Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I’m already feeling logy in anticipation of the huge meal and family drama ahead, so instead of a grinding dissection of this or that team’s playoff chances or internal struggles, let’s just enjoy a list of the top 10 memorable moments from Turkey Day football over the years.
Here’s hoping this Thanksgiving’s action will make future lists like these.
10. 1962: Detroit 26, Green Bay 14
The ’62 Packers are among the greatest teams of all time. They went 13-1 and won the NFL championship under Vince Lombardi, led by Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and a galaxy of other stars. The Pack’s only loss came on Turkey Day at Tiger Stadium, to a fired up bunch of Lions. Detroit’s front four, led by Roger Brown, harassed Starr all day, sacking him 11 times, including once for a safety, and basically put an offense loaded with Hall of Famers in reverse. For more about this high-water mark in Lions history, check out a piece I wrote remembering this game in fuller detail.
9. 1989: Philadelphia 27, Dallas 0
Philly’s shutout of the woeful Cowboys is better remembered as the “Bounty Bowl.” It was Jimmy Johnson’s first year as coach, and Eagles coach Buddy Ryan welcomed him to the NFL with a pasting that included alleged bounties on two Cowboys, quarterback Troy Aikman and kicker Luis Zendejas. Johnson claimed the Eagles had put $500 on Aikman’s head and $200 on that of Zendejas, who Philly released a couple of weeks prior to the game. Zendejas got on the field just once — the opening kickoff, when one of the Eagles special teamers clearly went straight at him and blasted the diminutive kicker.
Johnson said after the game he wanted to confront Ryan, but the Eagles coach had “ran his fat ass off the field.” Buddy laughed it off. “Why would I place a bounty on a kicker who can’t kick worth a damn?” he asked.
Two weeks later, the teams squared off again in “Bounty Bowl II.” That game was marred by drunken Eagles fans, who hurled ice balls at everyone and everything, including CBS announcer Verne Lundquist.
Let’s hope those folks didn’t travel to Detroit for Thursday’s game.
8. 1985: Detroit 31, New York Jets 20
OK, the game itself was mostly pigskin tryptophan — the Lions easily took care of the favored Jets, who got the last laugh by going 11-5 and making the playoffs. No, what made this one memorable is what happened before the game, and at halftime.
During NBC’s pregame show, co-host Ahmad Rashad proposed live on the air to his girlfriend, Mrs. Cosby herself, Phylicia Ayers-Allen. A moved nation waited with bated breath through the first half for Phylicia, who was hosting NBC’s Macy’s Parade in New York, could be tracked down and brought to the studio, where Bob Costas asked the crucial question while Ahmad watched from Detroit. She said yes, and a relieved America sat down for some turkey, secure in the knowledge that love conquers all.
The storybook proposal resulted in a wedding a month later, which featured Bill Cosby giving away the bride, and Rashad’s best man: O.J. Simpson. Here’s a photo that hasn’t aged well. The marriage lasted until 2001, when the Rashads divorced.
(Personal propaganda alert: I also wrote about Rashad’s proposal — today! — for the New York Times).
7. 2013: Baltimore 22, Pittsburgh 20
Pittsburgh and Baltimore usually play intense physical affairs decided by three points. For the holiday, they played an intense, physical affair decided by two points. Justin Tucker kicked five field goals to lead the Ravens to victory, but they had to hold on when Pittsburgh scored with 1:03 to play. The Steelers went for two and the tie, but Emmanuel Sanders dropped a perfect throw from Ben Roethlisberger.
The game stands out from the usual tapestry of violence weaved by these rivals for a memorable moment in the third quarter. Then-Raven (now Steeler) Jacoby Jones returned a kickoff down the Pittsburgh sideline, seemingly en route to the end zone. But Jones was forced to slow when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stepped on to the field and into his path, accidentally-on-purpose, while purportedly watching the play on the JumboTron. Tomlin was fined $100,000 for his actions.
6. 1998: Detroit 19, Pittsburgh 16 (OT)
After four tough quarters, the Steelers and Lions were tied at 16 and about to begin overtime. The captains gathered for the all-important coin toss. Referee Phil Luckett flipped the silver dollar in the air. Steelers running back Jerome Bettis called “tails” (or something like “hea-tails!”). Luckett heard “Heads” and awarded the ball to the Lions. Naturally, Detroit drove for the winning field goal, and Pittsburgh never saw the ball in OT.
CoinFlipGate had ramifications beyond the final score. In the wake of the confusion over Bettis’ call, the league insisted that the choice of heads or tails would henceforth be made before the actual flip, and repeated by the ref for assurance. The fact that the Steelers had no opportunity to score in the fifth quarter also sharpened the outcry for a change to the league’s overtime rules. In 2010, the NFL finally gave in and mandated that a field goal on the first drive of overtime would no longer win games.
