ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — The NFL played six games on Thanksgiving in 1920. The holiday tradition apparently didn’t settle in until 1934, the year the Detroit Lions were born.
Back then, the Lions were just looking for a way to take some attention from the Detroit Tigers, who were so popular that new football owner George A. Richards thought he needed a diversion even though it was baseball’s offseason.
The game against Chicago was a big success, so the Lions have played on Thanksgiving ever since, save for a six-year gap during World War II. The Dallas Cowboys were invited to join them in 1966.
Every year since 1978, it’s been Lions and Cowboys on turkey day, with the night-time addition of a third game starting in 2006 thanks to the rise of the NFL Network — although the night game now is on NBC.
Not to mention that there are now Thursday night games all season as the league expands its reach.
“It seems like every week a team is playing with the new schedule, but there’s nothing like playing on Thanksgiving,” said Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who is the Thanksgiving leader since 1960 with 62 catches in 10 games and has 679 yards receiving and three touchdowns. “Every kid, I’m sure, growing up, I was no different. That’s what you love. Your family eats and you watch the Cowboys play. It’s special to be in that game.”
And there have been a few special moments — or not so special, depending on your point of view — along the way.
LONGLEY TO PEARSON: This is No. 1 on the NFL’s list of Thanksgiving moments. Clint Longley, filling in for an injured Roger Staubach, threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with 28 seconds left in a 24-23 Dallas victory over Washington in 1974. That game as much as any other helped turn Cowboys-Redskins into one of football’s best rivalries.
They almost had a reprise last year when the Cowboys cut a 28-3 deficit to 35-28 in the fourth quarter, but Robert Griffin III led a drive that put it away.
SAY IT AIN’T SO, LEON: Cowboys fans will never forget Leon Lett awkwardly sliding on the snow-covered turf of Texas Stadium in 1993, trying to cover up a ball he wasn’t supposed to touch after Dallas blocked a Miami field goal for an apparent victory. Lett’s move made it a live ball, and the Dolphins recovered at the 1. With a second chance, Pete Stoyanovich kicked a 19-yard field goal as time expired for a 16-14 win.
TOSS THAT TURNED A GAME: Coin tosses were changed forever when referee Phil Luckett didn’t hear Jerome Bettis correctly on the flip for overtime in the 1998 game between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Players generally made the head/tails call with the coin in the air, and Luckett thought he heard “heads.” The coin came up tails, and audio evidence backed Bettis’ claim that he said “tails,” although some said it sounded like Bettis changed his mind mid-word and said something resembling “heh-tails.” Regardless, Detroit got the ball and kicked the field goal for a 19-16 win.
In today’s game, refs make sure they have the call before they toss the coin, and overtime rules now give the team that doesn’t get the ball first a chance to match an opening field goal in the extra period.