Presnell's team made holiday game a classic
November 25, 1999
Free Press Special Writer
Glenn Presnell is 94 now, living in the southern Ohio town of Ironton, not far from the Kentucky-West Virginia border. He intends to join millions of others today in a Thanksgiving ritual, watching the Lions play on television. Glenn Presnell and the Lions came up short against Chicago in the 1934 Thanksgiving game, but the team feasted on a bear dinner at the Webster Hall Hotel following the 19-16 defeat. Presnell has a different perspective, though. He played in the Lions' first Thanksgiving game 65 years ago -- Nov. 29, 1934.
As they will today, the Lions played the Chicago Bears. Football historians recall it as one of the most exciting Thanksgiving games. The Bears won, 19-16, on a touchdown by Bronko Nagurski, one of the game's most famous players.
Presnell played in a backfield with Dutch Clark, Ernie Caddel and Ace Gutowsky. He also kicked and played safety. He remembers that owner George Richards wanted the Lions to eat bear for their Thanksgiving Day dinner. Literally. "Prior to the game, Mr. Richards got a bear from northern Michigan, and we were told that we were going to have a bear dinner after the game," Presnell said. "During the football season, the team lived at the Webster Hall Hotel on Cass Avenue next to Wayne University. We had a big room in the basement we called the 'Lions Den' where we loafed and played cards.
"The hotel staff had prepared the bear, and sure enough we ate it. After losing, it sure didn't taste very good." Presnell doesn't remember many details from that first game. When reminded he kicked a field goal, he recalled it, but he had forgotten about a key interception he had thrown. With a slight chuckle, Presnell said, "I suppose that was something I wouldn't like to remember." A crowd of 26,000 saw the game at the University of Detroit stadium in the Lions' first season after moving from Portsmouth, Ohio.
The Western Conference title was at stake. The defending champion Bears, led by Nagurski and Red Grange, who sat out because of an injury, were 11-0. The Lions were 10-1 after winning their first 10 games, the first seven by shutout. Richards, who had purchased the Portsmouth Spartans in March before moving the team to Detroit, convinced George Halas, owner-coach of the Bears, to play Thanksgiving morning. As owner of WJR, Richards used his influence with NBC radio, and the game was broadcast coast to coast on 94 stations. Graham McNamee was the play-by-play announcer.
The next day, Free Press sports writer Tod Rockwell wrote: "It was a masterful exhibition of offensive football. Two of the greatest lines in the game waged a fierce struggle to make way for a dozen and more versatile backs who could plunge, pass, run, and placekick, block, and tackle." At halftime, the Lions led, 16-7, thanks to two touchdowns by Gutowsky and a 34-yard field goal by Presnell. Earlier in the year, Presnell kicked a 54-yard field goal -- an NFL record for 19 years -- in a 3-0 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Late in the fourth quarter of the Thanksgiving game, the Bears were trailing, 16-13, when they intercepted a Presnell pass and ran it back to the Lions 4. Nagurski hurled himself twice at the line, only to be rejected. Rockwell wrote: "He carried the ball at the line the third time, but as he reached it, jumped into the air and with both hands lobbed the ball to (Bill) Hewitt, standing unguarded in the Lion zone for the winning score." In the final minutes, the Lions marched the ball from their 20 to the Bears 15. They could have kicked a field goal to tie the score, but they went for the touchdown instead and failed to get it. Presnell played for the Lions that season after leading the NFL in scoring with Portsmouth in 1933. He has another legacy beyond the Thanksgiving game.
"I held out for $4,000, which was a lot of money back then," he recalled. "When we met with Mr. Richards, my wife and I also helped select the Lions' colors. "He had asked us to look at the different jerseys in the next room. There were all different colors -- orange and black, red and white, you name it. We saw that Honolulu blue and silver and said we liked it best. So Richards chose that."
Coach Glenn Presnell (Nebraska ’28)
Presnell took over the program for one season after serving as an assistant under Jones. He coached only one season before leaving for the war. He played for Coach Bearg at Nebraska from 1925-27, and was the first of three former NU players to serve as head coach.
Glenn Presnell was the NFC Season Scoring Leader in 1933, with 6-TD, 6-FG, 10-PAT = PTS 64Glenn Presnell held the NFL Record for the Longest Field Goal of 54 Yards which was scored against the Green Bay Packers in 1932, winning the game 3-0. This record stood for over 19 years.