

Gail Cogdill Detroit Lions Green Bay Packers 1962 Thanksgiving Day

Lions' receiver Gail Cogdill makes a catch during the 1962 Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers at Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit.

The cliché about history repeating itself might well be applied to the young Lions showdown Thursday against the undefeated and reportedly glory-bound Green Bay Packers.

Though there are circumstances that make this game potentially the pivotal match of both teams’ seasons, there are also interesting similarities in the run-up to this one that offer comparisons to the Thanksgiving classic of November 22, 1962 … arguably the greatest regular season triumph in Detroit Football Club history.

The build-up to that game 49 years ago made for again arguably – and if you’d argue you’d lose the argument – the most local drama and anticipation ever conjured for a Lions performance. The silver-and-blue went into that season’s holiday classic with an ‘undeserved’ 8-2 record, while the proud Packers, defending National Football League champions, cruised into town sporting a perfect 10-0 mark, with one of those victories coming at the expense of a furious, revenge-seeking, and (arguably) superior Lions squad.

There are Lions veterans and fans who, to this day, still believe that Detroit’s ’62 team was the greatest in professional football, better than the legendary Packer team that was striving for an NFL record-setting perfect season. The only fly in Green Bay’s ointment, the only ‘nearly’ that stood in the way of that Packers quest, was the veteran and determined Lions eleven.

The buildup to the confrontation had been growing since the end of the 1961 NFL season, a year in which George Wilson’s Lions had come in second to Vince Lombardi’s legend-in-the-making Green Bay squad, the second consecutive season in which Detroit had been Western Division runner-up to the green and gold. There’d been no love lost between the two sides, and the Lions of 1962 boasted a team – and in particular an amazing defense, led by Joe Schmidt and Alex Karras – that vowed to dismantle Lombardi’s cover boys after two seasons of nipping at the Pack’s well-coached heels.

The high-noon Thanksgiving shootout at Tiger Stadium that day had been in no need of further publicity or a spike in the soaring passions of Detroiters to cement its status as THE biggest game on the 1962 NFL schedule. But the Lions week-four loss at Green
Bay had sent local anticipation and fans’ cries for vengeance to uncharted and unprecedented football levels. Possibly only the Tigers World Series humiliation of 1934 at the hands of the sneering St. Louis Cardinals had ever ignited such intense reaction and anger among the locals; such a mad desire for evening a score.

Because on October 7, 1962, a supremely lucky Packer squad stole – you read that correctly, stole – a late 9-7 victory from a deserving Lions squad that had literally slipped in the mud with seconds left in a rugged and bloody contest the Detroiters had dominated for three quarters and almost 14 minutes. The pain, from here to Ironwood at the far tip of the Upper Peninsula (you can check it on the map) was absolutely excruciating.

Yet while this Thursday’s Lions–Packers game sits a rung below the ‘62 battle in terms of historic significance and fan fervor, there are interesting comparisons to be drawn. The 1962 Detroiters were a solid squad of veterans who were representing the last championship crusade of the Lions teams that had dominated the NFL for much of the preceding ten years. The years of 1951-’61 had seen four NFL Championship Game (equivalent to Super Bowl) appearances; three NFL World (Super Bowl) Championships; four second-place finishes, and record- setting fan response in terms of seasons ticket sales and countless near-riotous Sunday celebrations at Michigan and Trumbull. The 1960, ‘61, and ‘62 Lions had been groomed to re-establish the club’s supremacy in the NFL, but the Packers — and only the Packers — had stood in their way.

This young 2011 Lions team is in the position of hopefully beginning to set a pattern for excellence. It is a team that has — seemingly suddenly – coalesced around a core of championship-calibre players that portend possibly their own decade of NFL success.

In their paths this season, and potentially for those dreams seasons to come, sit – who else? – the Green Bay Packers.

And while the buildup to this Thursday’s contest has been fairly intense, it has in no ways matched the 1962 classic. But should the Lions re-exert the muscle and promise of their early season dominance, the reaction to their possible de-railing of THIS Packer team’s undefeated quest would surely ignite wild local reaction, and re-ignite dreams of a return to the best of days.

Do they have the horses to do it? One man’s opinion is that they do, along with the suspicion that most local backers feel that same sense in their bones. After literally decades of humiliation and suffering (traceable, arguably, to the entire franchise boarding a Ford Edsel, a sort of clown car, in 1964), this Thanksgiving could … could … signal a start to the return of glory years downtown.

The quest of ’62 worked out almost perfectly on the local stage. The Lions, led by the best defense in all of football, threw the vaunted Packers offense around like they were straw dummies. The offense, good but not great for that defense-oriented season, struck quickly behind two long and stunning Milt Plum-to-Gail Cogdill scoring passes to pin the Packers in a corner from which they never came close to emerging. The 26-14 final score in no way represented the Lions total dominance that gray, but so-beautiful, late November afternoon at the glorious old Corner. The celebration matched, possibly exceeded, the excitement of a Lions championship result.

I sat in the south end zone, upper deck, with my brother that day (tickets had been as valued as gold bars for months) and felt sure the Lions would somehow now finally vault past Green Bay. But you’ll note the first sentence in the graph up above brandishes the awful word “almost.” And the Packers, humiliated and crushed that day but with no one left to stand in their way, never lost again, going on to a 13-1 season and another World Championship. The superior, but ultimately heartbroken, Lions skidded to a 11-3 result, and another successful (as in ‘who cares?’) Runner-Up Bowl appearance (honest, we played there for three straight seasons), this time downing the Pittsburgh Steelers.

On that memorable Thanksgiving we had no way – none at all – of knowing it was the end of a dynasty, a farewell to sweet days, going out in a dynamic blaze of glory.

Maybe this interesting 2011 Detroit team can – after such painful decades – reverse the sad pattern of history that began after the Lions last hurrah. The players and coaching staff seem in place. And the fans (God knows, the fans) stand ready to believe, to have their faith renewed, once again.

Who in the football world … could possibly deserve it more?