How Aretha Franklin's iconic NFL Thanksgiving anthem came to be

Aretha Franklin's soaring anthem renditions (2:47)

At the age of 76, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin died. Today, we look back at some of her most impactful renditions of the national anthem. (2:47)

No one knew what was coming that day, except perhaps the Queen of Soul herself.

On a national-television platform during one of the biggest holidays of the year, one of the best singers in the history of the United States was about to perform its national anthem. And it had never been done like this before.

The 4 minutes and 34 seconds of music magic that came from Aretha Franklin on Thanksgiving 2016 actually began months earlier, when the Detroit Lions business-development staff began putting together a wish list of anthem and halftime performers for that year's Thanksgiving game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Kelly Kozole, the team's senior vice president of business development, came up with the initial idea. After she did, Franklin rose to the top of the list -- and essentially became the entire list. Lions president Rod Wood and the team's owners, the Ford family, embraced the idea of Franklin singing the anthem.

"At the time it was we would love to have her perform and if she's unavailable or unwilling, then we'll move on to alternate ideas," said Emily Griffin, Lions vice president of marketing. "But she was the list."

Kozole reached out to Franklin's representatives to gauge interest. The Lions didn't know what the response would be from one of Detroit's (and music's) icons of the past half-century.

When Franklin's reps responded with enthusiasm and a few questions -- typical concerns about logistics, timing and sound checks -- the Lions thought it was possible. A two-month courtship followed before everything was locked down and Franklin -- who died Thursday at age 76 -- became that year's anthem singer.

"It was obvious based on their initial response they were interested," Griffin said. "You can tell if an artist is lukewarm or hot or cold on a performance opportunity, and it was clear they were interested in learning more and we were pleasantly surprised.

"Very thrilled and excited that we got her booked."

The Lions don't typically pay their anthem singers, Griffin said, and she told ESPN that Franklin was not paid for the 2016 performance, either. Once Kozole booked Franklin for the anthem, she handed the rest of the setup to the franchise's event-production team, e2k, and e2k’s president, Erin Olmstead.

And as Franklin walked into the building that day and was greeted by e2k staff, no one knew what was going to happen hours later. There was no sound check. No rehearsal. Griffin said Franklin's sound engineer showed up at Ford Field the day before Thanksgiving to test things out.

Franklin wasn't performing publicly very much at that point. Less than a year later, she announced her retirement from the music business, performing for the last time in Detroit in June 2017 and in public overall Nov. 7, 2017, at the 25th-anniversary celebration for Elton John's AIDS Foundation.

Griffin said the performance company told her later they sensed nerves coming from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee that day -- although there's no way to know if that's actually true. She had performed "The Star Spangled Banner" at the 1993 World Series in Toronto and at Super Bowl XL and the 2004 NBA Finals in Detroit, but never really like this.

With a Lions beanie cap on her head given to her by the franchise moments before she went on the field to perform -- the item she selected out of a handful of items the Lions offered her to wear, including a bedazzled Lions jacket -- and a fur coat, Franklin sat down at her black piano. She adjusted her silver microphone and started to play.

At that moment, Griffin knew this anthem would be different.

"The duration of the piano prelude that she played. The tempo of the song," Griffin said. "The amount of ad-libbing. It was evident very early that she was going to put her own rendition together and her unique stamp."

Griffin said the Lions usually allot two minutes in their game-production script for "The Star Spangled Banner." Franklin went more than double that -- not that they minded. They knew they were witnessing something special, and all it took to get back on track was to move different videos to later in the game. The Lions, in their planning, always leave some flexibility for change since it's a live event -- although they didn't expect the anthem to cause reshuffling.

On the broadcast, players were visibly moved. Former Lions center Travis Swanson -- himself a musician in his spare time -- was bobbing his head along to the slow-paced ballad Franklin put together. Vikings linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was helping hold the giant American flag spread out across the field as Franklin belted out the words.

"Thankful to have lived during a time to know of and hear one of the greatest ever," then-Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy told ESPN by text message Thursday afternoon.

By the end, Lions defensive back Miles Killebrew had a massive smile on his face and started pumping his fist. Cornerback Adairius Barnes was clapping wildly. They might not have realized it in the moment -- there was a football game to be played moments later -- but they were witnessing one of the iconic anthems in the history of the song.

When Griffin heard Franklin was sick last week, it brought back memories of Thanksgiving and of being on the field watching her perform. Over the past week, Griffin said she's watched that Franklin rendition at least four or five times.

As news of Franklin's death Thursday spread across the globe, icons like Paul McCartney expressed appreciation for the Queen of Soul. And over and over again, one performance kept popping up: the national anthem at Ford Field on Thanksgiving in 2016.

"Four of the most memorable minutes of my career," Griffin said.