(I wrote a bit about this one, too. I sense a theme here!)
5. 2012: Houston 34, Detroit 31 (OT)
Another Thanksgiving Day game that changed a rule. In this one, Houston’s Justin Forsett took off on an 81-yard touchdown run — except as he broke a tackle, his knee was clearly down near midfield. The refs missed it, but replay would have overturned the score. But Lions head coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag in anger. The (incomprehensible) rule at the time stated that automatic reviews were negated by challenge flags. Not only did the score thus count, wrongly, but Schwartz picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The game went to overtime as a result, and Houston won on a field goal — after Detroit’s Jason Hanson missed a kick of his own in extra time. Fortunately, logic prevailed in the offseason and now a challenge flag doesn’t nix a replay.
4. 1987: Minnesota 44, Dallas 38
This game snapped the wishbone of the Tom Landry Era. Dallas was 5-5 and needed to beat the Vikings in the worst way. In a back-and-forth thriller, Danny White threw for four touchdown passes, including a pair in the final 10 minutes to Mike Renfro to rally the ‘Boys from a 14-point deficit and force overtime. But White was intercepted in extra time, setting up Darrin Nelson’s touchdown scamper. Minnesota won, and the sun set on the Landry empire. After the following season, he was unceremoniously dumped by new owner Jerry Jones in favor of a college coach named Jimmy Johnson.
It worked out OK.
3. 1980: Chicago 23, Detroit 17 (OT)
The first Thanksgiving Day game to go into overtime. In truth the first half was dreadful, leaving fans wondering if they should take some antacid even before stuffing their faces with stuffing. But the second stanza was more lively. Detroit scored twice to seemingly put the Bears and Walter Payton away. But Chicago quarterback Vince Evans led an unlikely rally. Down, 17-10, he took over at his own 6-yard line with three minutes and change remaining in the game. He led the Bears down the field, and with zeroes on the clock scrambled in from five yards out to send the game into an extra session.
It didn’t last long. David Williams took the opening kickoff in overtime 95 yards for the stunning winning score. No one called it a “walk-off kick return” then — something to give thanks for.
2. 1993: Miami 16, Dallas 14
Otherwise known as the “Leon Lett Game.” Ten months earlier, during Super Bowl XXVII, the Big Cat had a sure touchdown slapped away by a hustling Don Beebe on a fumble return. It was embarrassing, and fueled plenty of racially tinged hot takes about hustle and showboating, but ultimately meaningless, as the Cowboys blasted Buffalo to win the Super Bowl.
On Thanksgiving, however, Lett cost his team the win. Ahead 14-13 on a snowy North Texas Turkey Day, Dallas blocked a 41-yard field-goal attempt by Pete Stoyanovich to seemingly win the game. But as the ball skittered toward the goal line, Lett had a brainfreeze and tried to fall on it. By touching the ball, it became live, and the Fish pounced on it. With just enough time for another kick, Stoyanovich was true, and Miami escaped with a miracle win.
The Dolphins improved to 9-2, but managed to drop their final five games of the year and missed the playoffs entirely. Dallas, meanwhile, won its next eight straight, including another Super Bowl rout of Buffalo.
1. 1974: Dallas 24, Washington 23
Dallas vs. Washington was the NFC’s biggest rivalry of the 1970s, and this Thanksgiving Day tilt was perhaps the most memorable regular-season game between the two teams in the era. The Redskins seemed to have the game in hand when they took a 16-3 lead in the second half, especially with the Dallas quarterback, Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, knocked senseless and on the sideline (there was an allegedbounty on Staubach for that game — all of $200).
In this case, taking out Staubach backfired on Washington, for backup Clint “The Mad Bomber” Longley entered the game, and Texas football legend. The rookie from Abilene Christian led the ‘Pokes to a pair of scoring drives to take the lead, one which Dallas subsequently surrendered in the fourth quarter. Trailing by six, Longley took over with no timeouts and 1:44 left in the game. He hit Bob Hayes on fourth-and-6 for exactly 6 yards — or five and half if you rooted against Dallas (this was long before teams could challenge spots of the ball).
Then Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson on a 50-yard bomb to win the game for the Cowboys, thanks in part to terrible coverage by nickelback Ken Stone. It was a play that lived in infamy in the nation’s capital, one that three subsequent Super Bowls scarcely salved.
Longley barely played after that one shining moment. Staubach returned, and in 1976 he beat up Longley during training camp during a fight over alleged disparaging remarks Longley made about Pearson. A couple of days later, Longley sucker punched Staubach in the locker room, and was quickly booted from the team. An ignominious departure for a Thanksgiving hero, to be sure.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and their Extraordinary Tale of Courage and Survival in WWII, The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.