I’ll Take Detroit

Tom Flynn


Football is so ingrained in Thanksgiving that it’s fair to say that without it, it would be a different holiday. If you celebrate Easter, you know what I mean. It’s also a great food holiday, but after the ham’s done it plummets in a hurry. Kids—errant bits of melted chocolate calcifying on their cheeks—chafe at their overdressing while grownups nod off or find an excuse for an early exit. An oppressive air of boredom weighs down any Easter afternoon.

Not so Thanksgiving. Local and backyard games light up the morning, food and the NFL pass the afternoon. For four brief years in high school, the day also included my deepest visit inside the unique world of Thanksgiving football.

We were a small town New Jersey team in the early 1980s and I should note that all our games, including the one on Thanksgiving, were of no special importance. This is sacrilege to say in today’s world of BCS (the Bowl Championship Series, some of college football’s biggest events) trickle-down, where high school and even youth football are permeated with the mindless import of the BCS and its pursuit of “big time” football. If you doubt me, find a BCS-head and tell him that the BCS Championship and its goofy, faux-Holy Grail crystal “trophy” don’t matter. You’ll find yourself choked for air and out cold in short order.

But the Chatham Boro vs. Chatham Township games of the 1980’s basked in blithe inconsequence and never impacted those outside the borders of the little world that comprised our two towns. The nice thing was most of us knew it. No college offers were in the offing; there was nothing beyond a muddy field with an oval fence for grads to lean against and look in on their own past. Most spectators would quit the affair shortly after the half to get on with their day.

We were perennially the better team and perennially came out and played poorly against our Township foes. Whatever the reason—the yips, malaise, thoughts of food—we would start out in the hole. At halftime our coaches, spit flying spastically from their enraged craws, would paint the Township players as condescending princes (after all, they lived in fetching 1970s mini-mansions replete with wall-to-wall carpeting and exteriors bathed in the timeless design touches of the era) who saw us as peasants that they could impose their will upon. Even to a young teen this rhetoric rang hollow; I knew in a real Princes vs. Peasants football game the peasants would kick the princes’ asses.

I also knew from playing baseball on a summer legion team with players from the Township that they were goofballs like us whose interest was waning in football by the end of a long year. In the summer of my junior year I’d catch a ride to our away baseball games with an exemplary pair of said goofballs who would knock back Rolling Rocks en route. “I hit better buzzed,” one once quipped, cramming more baseball anti-wisdom into a four-word sentence than seemed possible. I knew the truth: they played liked shit throughout that summer, costing us more than one game. They were now on the Township team that randomly had the jump on us for the moment; hell, maybe right now they were in their locker room buzzed. I’d pull off my helmet, enjoy the fleeting warmth of the locker room, and let the coaches’ pointless rhetoric waft over me like the smoke it was while I daydreamed about food. We’d win, we always did, so enough already, give it a rest, coach.

Thanksgiving typically came frigid and damp and after the game we’d peel off our muddy uniforms and the residue of a long season. Despite my halftime indifference, I loved playing, but the season started in late August and by late November, like most of my teammates, I’d had my fill.

Most years began with a trip to “the Cage,” the equipment area cordoned off by two-by-fours and chicken wire in the dank, cavernous space beneath the high school gym. The Cage was a repository for decaying old football equipment; our Board of Education prided itself on thrift and nobody was going to drop money on such luxuries as new equipment when we had perfectly worn-out, wheezing gear left from the 1960’s and 1970’s. I remember in particular a smoldering pile of cleats in the Cage that was a veritable Who’s Who of off-brands guaranteed to give up the ghost before the fall season was over:  Spot-Bilt, MacGregor, and the quintessential crap manufacturer of any product they ventured to make—Voit.

In the late November cold those shoes had hardened on our feet by halftime—running in them was painful and it was a small mercy that on most Thanksgivings the turf was sodden from recent rains. If you hit the bad-luck Daily Double back in August you also sported a vintage-era helmet with “padding” that grew hard and bellicose in the same cold and would have a go at rending an ear whenever you took off your lid.

By the final gun, and another Boro win, I’d be forgetting our own season and thinking about the Lions and Cowboys games coming on later that day.

Although having no personal attachment to Detroit then or now, I’ve always enjoyed watching the Lions. Their season is typically well off the rails by Thanksgiving and it’s compelling to look in on them once a year and figure out just how they got so bad. They’ve lost 37 games over the past three seasons alone, and in 2008-2009 they won a grand total of 2 games. They last won an NFL title in 1957 and it’s been seven years since they enjoyed a post-game victory dinner in the Detroit locker room.

It’s ironic, and in no small way poignant, that America’s prosperity-starved team plays so centrally in our national holiday of gratitude for our abundance. There is nothing abundant about the Lions on the field; they were born in the Depression and a paucity of success has nearly always plagued them. The Lions play each year on Spot-Bilts from the NFL’s Cage and I often wonder if at the half their players are daydreaming about food.

Detroit, our de facto Thanksgiving national capital for a portion of the day, is itself a civic monument to tough luck. You’ll not likely see a blimp shot of the city skyline during the game; the sponsors keep our attention on the field and then cut straight to glossy commercials; no need to dampen our national buying urge by showing us a gray, thin-walleted city trying to fiscally stay above water.

Still, I far prefer my Detroit portion of Thanksgiving football to what follows. By the time the cameras move to Dallas, my stomach is full and I sink further into the couch than when the Lions kicked off. The Cowboys, and their Texas-sized caricature of a venue, Cowboys Stadium, command the screen in the late afternoon of the day.

Unlike in Detroit, where the cameramen intently stay focused on the game, not a full ten minutes goes by without a pan away from the action to the Cowboys’ taciturn billionaire owner, Jerry Jones. Seemingly every play of even minor importance merits a cut to Mr. Jones to see if he’s throwing a tantrum, jutting out a disapproving jaw, or gesturing wildly for reasons unknown to a nation mercifully out of earshot. I suppose it makes for good theater to show a man who has it all act like he for some reason deserves more.

Admittedly the Lions franchise is no plucky band of paupers, but Jones and his coddled group of players are the antithesis of the meaning of the holiday and my recollection of football from my teen years. They are big-time, they are excess, and so fittingly in 2010, they suck. In their own way they serve as a cautionary tale of Thanksgiving and football gone wrong. As for me, on Thanksgiving, I’ll always take Detroit, and the Lions.