The Lions and Thanksgiving Day are two birds of the same feather, flocking together since 1934. Thursday’s meeting versus the Texans marks Detroit’s 81st appearance on the national holiday.
Former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson got to play in three of those games, the last of which was one of the best of his 11-year career. His numbers on the day: one target, no receptions, and one unforgettable pregame speech.
Burleson, in what would be his final season, told the story Thursday on Good Morning Football of how he was approached by quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and center Dominic Raiola to address the Lions before their Thanksgiving kickoff in 2013. Burleson considered a couple routes to take with his message before ultimately focusing on the one the team took from the hotel to the stadium.
“Imagine a bus full of millionaires, driving down the freeway,” Burleson recalled. “To your left you see an abandoned factory that used to be filled with workers. To your right you see a school that because of funds being cut, it’s not open anymore. You see neighborhoods where it literally looks like a bomb went off. And then you pull in downtown and this group of millionaires gets to go play football in front of the world, go collect a check, and then they go home to food that you know is going to be on the table, under a roof that you know is going to be on top of your head, with clothes that you know are going to be on your back, because you’re living the life.”
Burleson said he knew he couldn’t just lay it out like that to his teammates. But the juxtaposition was jarring. When the time came to speak up in the locker room, he initially began to pump everyone up before interrupting himself. Burleson couldn’t help but share from the heart.
“I just say, Look, you guys know what it is out here in Detroit,” Burleson began. “It’s rough out here, man. Our city is literally going bankrupt. We know people that are in those stands that are fighting and scratching for their next meal, and we got everything we need. So forget about the name on the back of your jersey. Forget about the logo for a second. Think about this city. So for 60 minutes, if you give everything you got, I’m talking about pure exhaustion, everything you got, you can make this the best Thanksgiving ever for the city of Detroit.
“Now imagine that type of power. Forget about scoring a touchdown and 70,000 people telling you how great you are. Or the 30 million at home, or the tweets you’re going to get, because you love the praise. Think about that kid that is worried about his next meal, and how good he’s going to feel all week. Think about that parent that is struggling, living check to check, how good are they’re going to feel all week. So I don’t want us to play this game for us. Play this game for the city of Detroit because they have done more for us then you will ever give them credit for.”
Those Lions responded by beating the Packers, 40-10, snapping a nine-game losing streak on Turkey Day and earning their biggest win in the series in 40 years. Burleson believes the current Lions, just four days removed from being shut out for the first time in over a decade, will summon the Thanksgiving spirit he knows firsthand and beat the Texans.
“I feel like today is going to be something different because there’s something bigger to play for,” he said. “No fans in the stands, people at home, they are watching and waiting for something to smile about. … I guarantee my Lions are going to show up and show out today.”
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