For more than a century, Americans have made pigskin a part of their Turkey Day traditions, and the NFL has returned the favor by dishing out plenty of great games and memorable moments. From record-book performances and brotherly love to bounty bowls and boneheaded blunders – and just about everything in-between – football always seems to be at its best on Thanksgiving. Though maybe that’s just the tryptophan talking.
So to get you ready for a day full of football, here are some of the highs and lows from Thanksgivings past. Loosen your belt and dive right in – there are no turkeys here.
The Turkey Tie
Bears vs. Lions, November 27, 1980
This Thanksgiving showdown between Chicago and Detroit is notable for a few reasons. For starters, there was the Bears’ comeback – down 17-3 in the fourth quarter, Chicago tied it up when quarterback Vince Evans scrambled for a four-yard touchdown. That led to overtime – a first for both the NFL’s Thanksgiving slate and Detroit’s Silverdome – though if you blinked, you missed history: Chicago’s Dave Williams returned the opening kickoff of OT for a touchdown, giving the Bears a 23-17 win.
The Walter Stanley Game
Packers vs. Lions, November 27, 1986
On paper, it looked like a real turkey: The 2-10 Packers at the 5-7 Lions. What we got instead was the highest scoring Thanksgiving game in history, a wild 44-40 shootout the Pack won thanks in no small amount to wide receiver Walter Stanley, who caught two touchdown passes and scored a third on an 83-yard punt return. It was the only kick he’d ever return for a touchdown during his career – and his two TD grabs that day accounted for 40 percent of his career total: five.
The Bounty Bowl
Eagles vs. Cowboys, November 23, 1989
The Eagles’ 27-0 destruction of the Cowboys was noteworthy enough, but it’s what Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said after the game that really raised eyebrows. Obviously upset, Johnson accused Philly coach Buddy Ryan of taking out a bounty on two players, star quarterback Troy Aikman and kicker Luis Zendejas. “I have absolutely no respect for the way they played the game,” Johnson griped. “I would have said something to Buddy but he wouldn’t stand on the field long enough. He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room.” (Ryan’s response: “I resent that. I’ve been on a diet.”)
The Leon Lett Play (The Other One)
Dolphins vs. Cowboys, November 25, 1993
Leon Lett played 11 seasons in the NFL, and made two Pro Bowls. But the former Cowboys defensive tackle will forever be remembered for two major in-game gaffes. The first, of course, took place during Super Bowl XXVII, when Lett scooped up a fumble and began rumbling for a touchdown – only to start showboating and have the ball stripped from behind by Bills wide receiver Don Beebe. The second took place a mere 11 months later. With less than 15 seconds remaining in their Thanksgiving game, the ‘Boys led the Dolphins 14-13, and after they blocked Miami’s field goal attempt, victory appeared to be theirs – after all, NFL rules say possession goes to the team that blocked the try. But then, Lett came flying in from out of nowhere, attempted to pick up the ball and slipped on the field. The Dolphins pounced on the now live ball, giving kicker Pete Stoyanovich another shot at making a game-winner. Which he did.
The Harbowl: Part One
49ers vs. Ravens, November 24, 2011
Most families celebrate Thanksgiving by arguing around the dinner table, but for the Harbaughs, Turkey Day 2011 was different, as brothers Jim and John squared off as opposing head coaches – the first time in NFL history two siblings faced each other as head coaches. In what turned out to be a preview of Super Bowl XLVII, John’s Ravens defeated Jim’s 49ers 16-6, and afterward when the coaches shook each other’s hands the field microphones picked up Jim telling John, “I’m proud of you. I love you too.” See, it is possible to get along on Thanksgiving.
The Butt Fumble
Patriots vs. Jets, November 22, 2012
If you want a play that sums up not only the recent fortunes of the New York Jets, but former first-round pick Mark Sanchez, too, look no further than “the Butt Fumble.” In front of a crowd of 79,000 at MetLife Stadium and millions watching around the world, Sanchez took a snap and apparently turned the wrong way, which led to him having nobody to throw the ball to except himself. As a result (and this is where you can cue up “Yakety Sax“), he collided directly with teammate Brandon Moore’s backside, which knocked the ball of Sanchez’s hands. The Patriots scooped up the ball and ran it in for a score – perhaps the biggest indignity in a game that ended in a 49-19 New England victory.