Remembering the greatest game in Lions history

Darris McCord (78) wraps his arms around Green Bay’s Bart Starr as teammates Alex Karras (71) and Joe Schimdt(56) also put pressure on the quarterback in the 1962 Thanksgiving Day game at Tiger Stadium.

This past Thanksgiving marked the golden anniversary of the most famous football game ever played in the history of the Detroit Lions: the Turkey Day massacre of the haughty, undefeated Green Bay Packers at Tiger Stadium on November 22, 1962.

The 1962 Lions were loaded with talent, including a few leftover stars from the club’s last championship team just five years earlier. The ’62 squad, coached by George Wilson, was not only arguably the finest in team history – better, many observers have claimed, than the championship squads of 1935, 1952, 1953, and 1957 – it may very well have been the best NFL team never to have played for a championship. That year the Lions finished in second place in the Western Conference with an 11-3 record. Their three losses were by a grand total of eight points: 9-7 to Green Bay, 17-14 to the New York Giants, and 3-0 to Chicago in the meaningless finale. All were agonizingly close losses to championship-caliber teams. The Packers and Bears were destined to win the NFL title in 1962 and 1963, respectively, beating the powerful Giants each time.

The toughest defeat to swallow came in the fourth week of the season at Green Bay. Both teams were undefeated. In a bitterly contested game played on a sloppy, muddy field, the Lions put the defending world champions on the ropes, nursing a 7-6 lead with less than two minutes to play. On third down, Milt Plum – the veteran quarterback acquired before the season from Cleveland – threw an ill-advised pass intended for Terry Barr. Barr slipped and Herb Adderly intercepted, returning it deep into Detroit territory. This set up Paul Hornung’s game-winning field goal with just 27 seconds left.

The 9-7 loss created acrimony between the offensive and defensive units that poisoned the Lions’ clubhouse for seasons to come. “It still ticks me off,” Hall-of-Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt said 30 years later. “We never should have thrown the ball. We should have run Nick Pietrosante. Yale Lary could have punted the ball all the way to Milwaukee. Green Bay had only one time out left. At least we should have made them earn it.”

By the time the two teams met again on Thanksgiving, the Lions had fallen to the Giants, which accounted for their 8-2 record. The Packers came into the game undefeated at 10-0. In fact, reaching back into the previous season, coach Vince Lombardi’s squad had lost only once in their previous 18 outings, and that was by a single point. Their 37-0 rout of New York in the 1961 title game was their first of five eventual championships in seven seasons. Their aura of invincibility was underscored by the wire services’ All-Pro selections, which included 11 Packers, and magazine cover stories that proclaimed them the greatest aggregation of football talent ever to grace a gridiron.

They may have been, at that. But not on this overcast Thursday afternoon. Ever since the loss in Green Bay, the Lions had been pointing to the rematch in Detroit. “The people can help us,” linebacker Wayne Walker told the press. “When we come out on the field, they can let loose, make noise, let us know they’re for us.”

On the Packers’ first play from scrimmage, quarterback Bart Starr was swarmed under by several blitzing Lions for a 15-yard loss. It set the tone for the day. Before 57,598 wildly screaming fans and 32 million disbelieving television viewers, the revenge-minded Lions practically chased the Packers out of Tiger Stadium and back to Wisconsin.

By the time it was over, Starr had been sacked 11 times and lost 110 yards attempting to pass. Jimmy Taylor, the league’s leading ground-gainer, was held to a mere 47 yards. Roger Brown, the biggest of the “Fearsome Foursome” defensive front that also included Alex Karras, Darris McCord, and Sam Williams, was credited with six sacks. The 300-pound tackle also had a safety and delivered a jarring hit that knocked the ball out of Starr’s hands; Williams picked up the fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. Detroit built up a 26-0 lead early in the third quarter before coasting home, 26-14. The relatively close final score doesn’t adequately convey the sense of mayhem and dominance visited upon the Packers, however.

“We just got up for it like I’ve never, ever seen a team get up for anything before,” Walker explained. “Everything we did that day was just perfect. If we blitzed, they didn’t pick it up. If we looped linemen, they didn’t pick it up. If we didn’t blitz and played a zone, Bart Starr couldn’t read it.”

Green Bay recovered from its national embarrassment to finish the season at 13-1, then went on to beat New York for the title. There was no playoff system then. As the Western Conference runner-up, the Lions had to settle for yet another appearance in the Playoff Bowl. Lombardi once described this sad-sack consolation game between second-place teams as “a hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players.” Maybe so. But the Lions (who beat Pittsburgh for their third straight Playoff Bowl win) were anything but hinky-dink. The 1962 Thanksgiving Day mauling remains the best remembered game in Lions history and one that few Packer fans were likely to forget, as well.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.