One of the NFL's venerables is there, and we don't mean Brett Favre. Enough with Favre. We refer, of course, to Detroit Lion Jason Hanson and his Big Leg.
The 37-year-old Hanson, a graduate of Mead High School and Washington State University, says it's a physical hardship playing two games in four days, but a greater privilege to be part of the NFL's Thanksgiving tradition.
"Are you kidding? It's been a blast to play," Hanson says.
He should know; he's played in 16 of them.
"In Detroit it's a huge event," he says of the Thanksgiving Day game. "It's a great game to come to, there's a special feel to it. Even when we were bad there would be a buzz in the crowd ... families would get there early and start their Thanksgivings."
Detroit is a blue-collar, football-savvy town, Hanson says, always turning out for the Lions -- even if it's to savagely rip the team in bad years.
"I remember early in my career we played at Atlanta and the place was two-thirds full. That never happens in Detroit. The fans are here -- they are angry, but they're here."
And this year, even though they are reeling with two straight losses, the Lions, with the arm of another Washington state native, Jon Kitna, they are still 6-4 and miles above the one-win, two-win, three-win seasons so far this millennium.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & anson, despite his nickname of Thunderfoot, is perhaps the quietest professional athlete out of Spokane, where he lives in the off-season, but he's been burning up the Motor City ever since... since... well, ever since... Let's see, it seems Hanson arrived in Detroit when there was a war in the Middle East and a Bush in the White House -- only it was Old Man Bush and the first Gulf War.
Hanson arrived in 1991, just as the Barry Sanders era was underway. It was the first time Detroit fans had reason to be giddy since the 1950s.
Though the Lions seemed to be always in or near the playoffs throughout the 1990s, a look back reveals but a single playoff win.
"When I got here, we made the playoffs four or five times but we would always lose in the first round. Any time we started knocking on the door to become a team that was feared and respected -- well, we never did anything with it," Hanson says. "The last five years or so we've been terrible."
The shadow of these grim recent seasons even blots out the good years, Hanson says.
"We had a player come over from another team. He stood up in a team meeting and he was all passionate talking about how he was going to do his best to help a team that had never been to the playoffs. A bunch of us looked at each other and raised our hands and said, yeah, we have been to the playoffs," Hanson says with a laugh. If you don't win, he adds, you just become an afterthought in the national consciousness.
Individually, Hanson has been rock steady. With 32 field goals of 50 yards or more, Hanson ranks fourth among kickers in NFL history. He ranks first in every statistical category for a place-kicker in Lions history with longest field goal (56), field goals made (373), field goals attempted (458), points scored (1,612), extra points made (493) and extra points attempted (500). He is also the franchise leader in games played with 249 and is the franchise's all-time leader in seasons played with 16.
With four points in Sunday's loss to the Giants, Hanson is 10th on the NFL's all-time scoring list with 1,612 points. He had gone into the Giants game tied with Lou "The Toe" Groza of the 1950s-era Cleveland Browns.
Typical of his times, Groza was a cigarette-smoking, hard-living two-way player at offensive tackle and kicker who used a length of tape to guide his foot to the "sweet spot" of the football -- a practice that was later outlawed in 1956 by the Groza Rule.
"Football is so different. Today you have kickers going over to do yoga on the sidelines instead of to smoke. There are a few kickers who get lucky and catch some guy under the pads and make the highlights, but most of the time it's tripping them up or grabbing them as they go by," Hanson says of open-field tackles made by kickers.
"I used to make a tackle and I'd be seeing stars when I got up, and I'd say 'Wait till they see that on film!' And then you'd see it and realize you got run over and you held on," Hanson says. "Some guys will try to pretend they are real football players, but most of us know we are just the kicker. We didn't invent the game, but most football players know the kicker is a huge part of the modern game."
Indeed, kickers are called out at a moment's notice to put points on the board in a single do-or-die moment.
The clich & eacute; of calling a time out to freeze the kicker is more of a crapshoot than most coaches seem to realize, Hanson says.
"It all depends on what's happening in the kicker's mind at the time," Hanson says. And no one knows that but the kicker.
"There have been times when I've been nervous or the game is happening really fast and they call time, and I'm like, 'Whoo! Thank you,'" Hanson says.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & anson's most memorable pressure-cooker moment came during the 2002 season. His wife Kathleen was pregnant with their third child, Luke. Complications kept her in Spokane, instead of traveling to Detroit with the kids. As her due date approached, a C-section was scheduled for a Monday after a game against the Bears in Detroit, and Hanson made pinpoint travel arrangements to get to Spokane in time to be a dad.
"The only complication would be if we went into overtime," he says. "So of course..."
Trailing by three late in the game, the Detroit offense reached the 2-yard line but was unable to score. Hanson booted the game-tying field goal with two seconds on the clock, which of course wasn't the only clock he worried about.
Detroit got the ball first in overtime and marched to the 30 before stalling, where Hanson boomed a 48-yarder to win the game.
It was only Detroit's second win all season, but Hanson had no time to savor it, dashing to the locker room, quickly dressing and then burning rubber for the airport.
"I sprinted through the airport and made it with two minutes to spare," he says. "It was unreal, thinking that if I missed the field goal not only might we lose the game, but if I missed the field goal I would miss my flight."
Now that's a highlight: kick the game-winner in OT, and still make it halfway across the country for the birth of a child.
The 6-4 Detroit Lions aim for the playoffs as they take on the 9-1 Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day at 9:30 am on Fox.