November 29, 2010

1934: Bears Edge Lions in Thanksgiving Showdown

A Thanksgiving tradition began on November 29, 1934 when the Detroit Lions hosted the Chicago Bears at the University of Detroit’s Titan Stadium. The Lions, transplanted from Portsmouth, Ohio, where they played as the Spartans from 1930-33, were 10-1 entering the contest, having run off a record seven straight shutouts to start the season. They had lost to Green Bay for the first time the previous Sunday, by a score of 3-0, and had given up a total of 30 points in all.

Star tailback Dutch Clark had come out of a year’s retirement to lead a talented backfield for Head Coach George “Potsy” Clark’s club that included FB Ace Gutowsky, wingback Ernie Caddel, and tailback Glenn Presnell. End Buster Mitchell and guard Ox Emerson were All-Pro-calibre players.

The Bears were the defending NFL champions and came into the contest undefeated at 11-0. Under the direction of George Halas, the owner and head coach, Chicago typically dominated opponents and had only allowed two teams to score in double figures all season.

There was a sellout crowd of 25,000 fans in attendance for the Western Division showdown, and the game was broadcast nationally on radio (new Lions owner George Richards was a radio executive). Detroit got the first break of the day, with a defensive play that set up the first touchdown. With the Bears at their own 36, Mitchell intercepted a deflected pass by QB Carl Brumbaugh and returned it to the Chicago four yard line. Gutowsky ran for a touchdown from there and Clark drop-kicked the extra point.

The Bears tied the game thanks to HB Gene Ronzani scoring on a 14-yard pass into the end zone from QB Keith Molesworth early in the second quarter, with Jack Manders (pictured at top) adding the extra point on a placekick. The play was set up on a long completion by the same combination of Molesworth to Ronzani that put Chicago in scoring position.

The Lions regained the lead when Presnell kicked a 42-yard field goal. Gutowsky (pictured at left) powered over again for another touchdown shortly thereafter, capping a drive that began at the Detroit 35, but Clark’s extra point attempt was blocked. The Lions were up by 16-7 at the half. In the third quarter, Manders kicked field goals of 21 and 42 yards, cutting Detroit’s lead to 16-13.

The key play of the game occurred in the fourth quarter when G Joe Zeller intercepted a Gutowsky pass at his own 46 and returned it to the Detroit four yard line, where Gutowsky himself finally pulled him down. Two plunges into the line gained two yards, but then FB Bronko Nagurski, faking another run, instead reared up and floated a pass to end Bill Hewitt in the end zone for what proved to be the winning touchdown. Nagurski’s PAT attempt was blocked.

The Lions drove from their own 20 to the Chicago 14 yard line but gave up the ball on downs with less than a minute to play, clinching the 19-16 win for the Bears.

Detroit outrushed the Bears with 201 yards to 116 and led in first downs, 14 to 6, but Chicago’s passing attack and the kicking of Manders made the difference.

The win clinched the Western Division title for the Bears, and they emphasized the point by beating the Lions again in the season finale the following week in Chicago. Thus, they ended the season with a perfect 13-0 record, but were upset by the Giants in the NFL Championship game. Detroit finished second at 10-3.

Bill Hewitt’s game-winning touchdown reception was one of a league-leading five TD catches, out of a total of 11 receptions (Hewitt pictured below, #56 without helmet).

Jack Manders led the NFL with 10 field goals (by comparison, the five runners-up, which included Glenn Presnell and Dutch Clark, had four apiece), 28 extra points, and 76 points (Clark was the runner-up in both categories with 13 PATs and 73 points), showing why he earned the nickname “Automatic Jack”.

The Thanksgiving Day game was considered a success and, except for a brief hiatus during World War II, the Lions have continued to host a game every Thanksgiving.