The connection between Thanksgiving and football is so old that it predates football. Wait, what?
Yes, the very first intercollegiate football game ever played, happened on November 17, 1869, just six years after President Abraham Lincoln declared a fixed date to the national Thanksgiving holiday. Mind you, when Rutgers defeated Princeton that day in New Jersey, the game which the newspaper described as “Foot Ball” wasn’t exactly the modern game.
While the forward pass wouldn’t come along for another decade and a half, the evolution of the new sport went hand in hand with Thanksgiving. Schools soon started scheduling matches with their top rival, like the first series of games between Yale and Princeton starting in 1876.
Thanksgiving even introduced one of the earliest fixing scandals in football history. In 1906, an Ohio newspaper claimed the Canton Bulldogs and Massillon Tigers conspired to fix a series of games where the Bulldogs would win the first, the Tigers the second and the tie-breaker, to be played on Thanksgiving Day, would bring a record number of attendees.
After all, the event was soaring in popularity. Pictured above is the second game of the series with an estimated attendance of 8,000. Once the accusations of game fixing were published though, the damage was done. By the time Thanksgiving day arrived, fans were turned off by the allegations, and attendance was so low that Canton could not even pay their players. Despite a lifetime of investigation after the fact, the story still remains disputed.
Though that scandal knocked Ohio football back several years, leagues throughout the country highlighted games on Thanksgiving, often using the date to settle championships. Like in 1919, when the Buffalo Prospects challenged the Rochester Jeffersons for the title of the New York Pro Football League. That one ended in a 0-0 tie and they had to play the following week, but they certainly wanted to finish it on Thanksgiving.
The Pros Jump On Board
Once football’s popularity grew broadly enough to support a fully national league, its originators were all for showcasing games on Thanksgiving. In its inaugural season the American Professional Football Association showcased six games that day. Behold the scoreboard excitement of November 25, 1920:
|Decatur Staleys 6
Chicago Tigers 0
|Hammond Pros 0
Chicago Boosters 27
|Canton Bulldogs 0
Akron Pros 7
|Detroit Heralds 0
Dayton Triangles 28
|Columbus Panhandles 0
Elyria Athletics 0
|All Tonawanda 14
Rochester Jeffersons 3
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That first game up there was said to be a legendary “death match” between the two cross-town rival teams, where the loser would close up shop and cease to exist as a franchise. That may be a myth, but the Tigers never played another APFA game and the Decatur Staleys moved to Chicago.
The next year, one of the first known major Thanksgiving upsets in football history occurred with those same Chicago Staleys. On November 24, 1921, the league-favorite Chicago Staleys brought their 6-0 season-long winning streak to a Thanksgiving match against the upstart Buffalo All-Americans. So upset were the Staleys at losing, they challenged the All-Americans to a rematch. While that kind of thing was permissible in the early twenties, the confusion that later occurred would become known as the “Staley Swindle”. The rematch, later played out in December, would be counted in the standings despite Buffalo being told it was an exhibition rematch. The Chicago Staleys were awarded the league championship in the face of Buffalo’s protests.
Surely there’s more to the story, but the Staleys did change their name for the following season. It’s unclear if they did so to distance themselves from the bad taste generated by claiming that 1921 APFA title. Either way, they renamed themselves after some animal (the Bear), and the league changed its name and operating procedures so it wouldn’t go bankrupt the following year.
The National League of Football
Early schedules for the emerging National Football League were even more fluid than the current 2020 one in a pandemic. Nonetheless, teams made Thanksgiving a centerpiece of their schedule. Throughout the 1920s, the majority of teams played on Thanksgiving Thursday — with most of them playing the following Sunday as well. As many as a half dozen NFL games would be scheduled for Thanksgiving day, with owners anxiously anticipating if the holiday would positively or negatively impact attendance.
Even as the Great Depression struck, America’s love of football broadened as a low-cost form of entertainment for the masses, and the crowds continued to grow. The crowd that gathered at Comiskey Park on November 28, 1929 were treated to a Thanksgiving woodshed moment that somehow still stands as a modern record. In that game, where the Chicago Cardinals beat the Chicago Bears 40-6, Ernie Nevers ran for six touchdowns and kicked four of the extra-point attempts himself. Presumably, he missed the other two, but his single-game record of 40 points stands as the most points by one player in any game. Ever. (A year or so from now when Patrick Mahomes inadvertently breaks this record with seven touchdowns, Andy Reid should honor the moment and let him try and kick the extra point. Just saying.)
