Thanksgiving: 6 classic and unforgettable moments from past NFL Turkey Day games


Thanksgiving Day football is a long-running tradition in the NFL. The first-ever Thanksgiving game in the NFL happened the year the league was established.

Since 1934, the Detroit Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game, except for 1939 to 1944 due to World War II. 

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys kicked off home games on Thanksgiving Day. The team has continued to play on Turkey Day almost every year, except in 1975 and 1977, when the St. Louis Cardinals were awarded the games. 

The Cowboys and the Lions continue to play each year on Thanksgiving against various opponents. Since 2006, a third team has been on the Thanksgiving Day lineup, but there is no specific team that hosts the game. Every NFL team has played on the holiday, except for the Jackson Jaguars.

Here are unforgettable Thanksgiving Day NFL moments pulled from years past.

A close up of a football on a field

The Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions host a Thanksgiving game every year. (Scott W. Grau / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images / File)

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  1. The remarkable rookie, Clint Longley
  2. First Turkey Day game in overtime
  3. Moss magic
  4. Coin toss confusion
  5. Peyton Manning ties Bob Griese for TD record
  6. The “butt fumble”

1. The remarkable rookie, Clint Longley

In 1974, a Thanksgiving game was played between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.

Cowboys’ starting quarterback Roger Staubach suffered a head injury during the game, and rookie Clint Longley played in his place.

Upon Longley’s entry into the game, the team was trailing 16-3. Longley was able to get the ball to Billy Joe DuPree who scored a touchdown, bringing the score up to 16-10.

Washington was up 23-17 with under 30 seconds left on the clock, but a 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson ended in victory for the Cowboys.

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The final score of the game was 24-23.

Clint Longley of the Dallas Cowboys

Clint Longley became an unlikely hero during a Thanksgiving Day battle between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins in 1974. (Heinz Kluetmeier / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images / File)

2. First Turkey Day game in overtime

In 1980, families everywhere had to wait a little longer to get their hands on turkey and stuffing as the Thanksgiving game went to overtime for the very first time in history. Overtime wasn’t added to game day regulations until 1974, so there were few Thanksgiving Day game days when this was an option.

The Chicago Bears were trailing the Detroit Lions, 17-3. There were six seconds left on the clock when Bears quarterback Vince Evans dove into the end zone. His four-yard touchdown led the game into overtime. 

“I will never forget it,” Tom Lombardo, Head Coach of football at St. Edward’s High School in Cleveland, Ohio told Fox News Digital. Lombardo has been coaching high school football for 19 years. Of those 19, he’s coached St. Ed’s for nine of them and won five state championships. “I was at my grandma and grandpa’s for Thanksgiving. I was 9 years old, and it was the first time in NFL history that a game was won on a kick-off return at the start of overtime. I don’t think it has happened again.”

The game went to the Lions with a final score of 23-17.

“I just didn’t see what I liked and certainly didn’t want to throw a pick down there,” Evans said, according to the Chicago Bears website. “I looked to my left and then sort of looked back to the right. I just saw that hole and my instincts just kicked in and I just did the next best thing.”

Every Thanksgiving Day game the Bears and the Lions have played one another has been on Lion’s turf and the first time the two met on Thanksgiving Day was in 1934.

3. Moss magic

During the 1998 NFL draft, wide receiver Randy Moss was picked by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round. He was picked 21st overall and demonstrated he was a major asset on Thanksgiving Day in 1998. The Vikings met the Dallas Cowboys at their Texas home.

Moss’ three catches for 51, 56 and 56 yards, resulting in a total of 163 yards and three touchdowns. Moss’ performance helped the Vikings defeat the Cowboys, 46-36.

“It was his coming out party,” said Lombardo. “He ended up having a great NFL career.”

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Randy Moss in 2020

Randy Moss gave a memorable performance during the Thanksgiving game in 1998 between the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys. (Mark Brown / Getty Images / File)

4. Coin toss confusion

Also in 1998, the Thanksgiving Day game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions went into overtime. 

Jerome Bettis, former running back for the Steelers, was responsible for calling the overtime coin toss. He seemed to have called out “tails,” but head official Phil Luckett heard otherwise and claimed that Bettis called “heads-tails.”

Immediately upon Luckett’s call, Bettis and Carnell Lake began arguing with him. This bad call resulted in the Lions starting with the ball. Though the call was protested, Luckett didn’t budge.

“I mean, it’s crazy,” Lombardo said. “It was pretty funny because Bettis was mic’d up, and you heard him and knew what he called.”

The Lions went on to win, 19-16, and the botched toss resulted in changes to the coin-toss rule. Going forward, visiting captains would call heads or tails ahead of the toss. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced this new rule in the days following the screw-up.

Football fans and reporters across the country attacked Luckett for this unforgettable Thanksgiving Day flop.

5. Peyton Manning ties Bob Griese for TD record

In 2004, Peyton Manning went down in Thanksgiving game history. 

During the 2004 Thanksgiving game between the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions, Manning threw six touchdowns for the Colts. His performance resulted in a tie for the most touchdowns on Thanksgiving.

Bob Griese, former Miami Dolphins quarterback, set the initial record in 1977 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

6. The ‘butt fumble’

What became known as the “butt fumble” is one of the most infamous moments in NFL Thanksgiving history. This moment occurred during a 2012 Thanksgiving Day game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots.

Mark Sanchez "butt fumble"

The “butt fumble” has become an unforgettable moment in NFL Thanksgiving Day history. (Robert Sabo / NY Daily News via Getty Images / File)

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The Jets were losing 14-0 in the second quarter when their quarterback, Mark Sanchez, fumbled the ball after crashing into the backside of his own teammate, Brandon Moore. Patriots’ safety Steve Gregory swiftly picked up the ball and took off for the end zone while Sanchez beat himself up on the turf.

“I do remember Sanchez doing that,” Lombardo said. “I didn’t think it was on Thanksgiving, though.”

Lombardo added, “To me, the traditional Thanksgiving game is the Detroit game at one o’clock.”

The Patriots beat the Jets, 49-19.



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