Turkey and Pigskin

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

A guide to Thanksgiving football

by Mike Morrison

This article was posted in November 2000.

Lions opponents no longer have Barry Sanders to worry about on Thanksgiving as the future Hall of Fame running back retired prior to the 1999 season.

There's nothing quite like it—belly stuffed with turkey and stuffing, tryptophan kicking in, pants unbuckled, feet up on the coffee table, and football on the tube. And it's fun for men as well.

Since 1934, the Detroit Lions have made NFL football a Thanksgiving Day tradition. A brainchild of Lions' owner G.A. Richards, the initial Thanksgiving Day game pitted his team against the World Champion Chicago Bears, coached by the legendary George Halas and powered by the running game of Bronko Nagurski. The Bears won 19–16 en route to another championship and a tradition was born.

The Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since then (with the exception of a World War II interruption between 1939–44) and have recorded a 32–27–2 mark. Of those 61 games played, the Lions have most frequently played the Green Bay Packers (15 times, with a 10–4–1 mark) and the Bears (with a 7–8 record).

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys picked up on the popularity of the Thanksgiving Day game and turned it into a tradition of their own with a 26–14 victory over the Cleveland Browns, in which 80,259 fans (close to 5,000 above capacity) jammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys have made 33 home Thanksgiving appearances over the past 35 years compiling a highly successful 21–11–1 record in the process. The Cowboys most frequently played Thanksgiving opponent is the Washington Redskins. Dallas currently boasts a perfect 5–0 mark against their division rival.

Most Memorable Thanksgiving Game

Arguably the most memorable Thanksgiving Day game was the 1974 contest between the Cowboys, led by future Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, and the heavily-favored Redskins. Prior to the game, Redskins defensive lineman Diron Talbert made the comment, "If you knock Staubach out, you've got that rookie facing you. That's one of our goals in the game . . . that's all they have."

Talbert proved prophetic, for in the third quarter, with the Cowboys trailing 16–3, Staubach was injured. "That rookie" that Talbert was referring to was backup quarterback Clint Longley, who had never played in a regular season game. Longley pushed his nerves aside and took control, leading the Cowboys on two scoring drives, and with his team trailing 23–17 with 28 seconds remaining, threw a miracle 50-yard touchdown strike to receiver Drew Pearson to give the Cowboys a shocking 24–23 victory.

This year, the Lions square off against the Packers in the early game (12:30 EST) while the struggling Cowboys play host to the dangerous Denver Broncos at 4:05 (dessert time).

Notable Thanksgiving Day Achievements

1951Detroit vs. Green Bay—Behind four Bobby Layne touchdown strikes, the Lions trounce the Packers 52–35 in the highest-scoring Thanksgiving Day game in history.

1956Detroit vs. Green Bay—The Packers defeat the Lions 24–20 in the first Thanksgiving Day game on national television.

1968Detroit vs. Philadelphia—The Lions lose 12–0 in the lowest scoring game in Thanksgiving history in what is later known as the "Mud Bowl." 1976Detroit vs. BuffaloO.J. Simpson slashes his way to a then-NFL record 273 yards rushing in a 27–14 loss to the Lions. 1980Dallas vs. Seattle—The Cowboys crush the Seahawks 51–7 in the most lopsided Thanksgiving affair ever.

1993Dallas vs. Miami—in a snowy Irving Stadium, Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett mistakenly touches a live ball after a Miami field goal attempt is blocked. The Dolphins recover on the one-yard line and then kick a successful field goal to win 16–14.

1998Detroit vs. Pittsburgh—The two teams went to overtime with the score tied at 16–16. At the OT coin toss, Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis called "tails." The ref mistakenly heard "heads." The coin landed on "tails" and the ref awarded the choice to Detroit. This led to a Detroit field goal and a controversial 19–16 win.

Not Everyone Gets Paid For This . . .

On a smaller scale, but of no less importance, is the tradition of Thanksgiving Day football on the high school level. More than 200 schools in Massachusetts alone play Thanksgiving morning, many with rivalries dating back to the turn of the century.

The annual Needham-Wellesley game began in 1882 and is widely considered the oldest high school series in the United States. In Maryland, the annual Loyola-Calvert game, which began in 1920, draws crowds of over 10,000 to Baltimore Stadium.

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