The Detroit Lions have played a football game on Thanksgiving day every year since 1934, becoming as much a part of the social fabric of holidays as turkey, mashed potatoes, and bad sweaters. The Lions’ 1997 Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Bears is an especially vivid childhood memory of mine. I remember it as the Barry Sanders Game, and while the numbers – 19 carries, 167 yards, 8.8 yard average, and 3 TDs performance – tell a dominant story, Sanders was always about the impossible style in which he got those yards. No one stopped, started, darted, and stopped time like Sanders – he was the football Neo.
The Lions were coached by Bobby Ross, who took over the beginning of the 1997 season from Wayne Fontes. Fontes had a joie-de-vivre that reflected his offense, giving Sanders the schematic space he needed. Sanders was the lone scientist; Fontes gave him the keys to the laboratory in the basement so he could experiment in his own hours, unencumbered by man. Ross, on the other hand, never had time for Sanders’ east-west-start-stop-hesitation-touchdown ability in his pragmatic playbook. But Sanders wasn’t built for punching in at 9 and leaving at 5.
The Bears were coached by Dave Wannstedt, he of the greatest porn stache in NFL history, and lead by…Erik Kramer….and Raymont Harris. So yes, they were 2-10 going into the game. But it didn’t matter. Team records never did, and never do for Thanksgiving games. It, along with the Super Bowl, are the two games where people who don’t watch football, watch football. The third downs, pick 6’s, and 100 yard performances are all part of the Thursday spectacle, the commentary a soundtrack to the oven timer (does any sports league use holidays better than the NFL?).
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On Thanksgiving day in 1997, the Bears jumped out to a 17-3 lead by the second quarter, including a 78 yard TD pass from Erik Kramer to Ricky Proehl. Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell* responded with a touchdown pass to Herman Moore before all Sanders broke loose with a 40 yard touchdown run in which he stopped, started, hesitated and cut no less than 3 times before outrunning the Bears’ secondary (with pixelated as proof). Here’s the Chicago Bears 1997 roster; Sanders out-darted and outran them all.
(*Aside: what happened to the lefty QB gunslinger archetype, who could either throw a 50 yard TD or a pick 6 with every throw?)
The Bears lead at halftime 20-17 before a Jason Hanson field goal, and Scott Mitchell 50 yard throw to Johnnie Morton gave them a 27-20 lead. Then Sanders went off for a 25 yard touchdown run, with even grainier, pixelated (that was life in the mid 90’s – everything was pixelated, we couldn’t see straight, so we just had to feel our way through the world until HD vision was created). He opened the 4th quarter with another 15 yard touchdown run, as the Lions scored 45 unanswered points to win the game 55-20.
Then again, people don’t remember the final score of Thanksgiving games, or even who won (quick – who won the 2003 Thanksgiving game between the Packers and Lions?). What gets woven into holiday lore are moments and memories. And while Barry Sanders might not be the greatest running back of all time, he has the highlight reel.
I often wonder how athletes I grew up watching would be perceived today, in an era of analytics and fantasy football. Would they be overrated? Underrated? Were they actually as good as I remember? Sanders would definitely be a first rounder in fantasy football leagues, but what pick? Before or after Adrian Peterson? And what about Sanders in this Twitter/insta-GIF era? I imagine if he played today, the infinite space of Twitter would be littered with GIFs of Sanders evading 3 tacklers with hesitation.
I also think about where Barry Sanders would fit in today’s pass heavy NFL. Yet those mid-90’s Detroit Lions teams with Scott Mitchell, Herman Moore, and Brett Perriman passed like a modern team. In 1995, Mitchell threw 36 times a game, and ended that season with 4338 yards and 32 touchdowns. Perriman and Moore finished with 100 catches each (the offensive coordinator of the team Lions was Tom Moore who later became offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning confidant/mentor/partner in crime). And yet, Barry Sanders still had 1500 yards rushing, 48 catches, and 12 total touchdowns that season, so I figure Sanders wasn’t just a player of his time, but one of all time.
The Lions went on to make the playoffs that 1997 season, losing to the Tampa Bay Bucs in the wild card game. Sanders retired before the 1999 season, a year and a half after his Thanksgiving day performance. The Lions made the playoffs at 8-8, with running backs Greg Hill and Ron Rivers leading the way (Ross resigned the following season). The Lions only made the playoffs one time since that season. But for millions of people surrounded by the warmth that can only be found in tradition and familiarity, it was never about that.