Thanksgiving 1986

Thirty years ago today was Thanksgiving Day 1986, and the annual Detroit game that year featured the 5-7 Lions facing the 2-10 Packers. It was just the second time since 1963 that Green Bay had travelled to Detroit on the holiday and proved to be perhaps the sweetest moment of a long dismal season in Wisconsin. The Packers were quarterbacked by unimpressive third-year man Randy Wright and would finish 25th in the NFL in scoring in 1986, while the Lions employed 36-year old Joe Ferguson as their signal caller and would end up 22nd in points. On the other side of the ball, Detroit’s middle-of-the-pack defense was countered by Green Bay’s 27th ranked one. Not exactly a marquee matchup.

The Lions opened the scoring with a field goal and touchdown, but the Packers tied it up in the first quarter on a blocked punt recovered in the end zone by defensive back John Simmons and a field goal by Al Del Greco. In the second quarter, two Del Greco field goals were answered by one by Detroit three-pointer before Walter Stanley grabbed a 21-yard touchdown pass from Wright to put the Pack up by ten, but another Lions touchdown before half brought the score to 23-20 Green Bay at the intermission.

17 unanswered third quarter points gave the Lions a 37-23 advantage before Stanley closed the gap with a 36-yard touchdown grab of another Wright pass to make the score 37-30 Detroit going into the final quarter. The fourth field goal by Eddie Murray, set up by an interception of an errant Wright pass, then extended the Lions’ lead to 40-30 before Wright tossed his third touchdown pass of the day – 11 yards to Paul Ott Carruth to tighten the score to 40-37.

With less than a minute to go in the contest, the less-than-stalwart Packer defense forced the Lions to punt, and punt returner Stanley was given instructions to fair catch the punt to preserve time for the offense. Instead, Stanley fielded the ball at his own 17 and headed to the left before spinning back to the right sideline where he found clear sailing for an 83-yard game-winning punt return touchdown with just 41 seconds left in the game. It would be the only punt return touchdown of his career.

Stanley told reporters, “The thing is, I’m expecting to make big plays – not all the time – but if you want to be better than average, you’re going to have to make the big plays, and that’s what I try to do every chance I get. I wanted the touchdown because I felt that we needed it.”

Gruff Coach Forrest Gregg added, “All I know is the guy is a good athlete and has a lot of heart. I think they probably underestimated his ability a little bit. Nobody will be guilty of that again.”

Wright finished the game 18-26 for 286 yards and three touchdowns for a career-best 128 passer rating; it was the one bright spot in his dreadful tenure as Green Bay’s starting quarterback. It was also the finest hour for the 5’9” Stanley who scored half of his six career touchdowns on this day. He returned punts for the Packers for four years, but his return average declined each season. In 1989, he moved on to the Lions and led NFL in punt return average in his one season with Detroit. It was a great day of surprising performances by a couple of lesser light Packers.

1985twstanley  1986trwright

Custom cards in Topps style.

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