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NFL Thanksgiving Day Football History, Trivia, and Fun Facts

The NFL has played Pro Football on Thanksgiving since 1920, although records indicate that “professional” football that pre-dates the NFL was played on Thanksgiving as early as 1892. We’ve pulled together some fun facts and history about the NFL’s traditional Thanksgiving Day Games that you may not have known.

NFL Thanksgiving Game Facts & Trivia

If you are any kind of football fan, you probably already know that the NFL traditionally hosts Thanksgiving Day games in both Detroit and Dallas. Since 2006, there has also been a Thursday evening game played at various locations. Here are some lesser know facts about the NFL’s holiday tradition.

  • The Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars have never played on Thanksgiving Day. The Houston Texans made their first franchise appearance in 2012 vs. the Lions.
  • The Detroit Lions have the most wins on Thanksgiving (34), as well as the most losses (38).
  • The tradition of the Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day began in 1934. The Lions have played on every Thanksgiving Day since 1934, except during 1941-1944 when no games were played due to WWII.
  • The Dallas Cowboys have the 2nd most Thanksgiving wins behind Detroit. The Cowboys are 29-16-1 all-time.
  • The tradition of the Dallas Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving day began in 1966 when the Cowboys were still part of the AFL.
  • The St. Louis Cardinals replaced the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving during the 1975 and 1977 seasons. Dallas has hosted in every other year since 1966.
  • Troy Aikman’s 455 passing yards vs. Minnesota in 1998 is most of any QB on Thanksgiving.
  • Ernie Nevers holds the record for most touchdowns during a Thanksgiving game with 6 in 1929. The modern day mark is held by Sterling Sharpe who scored 4 TDs vs. Detroit in 1994.
  • The Green Bay Packers have the 2nd most Turkey Day losses with 19.
  • Tampa Bay & Cincinnati are the only current NFL teams to play on Thanksgiving and not have at least one win. They are both 0-1.
  • OJ Simpson has the most rushing yards in a single Thanksgiving Day game with 273 vs. Detroit in 1976.
  • The Vikings have the highest winning percentage of any team on Thanksgiving with more than 1 appearance. They are 5-1 all-time.
  • The record for most pass receptions in a game is 12 by both Colts WR Marvin Harrison (2004 vs Detroit) and Lions WR Brett Perriman (1995 vs Minnesota).
  • The most receiving yards on Thanksgiving was 303 by Cleveland’s Jim Benton in 1945. The most since then was 185 by San Diego’s Lance Alworth vs. Buffalo in 1964 and 184 yards by Minnesota’s Anthony Carter in 1987 vs Dallas.
  • The Redskins are 1-6 on Thanksgiving for a .143 winning percentage.
  • The Chargers have not played on Thanksgiving in over 40 years (1969), and have not appeared since the AFL-NFL merger.
  • In 1998, Dallas’ Troy Aikman (455 yards) and Minnesota’s Randall Cunningham (359 yards) combined for 814 yards passing in a single game.
  • Other than the Cowboys who have done it three times, the Dolphins are the only other team to win a Thanksgiving day game, and the Super Bowl in the same season. Miami did it in the 1973 season when they beat Dallas 14-7 on Thanksgiving, and then won Super Bowl VIII over the Vikings 24-7.
  • From 2006-2011 the NFL Network broadcast the Thanksgiving evening game. Beginning in 2012, NBC will broadcast the Thanksgiving evening game.
  •  “Red” Grange made his professional football debut for the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving in 1925.

Brief History of Thanksgiving Game Awards

It may seem like these often goofy awards have been around forever, but the tradition of a Thanksgiving Day award began in 1989. John Madden (then with CBS and later with Fox) began awarding the “Turkey Leg” to the player chosen as the MVP of the game. The initial recipient was Hall of Fame Defensive End Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Galloping Gobbler replaced the Turkey Leg in 2002. The Trophy has gone through a few changes since over the years. It initially consisted of a Turkey in a Heisman-Trophy-like pose.

gobbler

The “Gobbler” later switched to a bronze-like statue of a Turkey with a football.

In 2011, the look of the Galloping Gobler switched to a clear plaque with an engraved image of a turkey.

When NBC broadcast the AFC games, they never had an award. After CBS took over broadcast rights for the AFC games, they started awarding the All-Iron Award in 1998 with Phil Simms as the presenter. The All-Iron Trophy is a metal iron on a wood base. Herman Moore of the Detroit Lions was the first recipient.

all-iron

Random Thanksgiving Award Facts:
  • Emmitt Smith has won the Turkey Leg / Galloping Gobbler 5 times
  • Herman Moore of the Detroit Lions has won both the Turkey Leg and the All-Iron Award
  • Tony Romo & DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys have won both the Galloping Gobbler and the All-Iron Award
  • Randy Moss has won or shared the Turkey Leg award in both his Thanksgiving Day appearances (1998 & 2000)

Memorable Moments

1974 – Clint Longley: One Hit Wonder

With the Cowboys trailing 23-3, unknown backup Clint Longley entered the game for the injured Roger Staubach and led Dallas to a 24-23 victory.

clint-longleyl

Watch Clint Longley’s comeback at NFL.com

1993 – Leon Can’t “Lett” it Be

On a snowy Thanksgiving day in Dallas in 1993, the Cowboys were clinging to a 14-13 lead with under 20 seconds left as Miami lined up for a game winning field goal try. After the Cowboys blocked the kick, apparently clinching a win, Leon Lett inexplicably slid into the football, making it a live ball which was recovered by the Dolphins. Miami made a field goal on the next play to win the game in a most improbable way.
Leon Lett

Watch the video of Leon Lett’s Thanksgiving Day blunder at NFL.com

1998 – Jerome Bettis Calls “Tails,” referee Phil Luckett says he called “Heads.”

On the overtime coin flip, Bettis can be heard calling “Tails,” but the official claims he said “Heads.” Apparently, Bettis did say heads and then changed it to tails, but all you heard on the audio is heads.

bettis-tailsl

The Lions went on to win the game in OT, 19-16. See the video of the coin flip at nfl.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/ConnieBudin Connie Budin

    This truly makes me sound American when I say that I cannot picture a Thanksgiving without watching NFL football. Nor do I think my cousins could live without yelling at the TV after they finish their Thanksgiving feast! To me, NFL football on Thanksgiving is just as much a tradition as the Macy’s Day Parade, fall colors and symbols, and the trademark mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, gravy, and pumpkin pie.

    Your fun facts gave a light spirit to the rivalry games that take place each year.

    As much as I enjoy watching these football games with my family, I cannot help but wonder if these players and coaches would like the same. Thanksgiving is a time for being thankful for what you have in your life, and when you don’t get to acknowledge that by spending time with them, I honestly don’t see a point. I often find myself wonder “Is this what the players want to do on a holiday?” after the night game is complete.

    I know that some families make an event out of the holiday, traveling to attend a game and cheer on their favorite team, but I am going to stick to my roots on this one. I will grab my full plate of food and continue to race my brother to the best seat in front of the fireplace and TV to continue our tradition of family, food, AND football, all in one location.

    Happy Thanksgiving!