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The Detroit Lions have struggled years. Fans now have something to be thankful for


Of all the Thanksgiving traditions, there is one in Detroit that's been a constant for decades - a heaping helping of hapless Lions football. The Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day since 1934, and they're about to play the Packers in the first of three NFL games today. The Lions have struggled for a long time, but not this year. They're really good this year. They've got a realistic chance to reach the Super Bowl, and that gives Detroit fans something to be extra thankful for. Quinn Klinefelter reports from member station WDET.



QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Thousands of people draped in Lions jerseys, jackets and hard hats painted like the team's helmet packed parking lots outside Detroit Stadium before a recent home game. For fan Emily Frikken, the Thanksgiving Day game to her means football, family and hopefully not fumbling the dinner made among fellow tailgaters.

EMILY FRIKKEN: First time my dad tried deep-frying a turkey went terribly, terribly wrong - blowing up, like, a little bit of the deep fryer. But every single Thanksgiving, we were here at the crack of dawn deep-frying a turkey. And, you know, it's just been in my blood ever since I've been little.

KLINEFELTER: V.J. Zelenak says generations of families have grown up with a love for Lions Thanksgiving Day football.

V J ZELENAK: We've had our grandkids dress up as little turkeys, and we've also done the parade.

KLINEFELTER: Detroit's Thanksgiving Day Parade draws tens of thousands to the city's downtown, but Pro Football Hall of Fame historian Jon Kendle says the NFL was hard-pressed to create the same interest in the Thanksgiving Day games until radio executive George Richards bought the team in 1934 and created a network of 90 stations to broadcast the holiday contest.

JON KENDLE: What he did during this time frame and that Thanksgiving Day game, you know, really had an impact on the league as a whole and its growth into what it is today.

KLINEFELTER: Yet the Lions often struggled, and they have not won a playoff game since 1991. The team hit rock bottom in 2008.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: The Detroit Lions have completed the first non-winning season of a 16-game schedule in NFL history.

KLINEFELTER: Some NFL owners unsuccessfully lobbied to take the Thanksgiving Day game away from Detroit, arguing the Lions' typically poor performance was a bad look for the league. The Lions roared back about three years ago when former player Dan Campbell became head coach. He famously pledged to develop a team as tough as its city, one that would rise up every time it was knocked down and, quote, "bite a kneecap on the way" - a team, Campbell says, that's worthy of the Thanksgiving Day showcase.


DAN CAMPBELL: Everybody's watching - all your families, all your friends. And this is the type of game, man, you come out of, and you got somebody you went to school with in second grade who's texting you, you know, and family member - everything. It's special.

KLINEFELTER: That sentiment echoes inside the Lions' locker room. Offensive lineman Penei Sewell says the tradition reached him even while growing up in American Samoa.

PENEI SEWELL: Kind of depend on whether my dad knew there was a game on and he could turn on the antennas and stuff like that. But no, we'd actually just have our own type of football game in the backyard.




KLINEFELTER: Back among the tailgaters outside Detroit Stadium, Emily Frikken smiles at the sense of hope she feels among Lions fans now. Frikken says it's what her late father always wanted to be part of, and she says, in a way, he is.

FRIKKEN: So I have his team ring and his wedding ring on my necklace right now. He wanted to see a Lions Super Bowl, so I'm confident that will happen soon - in my lifetime.

KLINEFELTER: She says, perhaps that would also start a new NFL tradition - a perennial championship contender here.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Quinn Klinefelter