Thanksgiving and the Detroit Lions go together like pumpkin pie and pecan pie, with whipped cream on one and melting vanilla ice cream on the other, all mushed into one delightful meal finale.
Subtracting Barry Sanders from the Thanksgiving Day experience was a blow akin to stopping the meal before consuming multiple desserts.
Removing the Lions from Thanksgiving Day simply because they have a lousy team every year would be like not even cooking a turkey. Reports that the NFL is under pressure from other organizations to deny the Lions their annual spot unsettle the stomach, but I have faith that the NFL won’t do any such thing. To do so would be to rip the soul right out of the league.
The Lions play their 71st Thanksgiving Day game today, and the New England Patriots likely will feast on them. The Lions haven’t won on Thanksgiving since 2003 and haven’t had a winning season since 2000. Still, giving thanks to Walter Camp for inventing football — thus enabling us to watch Sanders make hair-pin turns at high speeds while smelling the feast being prepared — just wouldn’t feel the same without the helmets sporting a leaping light-blue lion on a silver background.
Three busy men in the Kansas University athletic department stop what they’re doing, and their faces light up when they hear the name Barry Sanders. Football media-relations director Mike Strauss, better known around here as the father of Lawrence High dual-threat quarterback Bradley Strauss, worked with Sanders during his 1988 Heisman Trophy season at Oklahoma State. Basketball coach Bill Self was an assistant coach at OSU then. Football coach Turner Gill’s offensive coordinator, Chuck Long, teamed with Sanders with the Lions.
“In practice at Oklahoma State, when the offense would runs plays without the defense, or when there wasn’t tackling, he would always run into the end zone before bringing the ball back,” said Strauss, who was blown away by the star’s work ethic and modesty. “They would run plays at the 30-yard line, and most guys would just go 10 yards or so and come back.”
Strauss said before moving here from Utah, his two sons always wore No. 21 in football because that was Sanders’ number at OSU. (LHS has retired the number in honor of John Hadl.)
Long teamed with Sanders for two seasons.
“Barry was the best football player I’ve ever seen play the game,” Long said. “I can prove that by saying this: In the NFL, when you’re not in the game, especially offensive linemen, when the defense is out there, they’re usually sitting on the bench, getting a drink, getting instructions, trying to rest. Barry was the only guy I’ve ever seen, when he was in the game, everybody was standing on the sidelines, watching him play. They just didn’t want to miss him.”
Still, no one player, even Sanders, is bigger than the Lions’ Thanksgiving tradition.
“There’s something very festive with that crowd in Detroit on Thanksgiving,” said Long, who started the game in 1987. “They just live for that game. It’s their baby.”
Then Long walked through a set of doors on his way back to trying to figure out how to beat Missouri. He knows that game is KU’s baby.