Thanksgiving Day professional football games date to 1920. But the modern iteration of the tradition dates to 1934, when Detroit Lions owner George Richards made the holiday game a bonafide institution. Richards, a radio executive, helped line up a 94-station radio network to broadcast nationally a showdown in Detroit between the 10-1 Lions and 11-0 Chicago Bears, the defending NFL champion.
"That was a close, good game, and certainly helped capture the nation's attention as to how exciting the NFL could be," says Pro Football Hall of Fame historian Jon Kendle about the Bears' 19-16 win.
With the exception of 1975 and 1977, the Dallas Cowboys have hosted a Thanksgiving game since 1966. In 2006, the league added a prime-time game. Some Thanksgiving games have been classics. Others were turkeys. Here are seven of the most unforgettable NFL games played on Thanksgiving:
1. Ernie Nevers Scores All 40 Points for Chicago Cardinals
GAME: Chicago Cardinals 40, Chicago Bears 6 (November 29, 1929)
The Cardinals and Bears played each other on Thanksgiving from 1922-33. The performance by the Cardinals' Nevers in his team's win in 1929 stands among the greatest individual performances in league history. On a snow-covered field before 8,000 fans, the Hall of Fame fullback scored all 40 of his team's points—six rushing touchdowns and four extra points.
“From the time Nevers plunged for the first touchdown until he slid over for his sixth in the final period and, then, place kicked the fortieth point, that crowd yelled for more touchdowns,” wrote the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Cardinals fans might not have realized Nevers’ effort was a record, but they were aware they had witnessed something special. “Ernie left the game and how those south siders cheered. And well they might. Forty points plus nineteen points against Dayton last Sunday gave him 59 in a row,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Wilfrid Smith.
2. Vagabond Dallas Texans Win 'Home' Game in Akron, Ohio
GAME: Dallas Texans 27, Chicago Bears 23 (November 27, 1952)
In their only year of existence, the Texans struggled to attract fans and business support, and could not make payroll as a result. That led to the team reverting to the league with five games left in the season. Dallas played its final two “home” games in different cities—one a Thanksgiving matchup with the Bears at Akron’s Rubber Bowl in front of 2,208 fans, roughly 12,000 less than at that morning’s Akron high school championship game.
Despite the surreal backdrop, the game was a thriller.
“The hopeless, homeless, hapless, what-have-you Texans, humiliated and mutilated in nine previous games and hungry enough to eat bear, did just that at the Rubber Bowl Thursday,” wrote the Akron Beacon Journal’s Bill Girgash.
Perhaps because of Dallas’ ineptitude, Chicago coach George Halas started his second string, and paid for it. The Texans jumped to a 20-2 lead, only to see the Bears rally to take a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Dallas quarterback Frank Tripucka’s 1-yard touchdown run with 34 seconds left gave the Texans the only win in their history. Dallas finished the season with a 1-11 record.
3. Green Bay Packers, QB Bart Starr Fall Flat
GAME: Detroit Lions 26, Green Bay Packers 14 (November 22, 1962)
The Packers were a juggernaut in 1962, winning the NFL championship and leading the league in scoring offense and defense. On Thanksgiving, though, the champs were chumps. Detroit’s defense sacked Packers quarterback Bart Starr 11 times and forced him into two interceptions. The game became known as the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre" because of Detroit’s defensive dominance.
“We kicked the hell out of them,” said Detroit defensive lineman Alex Karras.
“We’ll play them anytime," linebacker Joe Schmidt told the Detroit Free Press. “We should be on top, not those guys.”
Roger Brown, the Lions’ 303-pound defensive lineman, was the star of the game with five sacks. "...the reason it wasn’t [close] had to be Big Roger, who likes fast sports cars, motorcycles and seems to have a penchant for chasing and catching stars before dinner,” the Free Press wrote.
Packers coach Vince Lombardi made no excuses for Green Bay’s loss, its only one that season. “They just overwhelmed us,” he said.
