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.”