It’s a Good Gimmick
The owner of the Portsmouth Spartans, George Richards, wasn’t satisfied in 1933. Though his team hadn’t scheduled any Thanksgiving-day games in the team’s brief three-year existence, they had bigger plans. Richards also owned and operated radio station WJR, a technology now taking over the country with operators forming networks of stations like the Blue Network, of which WJR was a part.
Richards’ idea to broadcast a game nationally wasn’t new, but his first try to reach out to a national Thanksgiving audience yielded good enough ratings numbers to keep going. The game itself that day, November 29, 1934, didn’t turn out so well for the Portsmouth Spartans, who at this point in the story have changed their name to the Lions and moved to Detroit. They wouldn’t know it at the time, but that nationally-broadcast game would launch nearly a century of mediocrity on Thanksgiving hosted by the Detroit Lions — and, of course, they lost that first game 16-19 to the Chicago Bears. Though we trace today’s opening Turkey Day event all the way back to this game, it was one of many celebrated by NFL fans on Thanksgiving every year, until something happened.
That something was a proclamation made in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving back a week in the calendar. Political outrage ensued, and with some states openly protesting the decision, owners shied from making Thanksgiving such a scheduling centerpiece. They still played a couple of games in that 1939-1940 time period, but by then, of course, the dark cloud of World War II loomed just across the ocean, and the Fuhrer would steal the football tradition for four long years.
Curiously, when the 1945 schedule played out, the only team playing on Thanksgiving Day was the same one who had been broadcasting theirs on national radio networks for seven years before the war. On November 22, 1945 those Detroit Lions hosted the Cleveland Rams, now with a much larger radio audience than a decade before. This larger audience heard them lose 21-28.
Most Points Ever
If this game did have a total given to it by bookmakers, it’s lost in the historical record. But on November 22, 1951 the Green Bay Packers hobbled into Detroit for a 52-35 barnburner that stands as the most points scored in a Thanksgiving Day game. (Somehow we’ve tricked the Google machine into believing a game from 1986 has more points, so — shhhh…)
Pardon the Turkey
In their first and last year of existence, the Dallas Texans really cashed it in. A replacement team in the expanding National Football Conference, Dallas firmly established itself as the professional doormat with an 0-9 record in which they never threatened to win a game. Faced with a final 0-12 record, it would have stood as the worst in professional history.
On the cusp of folding up near the end of the season, they were forced to move their Week 10 match to a new location. That location, chosen partly to suit their opponent the Chicago Bears, was the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, and the date was November 27, 1952. The Rubber Bowl had already scheduled a popular high-school match that day, but the Texans were able to lease the field afterwards. The Bears thought it such a farce that they allowed most of their starters to opt out of the game, largely the backups travelling to the match.
Almost needless to say, that plan went poorly. Caught sleeping on the Texans, the Bears trailed by 18 points going into the fourth. Chicago promptly scored three consecutive touchdowns to take the lead, but the Texans mounted a fourth-quarter comeback scoring the game-winning touchdown with a 27-23 final.
When TV was Black & White and the Lions were Good
The age of televised football began in 1953. Fortunately for the Lions, that was the era of Bobby Layne, and their November 26, 1953 victory over the Green Bay Packers 34-15 on Thanksgiving that year is a bit of a high watermark. It would be their second consecutive year as league champions and they would go on for a decade to be a highlight of Thanksgiving television.
For that string of years their common Thanksgiving opponent was the Green Bay Packers. At least up until 1963, which might have had something to do with the previous year’s game. That one, on November 22, 1962 welcomed coach Vince Lombardi and the eventual 1962-champion Packers under quarterback Bart Starr.
The defensive beatdown that followed became known as the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” with defensive end Roger Brown contributing to seven of the eventual 11 sacks on Starr that day, including one in the end zone for a safety. Any surviving Lions fans to have witnessed the game still hold the 26-14 game amongst their fondest memories.
