Previewing Thanksgiving Gridiron Match-Ups

Most people are able to spend Thanksgiving Day with their families, having the day off of work. But the Detroit Lions won't enjoy a company holiday this season. Find out why, as NPR's Tony Cox speaks with New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. It is time again for sports, and our very own Tony Cox is here. Hey, Tony.

TONY COX: Hey, Farai. You know, it's football on Thanksgiving. It's a decades-long tradition, and as usual, there are three games happening today; some interesting storylines, as well, to go along with them. So here to give us a breakdown is News & Notes sports guru, New York Times' sports columnist, Mr. Bill Rhoden. What's up, Bill?

BILL RHODEN: Great, Tony Cox. Happy Thanksgiving.

COX: Same to you, my man. Listen, I want to get into the history of Turkey Day games briefly in a moment. But first, let's talk about the three games today. Titans and the Lions. The best and the worst. You know, why should we even watch this?

RHODEN: Because it's Thanksgiving, Tony. Come on, man. You got to - you know - but also - and it's the American thing to do. But you know, also, I was in Nashville the other - Sunday for Titans-Jets, and I'm really curious to find out now how the Titans are going to rebound from this. Clearly, they should beat Detroit but I don't know. It could be a little closer than you think.

COX: I mean, I'm sure they're going to be carving up the Detroit Lions on Thursday. But all right. All right. Also, Dallas versus Seattle, 7 and 14 taking on a 2 and 9 team. Again, this has the makings of a dud, doesn't it?

RHODEN: Now that's - yeah, Tony, that's the game we don't have to watch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RHODEN: Unless you just like Seattle, so I mean - I mean, really, you could pass on that just to watch...

COX: Just like - oh, my God. All right.

RHODEN: "Oprah" or something.

COX: Here's one that may be interesting. The Eagles taking on the Cardinals today. Cardinals coming off of that whipping over the weekend. I don't know what you'll say is the biggest storyline for this game, but I have an idea that it begins with McMahon.

RHODEN: Now, Donovan, there is overtime. So don't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RHODEN: Poor Donovan. Yeah, that's - I think you're right, Tony. This is a compelling game, probably the most compelling of all of them just because of how the wheels are coming off. And it looks like - and if they lose this, they may send Donovan out immediately after the game.

COX: Well, we'll have to wait and see how it turns out as we flip the dial from one station to the other this afternoon and this evening. How did the Thanksgiving classic, by the way, come to be a classic, if you know? I mean, do you remember paying any attention to watching the game on Thursday when you were younger?

RHODEN: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think the history began somewhere with the old American Football League, but my personal history, I mean, in the Rhoden household - I grew up in Chicago. And it was a Thanksgiving Day ritual to watch Detroit play Green Bay. That was just what you did. I mean, that was when the Black and Blue Division was really at its height, and that's, you know, that, to me, defined Thanksgiving. And to this day, I mean, every time I think of Thanksgiving, I'm thinking of Detroit playing somebody. Detroit playing Green Bay, Detroit...

COX: No. You mean, Detroit losing to somebody.

RHODEN: Well, but not - you see, back in the day - I'm old enough to remember when Detroit actually was good. I mean, they actually were good. They had - you know, they actually won. That was...

COX: I guess that's true.

RHODEN: Before your time, I know, Tony.

COX: I suppose it is. You know, the other thing about that game, depending on what time zone you're in, it usually came in on the afternoon after you had already eaten. So you're sitting there rubbing your stomach, and what else were you going to do but watch the game with Detroit?

RHODEN: Yeah. And remember, that was - that was before cable. I mean, you were...

COX: That's true.

RHODEN: Pretty much hostage.

COX: Well, that's absolutely true. Let me ask you about another thing because we're into the holiday season full blast now, and our next subject deals with sports history because it's usually collected and interpreted by writers like yourself. People are going to have time for reading now, and I want to ask you about books, specifically sports books. I get the feeling, Bill Rhoden, that a great sports book has to be about more than sports.

RHODEN: I would think so. There's a story - there's a really, really good book that just came out, Tony. And it's perfect for the holiday season. It's a book called, "Running For My Life: My Journey In The Game of Football and Beyond." And it's by Warrick Dunn, the former Atlanta Falcon and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer running back. It really is a very good book. I mean, he - he's really had it. He really had a hard life. His mother was murdered, and Warrick actually met the person who was on death row who murdered his mother, and the book is sort of about redemption and growing and moving on. It really is a good holiday read.

COX: You know, when we talk about some of the all-time sports books that have been written, I mean, some come to mind like A. J. Liebling's "The Sweet Science," Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights," which became a movie and a TV show, George Plimpton's "Paper Lion," and of course, there's "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback" by - let's see, who wrote that?

RHODEN: Some war hero?

COX: Some New York hack named Bill Rhoden.

RHODEN: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RHODEN: Now, he also wrote $40 million (unintelligible). Says we'll be set, says we'll be shameless here on Thanksgiving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Black authors, though, what about their books? Do they always have to be biographical?

RHODEN: You know, Tony, not really. I just think that the history of African-Americans in this country is just so rich and so deep that I think a lot of the books by definition have to deal with the sociology of sport. Now, there is a really good biography out there that I just got hold of. It's a book about Sam Langford. Sam Langford was a great boxing champion, and the book is called "Sam Langford: Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion." And it really is a very compelling biography about a guy you don't really know. But for the color line, we would have heard a lot about him. But - and I think that's why you have so many black authors doing books about, you know, forgotten history or little known history.

COX: Do you think that black books or sports books - do they stand the test of time? I'm thinking now of someone like, let's say, Arthur Ashe, whose "Road to Glory" in three volumes was really big. I guess it's been, what, 30 years now?

RHODEN: Well, it's not that been that long. It's not been that long. But I'm glad you mentioned that book because that's one of the ones I was going to mention as a classic. And if you don't have it in your library, you really should, "Hard Road to Glory," the three volumes. And also, a classic book is Harry Edwards' - what - there are actually two...

COX: "The Revolt of the Black Athlete"?

RHODEN: "The Revolt of the Black Athlete" is the one I suggest. It shows you how far we haven't come. That was sort of a groundbreaking book on the sociology of African-Americans in sport. So, you know - and those two have really stood the test of time and I think will. I think 20 years from now we'll still be talking about those books.

COX: Well, let me just say on behalf of everybody here at News & Notes, have a Happy Thanksgiving Day to you.

RHODEN: And on the East Coast, same to you.

COX: Bill Rhoden is a sports columnist for the New York Times and author of one of the greatest sports book ever written ever in the history of mankind. It is called "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback." See you, Bill.

RHODEN: Tony, take care.

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