As I write this, the Detroit Lions are about to play the Green Bay Packers, the 72nd Thanksgiving game in Lions history. And that’s as good a time as any to remind Oklahomans about one of forgotten heroes, Ace Gutowsky.
Gutowsky was a Kingfisher schoolboy star who went on to Oklahoma City University when the Goldbugs played a mean game of football. Ace went to the NFL, played eight years and retired in 1940 as the league’s all-time leading rusher (admittedly, the NFL was young then). Gutowsky played for the Portsmouth Spartans in 1932-33, then moved with the franchise to Detroit when it became the Lions. Gutowsky played in 1939 with the Brooklyn Dodgers (yep, Dodgers), a franchise that folded after the 1944 season.
I don’t know a lot about Gutowsky. He was born in Russia in 1909, emigrated to the U.S. at an early age, played for legendary coach Pappy Waldorf at OCU and stood at 5-foot-11, 201 pounds by profootball-reference.com and finished his career with 3,279 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. Gutowsky in 1936 rushed for 827 yards, missing the NFL rushing title by three yards and setting a Detroit single-season record that stood until 1960.
Two of those TDs came in Detroit’s first Thanksgiving Day game ever. According to the Lions’ website:
“The game was the brainchild of G.A. Richards, the first owner of the Detroit Lions. Richards had purchased the team in 1934 and moved the club from Portsmouth, Ohio, to the Motor City. The Lions were the new kids in town and had taken a backseat to the baseball Tigers. Despite the fact the Lions had lost only one game prior to Thanksgiving in 1934, the season’s largest crowd had been just 15,000.
“The opponent that day in 1934 was the undefeated, defending World Champion Chicago Bears of George Halas. The game would determine the champion of the Western Division. Richards had convinced the NBC Radio Network to carry the game coast-to-coast (94 stations) and, additionally, an estimated 26,000 fans jammed into the University of Detroit Stadium while thousands more disappointed fans were turned away.
“Despite two Ace Gutowsky touchdowns, the Bears won the inaugural game, 19-16, but a classic was born. Since 1934, 71 games have been played with the Lions holding a series record of 33-36-2 (.493). And each game, in its own way, continues to bring back memories of Thanksgiving, not only to Lions’ fans, but to football fans across the nation.”
Oklahoma running backs have shined on Thanksgiving Day over the years.
In 1971, on the same day as the OU-Nebraska Game of the Century, Steve Owens rushed for 79 yards on 21 carries and scored two touchdowns in Detroit’s 32-21 win over Kansas City.
In 1983, Billy Sims scored two touchdowns and rushed for 103 yards in a 45-3 rout of the Steelers.
And Barry Sanders gave Americans a reason to watch the Lions on Thanksgiving. Sanders rushed for 923 yards on 210 carries and scored eight touchdowns in 10 Thanksgiving games. Here are his game-by-game totals:
1989 W Browns 13-10: 28 carries for 145 yards
1990 W Broncos 40-27: 23 carries for 147 yards, 2 TDs
1991 W Bears 16-6: 19 carries for 62 yards
1992 L Oilers 24-21: 22 carries for 54 yards
1993 L Bears 10-6: 16 for 63 yards
1994 W Bills 35-21: 19 carries for 45 yards, 1 TD
1995 W Vikings 44-38: 24 carries for 138 yards, 1 TD
1996 L Chiefs 28-24: 20 carries for 77 yards, 1 TD
1997 W Bears 55-20: 19 carries for 167 yards, 3 TDs
1998: W Steelers 19-16: 20 carries for 33 yards
But before Steve Owens and Billy Sims and Barry Sanders, there was Ace Gutowsky.