Joe DeLamielleure grew up on Thanksgiving football with the Detroit Lions. He played Thanksgiving football for the Buffalo Bills. And he’ll watch Thanksgiving football come Thursday.
“I was so excited when the schedule came out and I saw the Bills playing on Thanksgiving,” he says. “Almost as excited as when I was playing.”
DeLamielleure was a leading light of the Electric Company, the nickname for the Bills’ offensive line of the O.J. Simpson era. That line opened holes so effectively on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit in 1976 that Simpson ran for 273 yards, then a single-game rushing record.
As a boy, DeLamielleure attended a dozen or so of those annual Turkey Day games in Detroit. His father would always take him. And therein lies a tale.
“My dad owned a bar and it was closed three days a year – Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter,” DeLamielleure says. “Stroh’s Beer gave him six tickets for the Lions’ Thanksgiving game every year and my dad would take us five boys. That was our treat for the whole year.”
Then, after the game, the family would celebrate Thanksgiving in their father’s saloon, and the golden glow of those days live on gloriously in DeLamielleure’s mind.
He was the youngest of five boys, second-youngest of 10 siblings. Four of the Stroh’s tickets were in the upper deck; that’s where his older brothers sat. He and his father got the box seats on the 40-yard line. He especially remembers the 1962 game – when the Lions upset the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers – and what he told his father that day.
“I was 10 at the time,” DeLamielleure says. “And I remember I told him, ‘I’m going to play in that game someday.’ And he didn’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s nice, sonny. That would be great.’ No, he said, ‘And when you do, I’m going to be there.’ ”
Fast forward 14 years: DeLamielleure’s father suffered a heart attack two weeks before the Bills came to Detroit for that 1976 game.
DeLamielleure says he had 100 tickets for family and friends. “But I knew my father couldn’t come,” he says. “He was in the hospital and it was pretty serious.”
DeLamielleure asked Jim Ringo, his offensive line coach, if the Bills could run some power sweeps with him as a pulling guard because he hoped that would get his name mentioned on TV for something other than a holding penalty when his father watched from the hospital.
Simpson ran sweeps and ran up the middle – and ran over, around and through the Lions – for his 273 yards on 29 carries. Unfortunately for the Bills, quarterback Gary Marangi completed just four of 21 passes for 29 yards plus an interception; the Lions won, 27-14.
“So I’m in the tunnel after the game and I can’t believe my eyes – there’s my father,” DeLamielleure says. “And I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘I told you I’d be here. I wouldn’t miss this for anything.’ Turns out he checked out of the hospital and took a cab. His doctor said he would have had another heart attack if he had to watch it on TV.”
And then they all decamped for the Victory Inn Bar and Grill to celebrate another family Thanksgiving bash, as of old.
“We went up to the bar and I tried to act sad because we lost, but actually I was happy,” DeLamielleure says. “My dad was there and we broke a record and it’s a game I’ll never forget.”
DeLamielleure and fellow guard Reggie McKenzie got to stay behind for family celebrations because they were from Detroit. They asked for that favor from Ringo, their position coach – who, as it happens, had played for the Packers in that 1962 Thanksgiving game.
“My dad built his bar after World War II and my nieces and nephews still run it,” DeLamielleure says. “I spent a lot of time there as a kid. We didn’t go to school until first grade. My dad said kindergarten was overrated so we went to the bar and filled the salt and pepper shakers at 5:30 in the morning. Now he’d be shut down for child labor laws, but I had the greatest childhood ever.”
And one of the great football careers ever: DeLamielleure is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his eight seasons with the Bills and five with the Cleveland Browns.
“My whole life has been Detroit and Buffalo and Cleveland,” he says. “I’m a Bills fan. I think they’re for real on defense and they’re growing into their offense.”
Today he lives in suburban Charleston, S.C. – and lives with CTE. He is among the first former NFL players to be diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease while still living, but says he doesn’t feel its brute force.
“I feel great,” he says. “My memory is good. I never drank, never took prescription drugs. I’m married to the woman I walked to first grade with, so I’ve got great stability in my life.”
He goes to daily Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in suburban Charleston. “It puts my mind at ease,” he says. “None of us is getting out alive.”
And so on Thanksgiving he will watch the Lions in Detroit and the Bills in Dallas and give thanks for his health and for his family – his wife Gerri and their six children and 12 grandchildren.
“Thanksgiving,” DeLamielleure says, “is my favorite day of the year.”