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For all of the history Baltimore has brought to the pro football world, the one aspect of league history that they have not played a big part in has been Thanksgiving.
The Colts were in the All America Football Conference from 1946-1949, the NFL in 1950, disbanding then coming back from 1953- 1983. Yet this city has played in just one Turkey Day game, November 25 , 1965, when they faced the Lions at Tiger Stadium before 55,036 fans. The Ravens have yet to appear in a Thanksgiving Day game since bringing football back to Baltimore.
The Lions have played on every Thanksgiving since 1934, their first year in Detroit after moving from Portsmouth, Ohio where they were named the Spartans. They did not play on Thanksgiving in 1939 or 1940. During those seasons the Steelers and Eagles squared off. The Lions resumed play on Thanksgiving Day again in 1945. The NFL did not play on Thanksgiving during World War II.
Detroit had not participated in the NFL playoffs since winning the championship in 1957. The Lions owner William Clay Ford began 1965 by firing all of head coach George Wilsonâ€™s assistants. Wilson got the message and resigned a couple of days later. His replacement was Harry Gilmer.
The Lions were average at best in the mid 60â€™s. They finished the 1964 season at 7-5-2 thanks to a good defense. The Lions offense was points-challenged and as a result they werenâ€™t really a contender. The year before the Lions platooned Milt Plum and Earl Morrall at quarterback. Gilmer traded Morrall to the Giants in 1965 and kept Plum.
Morrall threw for 22 touchdowns and the Giants finished with surprising 7-7 record that year while Plum would throw for just twelve touchdowns and had 19 interceptions. The Lions came into their Thanksgiving Day game with a 5-5 record and were in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference. They lost to the Colts 31-7 in week 4 in Baltimore. Their offense sputtered with Plum but the defense with Alex Karras and Roger Brown on the defensive line, Joe Schmidt at linebacker, and Dick Lebeau in the secondary kept them in games. They needed a win to have any chance of winning the Western Conference and had to rely on their defense to stop John Unitas, something they could not do earlier in the year.
The Colts were on the other side of the tracks from the Lions. They were the defending Western Conference champions and came into Detroit with a 9-1 record. Their only loss was in week 2 to the Packers 20-17. Unitas led the highest scoring offense in the league, they averaged over 31 points a game and Unitas had thrown 20 touchdown passes the first ten games of the year. The Colts needed a win because the Packers were 8-2 heading into the NFLâ€™s 11 week. There was no Wild Card and therefore teams needed to win their respective conference to achieve a playoff berth. In 1965 the playoffs consisted of just the championship game.
The Colts scored first after a long drive capped by a Unitas 5 yard touchdown pass to special teams captain Alex Hawkins. This would be just one of two receptions on the season for Hawkins and his only score in 1965. Head coach Don Shula used Hawkins sparingly on offense during his tenure with the Colts but when Hawkins got in, he always made plays.
The Lions came back and tied the score late in the first quarter when Plum hit flanker Pat Studstill with a thirteen yard touchdown pass. The Lions then began to put pressure on Unitas and forced him into throwing two interceptions during the second and third quarters. The Lions on the other hand began to move the ball and outscored the Colts 17-3 during those periods. Running back Amos Marsh who would lead the Lions in rushing in 1965 with just 495 yards for the year scored on runs of one and 62 yards. Lou Michaels and Wayne Walker, the Colts and Lions place kickers traded field goals and the Lions led 24-10 after three quarters of play.
The Colts Western Conference lead appeared to slipping away but as he had so many times before Unitas got things going for the offense. He would throw two of his twelve interceptions for the year in this game but he would add 2 more touchdown passes in the 4th quarter to bring the Colts back. Lebeau and and future Hall of Famer Night Train Lane had kept Unitas below 50% passing for the day, unheard for him, but they could not stop him in the 4th quarter.
He connected with another future Hall of Famer, third year TE John Mackey twice for touchdowns. The first was Mackeyâ€™s signature play for his career. If you have watched highlights of Mackeyâ€™s best plays, his 52 yard touchdown on Thanksgiving in Detroit is always featured. He caught a short TE screen to the right and was hit by Karras and Brown at first. He broke away from them and then was gang tackled by Schmidt, Walker, and Ernie Clark. Mackey appeared to be stopped but twisted away then ran over LeBeau and Karras again and his own blocker Lenny Moore before breaking into the clear to make the score Lions 24-17. After that play it was almost anti climatic when Unitas found Mackey again later for a fifteen yard touchdown that tied the game at twenty four.
The game ended in a tie as overtime would not become part of regular season rules to 1974. The good news was the Colts escaped with a tie and still were in first place with three games to play. The bad news was Unitas tore up his knee against the Bears in a 13-0 loss the next week and was lost for the year. The week after that, Unitasâ€™ back up Gary Cuozzo hurt his shoulder against the Packers in another loss and he too was lost for the season. This forced Shula to have to use halfback Tom Matte at quarterback.
The Colts and Packers tied for the Western Conference title at 10-3-1. The Packers would win the conference in a playoff 13-10 that featured a controversial field goal, (another story for another day).
The Lions finished at 6-7-1 and would be contenders in the 1970 season when they were a Wild Card.
That is the extent of the Baltimoreâ€™s contribution to NFL Thanksgiving football, an entertaining game that added to the legend of John Unitas and began one for John Mackey.