Super Bowl Era Turkey Day
After a generation of successful broadcast games on Thanksgiving, then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle sought to expand the schedule by another game. He found it in a struggling team founded only six years before, first under the name the Steers, then the Rangers before finally settling on the Cowboys.
Having finally grown out of an awkward start in 1960, followed by a half dozen losing years (including the first 0-11 season outside of wartime) the Dallas Cowboys were on the brink of becoming competitive. On November 24, 1966 they proved it by thumping the Cleveland Browns 26-14 in the first televised second-Thanksgiving game of the day. (They sacked Browns’ quarterback Frank Ryan five times.)
One of the strongest moments of Cowboys’ nostalgia happened on November 28, 1974, when starting quarterback Roger Staubach got his bell rung in the third quarter (allegedly a result of a bounty) which knocked him partly out and fully out of the game. Enter Clint Longley, who led the Cowboys to a comeback from a 13-point deficit, eventually ending in a 50-yard touchdown pass with 30 seconds remaining.
It would be two decades before the Cowboys would post a losing record again, so it came as a bit of a surprise to the franchise when in 1975 the league scheduled the St. Louis Cardinals as the hosts of the second Thanksgiving game. The Cards lost to the Buffalo Bills 14-32, and the league slated the St. Louis Cardinals again for Thanksgiving, this time hosted by the Cowboys. (Again, the Cardinals lost 14-19.) Thinking the third time would be the charm, they once again had the Cardinals host the Miami Dolphins. On November 24, 1977, the Dolphins curb-stomped the Cards to a 55-14 final, the worst beating in Thanksgiving history at that time.
Rozelle, then, turned back to the Cowboys as host, and they in turn received a guarantee as permanent Thanksgiving day hosts.
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While all that was happening, O.J. Simpson put up a one-day effort that seared the record books of the day when he carried the ball for 273 yards on 29 carries scoring the team’s two touchdowns and only points Thanksgiving day November 25, 1976.
Sadly, Bills’ quarterback Gary Marangi would connect on only five of his 21 pass attempts that day — and one of those was to Detroit defender James Hunter. Despite the record-book effort, the Bills lost 14-27 to the Lions.
First and Shortest
Overtime had only been a regular-season rule since 1974, so it was only a matter of time before some game would come to the end of regulation in a draw. So it happened on November 27, 1980 when the Lions hosted the Bears and the two teams carried a 17-all score into vaunted overtime. The excitement was short lived, as Bears’ kick returner Dave Williams caught the opening overtime kickoff at the 5-yard line and took all of 13 seconds to hustle his way into the end zone.
The Other High-Scoring Game
On November 27, 1986 Green Bay came to Detroit to play the Lions to a 44-40 firefight. Quarterbacks Randy Wright and Joe Ferguson combined for six touchdowns in a game that saw four lead changes. It remains the second-highest scoring total on Thanksgiving.
The Dallas Cowboys had just been sold to new owner Jerry Jones, who had been busy in the offseason gutting the team in preparation for his rebuild. The division-rival Philadelphia Eagles under Buddy Ryan offered the Cowboys no mercy that rebuilding year, beating them to a 27-0 final on November 23, 1989.
The unusually heated game even for these opponents ended with a player brawl in the endzone, followed by accusation from Cowboy’s coach Jimmie Johnson that the Eagles placed bounties on their players — notably one on quarterback Troy Aikman for $500, and another on poor kicker Luis Zendejas for $200. (Zendejas wa 5’9” and weighed a buck seventy-five.)
The series continued that year with Bounty Bowl II and the oddly named Porkchop Bowl, all of which could use its own documentary.
The Infamous Leon Lett Snow Game
It has no nickname. It was so absurd it defied one. So we just name it after the guy who did the thing.
The thing happened on a freakishly cold Thanksgiving day in Dallas on November 25, 1993. The snow-covered field made for comically bad footing and conservative playing conditions. (The total was 37, if that gives you an idea, and the Cowboys were somehow double-digit favorites.)