4. Backup QB Clint Longley Lifts Dallas Cowboys
GAME: Dallas Cowboys 24, Washington 23 (November 28, 1974)
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Trailing 16-3 in the third quarter and with starting quarterback Roger Staubach knocked out of the game with an injury, things looked bleak for Dallas. But Longley, a rookie from Abilene Christian University, shocked Washington with two touchdown passes, including the 50-yard game-winner to Drew Pearson with 28 seconds left.
“They told me to grab my helmet and get in there,” said Longley, nicknamed by teammates the "Mad Bomber" for his many errant passes in training camp. “I had to find my helmet first … I wasn’t nervous, but I sure was excited.”
Before the game, Washington defensive tackle Dyron Talbert said, “If you knock [Staubach] out, you’ve got that rookie Clint Longley facing you. That’s one of our goals. If we do that, it’s great.”
Those words made the win extra sweet for Staubach. “It is almost more satisfying to win with Longley because of what Talbert said," he said. Cowboys offensive lineman Blaine Nye called Longley's performance "the triumph of an uncluttered mind."
5. Leon Lett's Gaffe Dooms Dallas Cowboys
GAME: Miami Dolphins 16, Dallas Cowboys 14 (November 25, 1993)
With Texas Stadium blanketed by a rare snowstorm, the Dolphins trailed, 14-13, with seconds remaining. Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich's 41-yard field goal attempt was blocked. By rule, the ball would have been declared dead and awarded to the Cowboys once it stopped moving. But Dallas' Lett made a clumsy, sliding attempt to recover it, and in the ensuing chaos, Miami recovered on the 1-yard-line. Then Stoyanovich made the easy kick for the win.
Afterward, Lett’s teammates didn’t rush to his defense. “If you work in a chemical plant, you’ve got to know your chemicals," cornerback Kevin Smith said. "If you’re a doctor, you’ve got to know doctoring. We’re getting paid a lot of money to read the fine print.”
Or, as Dallas special teams coach Joe Avezzano said, “There were 11 guys on the field, and 10 of them knew what to do.”
6. Coin Toss Fiasco Costs Pittsburgh Steelers
GAME: Detroit Lions 19, Pittsburgh Steelers 14 (November 26, 1998)
Pittsburgh and Detroit battled to a 16-16 tie through regulation. For the overtime coin toss to determine who would get the ball first in overtime, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis clearly called "tails." The coin indeed came up tails, but referee Phil Luckett insisted Bettis said “heads” and awarded the Lions the opportunity to receive the kickoff.
Detroit subsequently drove down the field for a winning field goal—overtime was still sudden-death in 1998—and Pittsburgh suffered the first of five straight losses to end its season.
The Steelers fumed afterward. “How do you blow the coin toss?” linebacker Earl Holmes wondered. Of Luckett, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook wrote, “We have no choice but to assume he has a hearing deficiency as well as an eyesight problem.”
Asked whether Luckett may have made a mistake, the Lions' Robert Porcher said, “All I can say is 'Happy Thanksgiving.'”
7. 'Butt Fumble' Blunder of New York Jets' Mark Sanchez
GAME: New England Patriots 49, New York Jets 19 (November 22, 2012)
The Jets trailed 14-0 in the second quarter when Sanchez, on a busted play, ran headlong into the rear end of guard Brandon Moore and fumbled. New England’s Steve Gregory scooped the ball and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown—the third of five Patriots touchdowns in the quarter.
“If one play summed up the M-E-S-S that is the Jets it was a second-quarter running play that ended up with Sanchez as the butt of the offensive joke that is the Jets,” Boston Globe columnist Christopher L. Gasper wrote.
“I’m not a big believer in luck,” Sanchez told the New York Daily News about the gaffe, almost immediately dubbed the "Butt Fumble." "That was pretty unlucky.”
Jets coach Rex Ryan had a saltier description of the blooper-reel classic: “[Expletive] unbelievable."