As a kid, we always had Thanksgiving out at my grandpa’s farm. We made the two-hour drive on Wednesday night so my mom could rise early the next day to start the cooking.
Thanksgiving was about family, eating and three football games. I was a diehard Cowboys fan growing up and I counted down the minutes until Dallas kicked off in the second game of the day. We usually ate around halftime of the first game – no one was ever upset that the feast pulled us away from the Lions and whichever team was in the process of pounding them in the Silverdome.
The third game of the day? The two-on-two football game out in the yard in the late afternoon. I teamed up with my uncle Jerry against his two older brothers – my dad and uncle Mike. We had youth and fresher legs, they had experience and no desire to lose to a little brother or a son, not even if it would boost our self-confidence. I think they had the benefit of the calls, too. We won some, they won some, I remember us winning more, but that might not be right.
Those games remain etched in my memory, played in front of grandpa, cousins and moms. But so do the ones played by the pros earlier in the day, whether it’s Chicago’s famous kickoff return for a touchdown in overtime against the Lions in 1980 or the various times the Vikings dismantled the Cowboys.
Here, then, a look back at some of the more famous moments from those Thanksgiving games – the ones played by the pros.
* It seems like Dallas has hosted a game ever since Tom Landry first donned his hat and grimace and took over the Cowboys. But they actually didn’t play on Thanksgiving in 1975 or 1977. Instead, St. Louis took over as the other host team, in addition to Detroit. St. Louis, the franchise that back then – and, aside from the Super Bowl run a few years ago, still is – was one of the worst in the league. Lions and Cardinals on Thanksgiving; probably made millions sick. The Cardinals didn’t fare well in either game, dropping a 32-14 game to the Bills in ’75 and a 55-14 thrashing against Miami two years later. Bob Griese threw six touchdown passes for the Dolphins in that victory. The NFL finally stepped in and put St. Louis – and America – out of its misery and Dallas has again hosted it every year since 1978.
* Give the Cowboys credit. In 1998, against the high-powered Minnesota Vikings, who set an NFL record for most points in a season, they held rookie sensation Randy Moss to three catches.
The problem, of course, was that all three catches went for scores, each more impressive than the last. Moss burst onto the scene earlier that season with his dominance in the rain against the two-time NFC champion Packers, but it was this Thanksgiving game that proved once and for all there was no one else like him in the league and might not have been anyone like him in NFL history. Three catches for 163 yards and three TDs in a 46-36 victory. The third catch, when he simply hauls in a short pass and then sprints down the sideline, cruising in despite racing past defenders with perfect angles, is the most unbelievable one, although the Cowboys’ lack of coverage on the first TD is sort of unreal as well.
Totally forgotten number from that game: Troy Aikman set a Cowboys record with 455 passing yards. Moss also overshadowed teammate Cris Carter, who had seven catches for 135 yards and a 54-yard touchdown.
* A decade earlier, the Vikings also put up big numbers in Dallas, winning 44-38 in overtime against a Cowboys team that was in the final days – though not yet the final year – of the Landry era. Anthony Carter did his best Randy Moss impression in that game, catching eight passes for 184 yards and two TDs. Darrin Nelson won the game with a 24-yard TD run in OT. A few months later he dropped the pass that cost the Vikings a shot at the NFC title.
* The Saints, Bengals and Tampa Bay have all appeared only once on Thanksgiving – New Orleans and Cincy both last year. The Panthers, Jaguars and Texans have yet to appear in their short histories. The Chargers only played as an AFL team, never as an NFL franchise.
* Clint Longley remains perhaps the most notorious Thanksgiving Day hero, both for his performance in the 1974 game and his subsequent…career. The rookie Longley came in for an injured Roger Staubach and rallied the Cowboys to victory, capping it with a 50-yard TD to Drew Pearson with less than 30 seconds remaining. Two years later, Dallas traded him after Longley punched Staubach in a training camp dispute. What would be the modern equivalent of that event, one that would cause Skip Bayless to take hostages on First & 10 until ESPN devoted a special 23-hour debate about the incident? It’d be like Ryan Mallett decking Tom Brady.
* Leon Lett’s a strange goat. He’s responsible for two of the most famous gaffes in NFL history, yet neither one kept his team from winning a title. This isn’t Bartman or Buckner or Chris Webber calling a timeout or Fred Brown throwing a pass to the wrong team or Scott Norwood missing a kick or the Rangers blowing a pair of two-run leads. Yet Lett’s mishaps are nearly as memorable, even though they came for title-winning teams.
In the 1993 Super Bowl, Lett got stripped at the goal line by a hustling Don Beeee as he romped in for a sure touchdown. The play should have been nothing but a footnote, coming at the end of a 52-17 Dallas victory. Instead it’s probably the most famous play from that game. Name another one you remember.
A year later, he did it again, this time knocking the ball after the Cowboys blocked a Dolphins kick in the snow in Texas. The brain lock allowed Miami to kick another field goal, one that won the game. The loss dropped the Cowboys to 7-4. It was their last loss of the year as they went on to finish 12-4 in the regular season, followed by a march to the Super Bowl, where Lett played a key role.
He became one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league, big and quick. Unfortunately, drug problems led to his demise, meaning in addition to being remembered for two debacles, he’s also known for lost potential.
* Once I started working in newspapers, my Thanksgiving evenings usually ended in the office, even though the only things happening in the sports world took place in the afternoon in Detroit and Dallas. Easy nights, though it was always tough to leave the family, if I was even with them at all. Cold turkey brought in by kind co-workers at 8 p.m. just isn’t the same as the real thing served at noon.
I’ll spend this Thanksgiving in New York City. In place of turkey we’re having KFC. There are now three NFL games instead of just the two during the day. All are fairly intriguing. There might be epic passing performances or baffling mistakes. There could be an errant coin toss or a backup who steals the show.
Still, I’ll miss the Fury family showdown. I don’t think my dad and uncle would have a chance these days.