The Dolphins took an early lead, but fell to a 7-14 deficit at the half. Their second-half scores were all field goals, which could have won had the third one not been blocked, falling to the field with just a few seconds left in the game. The announcers declare that Dallas will win 14-13 and then —
Unthinkably, Leon Lett ran towards the ball and slid into it, making it a live ball before it’s otherwise blown dead. Miami special teams had the sense to grab the ball, and by the time the officials sort out what happened, Miami is in possession of the ball, this time from the seven-yard line with three seconds left.
The second field goal try was good, and the Dolphins pulled off the shocker win 16-14.
Certainly the Bears were not their best selves in 1997 when they traveled to Detroit to play the Lions. The Lions themselves were only a .500 team (though they would secure a wild-card game that year). Nevertheless, they were eight-point favorites over the Bears and responded in kind.
On November 27, 1997, the Bears took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Then, in his greatest Thanksgiving performance, Barry Sanders rushed for 167 yards on 19 carries, scoring three touchdowns and stomping the Bears in a 55-20 final.
Those who weren’t alive long enough to remember the great Packers’ beatdown of ‘62 hold this among the most cherished of the Lions’ memories.
The Coin-Toss Mishap
Sometimes events occur in games that are most memorable because they lead to rule changes. Such is the case with arguably the most infamous event in Thanksgiving history, the coin-toss mishap.
On November 26, 1998, Detroit faced a tough opponent in the Pittsburgh Steelers who they played tough enough to drag the game into a 16-16 overtime tie. When the team captains met for the pre-overtime coin toss, Steelers’ captain Jerome Bettis wasn’t exactly clear on his call as the coin was in the air. (Various audio sources sound like he says “heads-tails” as though to change his mind at the last moment.)
Regardless of what he said, referee Phil Luckett heard “heads” and the coin landed tails. Protests from the Steelers fell on deaf officials’ ears as the coin-toss ceremony was promptly wrapped up, giving the Lions first possession. (In those days, overtime was sudden-death.)
The Lions demonstrated how the coin-toss winner held a distinct advantage under those rules, taking the ball into field-goal range on their first drive and kicking the winning score, making the final 19-16.
The controversy would change the ritual of the postgame coin-toss to require teams to clearly state the call before the coin was flipped in the air from that point on.
How About Three Games?
Never an organization to turn down money, the NFL launched a third Thanksgiving-day game in 2006, and used the opportunity to demonstrate to the American viewing audience how many of them did not have the NFL Network.
Thursday Night Football debuted on November 23, 2006 featuring the Kansas City Chiefs as the first in a series of rotating hosts for a third primetime Thanksgiving game. (How did it take them that long?) The Chiefs covered as one-point favorites that night, 19-10.
As the years passed, many NFL fans weren’t happy with shelling out extra cable fees in order to have the NFL Network, itself deemed a specialty channel in a long-standing spat with cable providers. Long story even longer, NBC would acquire the rights to the primetime Thanksgiving game six years later when the original NFL Network contract expired. That, of course, led to the third game of Thanksgiving to be shared with a far wider audience starting in 2012. Which led to the greatest, or at least most memorable moment, in Thanksgiving football memory…
The Butt Fumble
For the debut of NBC’s football product on November 22, 2012, the world turned its eyes to New York where the Jets would host the New England Patriots. Now, spoiler alert — the Patriots would go on to score 35 (!) points in the second quarter. The game would end with them winning 49-19. NBC would be mortified their launch game was such a dud.
That said, the game brought us the “Butt Fumble” which shall remain in infamy if only because it became instant meme material in the social-media age. The set up, of course, is a Jets team already down 14-0 in the second quarter.
Out of the I formation, Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez fakes a pitch to the tailback and a handoff to the fullback. The double play action doesn’t fool the defense, and Sanchez is left in the backfield alone. Before the pocket can collapse, Sanchez seems to panic and makes a break for it.
In front of him, right guard Brandon Moore is holding off Vince Wilfork at the line, as Sanchez inexplicably clotheslines himself on Moore’s butt.
It’s a Thanksgiving tradition to relive the fumble each November.
The Next 100
Thanksgiving football shows no signs of decline, and this one will mark the first time in 14 years only a double-header will be played. Here’s to hoping for a return to normal, a Thanksgiving triple-header in 2021 and a hundred more years of crazy football plays on a late Thursday in November.