Thanksgiving is a time of many traditions – family, food, and football. With the exception of New Year’s Day, I don’t think there’s any holiday more closely associated with a sport than Thanksgiving Day is with football. You’re going to be reading a lot about football this week – later on, we’ll be taking a look at this Sunday’s Grey Cup, Canada’s football championship – but right now we’ll settle for one day, and the history that goes with it.
Football has been around on Thanksgiving almost as long as the game has been around. According to this site (which you have to take with a grain of salt; at the very least there seem to have been some English translation challenges) college football championships on Thanksgiving were common by the late 1870s. By the mid-1890s, there were over 5,000 Thanksgiving Day football games across the nation. Most of these games were played between rival high schools or colleges – some of them were even exhibitions, played after the teams’ regular seasons had ended. Football on Thanksgiving was not without controversy, as this story indicates - some thought the game cheapened the sacredness of a day that was meant to give thanks.
As professional football grew in popularity, it was natural that the pro game would appear on Turkey Day as well. Throughout the early days of the NFL, it seems as if almost every team had a game on Thanksgiving. One of the most significant pro games in history was played on Thanksgiving 1925, when the college great Red Grange made his professional debut for the Chicago Bears. Playing before a Wrigley Field crowd of 36,000 – at the time, the largest ever to see a pro football game – Grange’s Bears played their cross-town rivals, the Chicago Cardinals, to a scoreless tie. With this game, both the NFL and its Thanksgiving Day tradition were here to stay.
The NFL website has this great page on the origins of Detroit's Thanksgiving tradition, where the Lions have played every Thanksgiving since 1934; a large part of my childhood holiday memories consist of getting up early on Thursday morning to watch the Detroit Thanksgiving parade on CBS, followed by the morning kickoff of the Lions game. Now, as any football fan can tell you, the Lions haven't been very good very often, and their Thanksgiving Day game is frequently the only time all year they're seen on national television. We are assured by the announcers that the Lions really get up for this game, knowing that it's their one chance to be seen nationwide, and on occasion the Leos really do surprise us.
They certainly surprised the Green Bay Packers in 1962. The Pack and the Lions had played every Thanksgiving since 1951, in a game that had become a tradition. Lombardi's 1962 Packers were perhaps the greatest Packer team of all time; they stormed through six preseason games undefeated, won 13 of 14 regular season games, and bested the New York Giants to claim the NFL title. Their only loss that season was - why else would I bring it up? - to the Lions on Thanksgiving. In one of the most storied Turkey Day games ever played, the Lions sacked Packers QB Bart Starr 11 times (including once for a safety) and totally dominated Green Bay en route to a 26-14 drubbing that wasn't nearly as close as the final score would indicate. (Appropos of the day, one sportswriter said it looked as if Roger Brown and Alex Karras, the Lions' two defensive stars, were ready to take Starr by the legs and make a wish.) It was said that Lombardi was so furious about that loss that he ended the annual Thanksgiving game against the Lions; the teams would play to a lackluster 13-13 tie in 1963 (three days after JFK's funeral) and would not play again on Thanksgiving until 1984.
I was too young for that Packers game, but I remember other classic and not-so-classic moments from Detroit: 1965, when Johnny Unitas led the Colts to a 24-24 tie (I don't know why that games sticks in the memory, but it does - I have a picture of it in one of my scrapbooks); the 1968 game, played in a sea of mud, as Eagles kicker Sam Baker booted four field goals to give Philadelphia a 12-0 victory; 1969, when in the middle of a snowstorm the Vikings' Jim Marshall picked off a pass and then flung it blindly over his shoulder to teammate Alan Page, who took it the rest of the way for a touchdown as the Vikings routed the Lions 27-0 Minnesota win. Frankly, the game lost some of its luster for me in the mid 70s, when the Lions headed indoors to the Silverdome - as you can see, so much of the game's mystique came from the elements; rain and cold, the dying grass and the dusty field, the snow in the air competing with the snowy black-and-white screen, all on a glorious late autumn afternoon.
The other traditional NFL game takes place in Dallas, and they've had their share of memories as well - Clint Longley coming off the bench for an injured Roger Staubach to lead the Pokes past the Redskins in 1974 (it was the high point of Longley's career, which ended after a locker-room fight with Staubach; you don't take a swing at a legend and live to tell about it), Leon Lett botching a missed field goal during a rare snowstorm in 1993 (there's that weather again!), giving the Dolphins second life and a winning field goal - but the game hasn't had the same buzz for me. I probably have better memories of the AFL's annual Thanksgiving games - the Kansas City Chiefs were often the home team, and there was frequently a night game to go along with the matinee. (During the late 60s there were four pro games on Thanksgiving, two in each league - and that didn't count the college games!) In 1965 the Chargers and the Bills, my two favorite AFL teams, played to a 20-20 tie in the nightcap which, coming on top of the Lions-Colts tie earlier that day, might explain why I remember both of those games.
As we mentioned at the top of the article, Thanksgiving Day football really began with colleges, and for so many years Thanksgiving was rivalry day in college football. Texas-Texas A&M, Mississippi-Mississippi State, Oklahoma-Nebraska. just to name a few. Sadly, at least on Thanksgiving, college football has faded from the scene, decreasing so the pro game can increase. But perhaps the greatest football game ever played on Thanksgiving was a college game - the epic "Game of the Century" that truly lived up to its hype, the 1971 showdown between #1 Nebraska and #2 Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.
Both teams came into the game undefeated (and I mean totally undefeated; the smallest margin of victory either team had had that year was 13 points), and had been ranked #1 and #2 virtually the entire season. Nebraska had the nation's #1 ranked defense, Oklahoma the #1 ranked offense. Nebraska, the defending national champion, featured QB Jerry Tagge and future Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers; Oklahoma had future pro great Greg Pruitt and their QB, Jack Mildren, who was perhaps the most gifted ever to direct the famed Wishbone offense. Rodgers dazzled early with an electrifying 72 yard punt return for a touchdown to put the Cornhuskers ahead.
Mildren, who was magnificent the entire day, running for two touchdowns and passing for two more, led Oklahoma back from two double-digit deficits, the last time with an audacious fourth-down pass into the end zone that put the Sooners up 31-28 with seven minutes to play and sent the crowd into hysterics. The exhausted writers in the press box were already calling it the greatest game ever played, but there was still one more act to come. On a day that left everyone totally drained, Nebraska had enough strength to grind out one more drive, taking the ball 74 yards and scoring with under a minute to play to pull out a 35-31 victory. After the game, Dave Kindred of The Sporting News summed it up best, writing, "They can quit playing now, they have played the perfect game." I'd like to say that I saw it all, but the turkey effect took hold of me sometime in the second quarter, and I awoke just in time to see the final Nebraska touchdown that broke the fans' hearts, and my own. (I've got that game on DVD though, which isn't quite the same thing but isn't bad.)
Will we see anything to match that epic, which Dan Jenkins called "The Cream Gravy Game," this Thanksgiving? Probably not, although we should note that the Packers are again playing the Lions on Thursday, and the Pack has its best record at this stage in the season since - you guesed it - 1962, the year of the famed thrashing at the hands of the Lions. So perhaps there is reason to hope after all.
At any rate, I'm willing to bet that at some time during the day on Thursday you'll find yourself with a turkey drumstick in one hand and the TV remote in the other, and I hope you'll take a moment to let that channel light on a football game, and hoist the drumstick in a silent tribute to the marriage of football and Thanksgiving, one of the greatest traditions we have to offer.