Years before cable television and satellite dishes aired every NFL game, Oklahomans knew Thanksgiving was the one time they could watch three legendary Heisman Trophy winners with Sooner State ties — Barry Sanders, Billy Sims and Steve Owens.
Of football's many traditions, one of the richest is the Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1945.
“I always enjoyed Thanksgiving games,” Owens said. “It was special to play on the holiday every year, some great memories. The Lions and Thanksgiving go together.”
Former Sooners and Cowboys have discovered the Lions' annual Thanksgiving lunchtime showdown is more than a game. In Detroit, it's an event, which former Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew discovered after he was drafted by the Lions four years ago.
“They have a parade downtown. The stadium is so electric. We always get to play in the throwback uniforms,” Pettigrew said. “The atmosphere is crazy. And you know everybody in the country is watching.”
Owens played five years with the Lions. His career ended in the 1974 Thanksgiving game against Denver, but he chooses to focus on the positive memories.
“We always seemed to play well on Thanksgiving,” Owens said. “We beat some good teams. I remember beating Kansas City the year they were the defending Super Bowl champions. Playing on Thanksgiving is unique, something you'll never forget.”
Six former Sooners and Cowboys are on the Lions' roster, including three rookies from OU who will make their Thanksgiving debuts on Thursday.
Wide receiver Ryan Broyles' parents are flying to Detroit for the game.
“Ever since you were a kid you can remember watching the Lions on Thanksgiving Day,” Broyles said. “It's going to be pretty cool to be part of that. You know everyone is watching.”
The Thanksgiving tradition is part of the franchise's image, including Owens' knee injury in 1974, which also was the Lions' final game played at Tiger Stadium.
Late in the first quarter of a 31-27 loss to the Broncos, Owens scampered 27 yards toward the first-base side end zone.
“I was going to dive in,” Owens said. “But when I went up, my cleat stuck in the turf. One of their guys hit me from the left side and it tore up my left knee really bad.”
Ironically, his final carry was the longest run of Owens' pro career.
The following two years, Owens diligently worked toward a comeback, but eventually was forced to retire in an era before surgery successfully repaired a torn ACL.
“I left a big part of me at Tiger Stadium,” Owens said. “I really enjoyed playing there. I still cheer for the Lions. It was the only team I ever played with.
“When I was drafted by Detroit I was like, ‘Goodness, gracious.' I wanted to go to Dallas or Kansas City or Denver, some placer closer to Oklahoma. But once I got there it was a great sports town. We had some good teams, made the playoffs once. I'll always be grateful for the way they accepted me.”
Former OU linebacker Teddy Lehman, who battled a chronic foot injury during his four seasons with the Lions, was blown away by Detroit's sports culture.
“Their fans are second to none,” said Lehman. “That's as sports savvy a town as you are going to find. The city has so much to offer. Detroit catches a bad rap for what the city has kind of become lately.
“I really appreciate the Ford family for drafting me. They do so much for that team and that city. I wish things would have turned out better without the injury but I really enjoyed my time up there.”
The Heisman winners with Oklahoma ties made an impact but never experienced an extended playoff run. Still, they rave about Lions' fans' loyalty considering Detroit has registered only one playoff win the past 54 years. The Lions are 1-10 in the playoffs since 1958.
In 2008, Detroit became the only team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule to finish 0-16.
“When I got there in 1980 they were coming off a 2-14 season and were still second in the league in attendance,” Sims said. “They love the Lions. Anywhere you go in Michigan, it's the whole state. It's still that way today.”
Detroit is one of only four franchises to never play in the Super Bowl. The Lions made the playoffs last season but are a long shot this year. Lehman, though, said the Lions should be a viable playoff contender in the foreseeable future.
“They finally have a top quarterback in Matthew Stafford,” Lehman said. “He has a chance to be one of those elite quarterbacks. And they have a lot of great weapons around him. (Wide receiver) Calvin Johnson as good as there is in football.”
Owens was the first Lions running back to rush for 1,000 yards. Sims was second. Sanders and Sims rank 1-2 in Lions history in rushing yards. Sanders, of course, is the third leading rusher in NFL history behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.
Lehman hasn't been back to Detroit since he played for the Lions. Owens on occasion returns. Sims, who retired in 1986 after he also suffered a career-ending knee injury, returns to Michigan five or six times a year.
Sims lives in Dallas but recently opened his second barbecue restaurant in the Detroit area. His plan is to build around 20 Billy Sims BBQ franchises in Michigan as he expands the chain beyond 25 restaurants in Oklahoma and two in Missouri.
“I've always loved it up there,” Sims said. “The people are great. I've always said the NFL is all about the fans because without them you are nobody.”
When the Lions host the Houston Texans on Thursday, Pettigrew said there's one thing that's missing.
“The Thanksgiving game is such a really cool tradition, but we haven't won one since I've been here,” Pettigrew said. “This year I'd like to win one.”