Ah, the indelible memories Thanksgiving brings us all.
Such a festive intersection of family and football over oh, these many years, especially for the Dallas Cowboys franchise and their fans for these past seven decades, starting with the very first time they played one of the previous 51 Thanksgiving Day games at either the Cotton Bowl or Texas Stadium or now AT&T Stadium for this the 52nd edition of the holiday tradition.
Why, for me, can vividly remember our yearly family tradition of gathering at my Aunt Pat’s house on Thanksgiving Day in the south suburbs of Chicago. Of course at the big table down in the basement, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins boyfriends, 20, 25 strong. And what it meant to graduate at some point from the kids’ table to sit with the grownups.
How great it was to be the only grandson/nephew, too, granting me special privileges, like being able to watch the Detroit Lions game upstairs before dinner back in the day in one-TV households, and then being excused in time to head back for the start of the Cowboys game as a teenager.
Funny thing was my uncles would use the excuse they were coming upstairs to like keep me company, but in reality it was to find a place to take a nap away from the clutter.
“It’s part of our American tradition,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said, and should know since he has played and coached with the Cowboys now for 21 years. “Cowboys football on Thanksgiving.”
Absolutely. It was 1966 when the Cowboys first joined in the holiday affair, president Tex Schramm answering NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s call to add a second game to the Thanksgiving Day ledger. Schramm was willing to take a chance, trying to gain some national exposure for his expansion franchise that after six seasons had yet to produce a winning one.
The late Schramm was quoted back in the day, saying of his reasoning for taking a chance that “they would come” to watch a football game on a holiday: “That’s when we were struggling and willing to do whatever we could do to get crowds. CBS was our network then. Detroit had been playing a morning Thanksgiving game for years and they were looking for an afternoon game to follow. We were one of the new kids on the block and I told them we would be interested.”
But Schramm also understood the chance he was taking, trying to intercede with family holiday traditions.
“There was some concern whether it would do well,” he said for a Dallas Morning News story in 1985, “and the league got the other members together to guarantee us a certain gate.”
And what do you know, 80,259 showed up that day to see Dallas beat Cleveland, 26-14, at that time the largest crowd to ever attend a Cowboys home game.
From that point on, the Cowboys have played 50 more times on Thanksgiving Day, their streak interrupted in 1975 and 1977 when some teams in the NFL complained Dallas had an unfair advantage of playing a home game every year during the short week. So in those two seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals played host to the second Thanksgiving outing. The Cardinals were defeated soundly in both years, and those holiday games did not go over as well with the home folks. The Cards wanted out.
So Schramm told Rozelle, if the Cowboys were to resume playing host to that second Thanksgiving Day game he wanted the NFL to guarantee him they would continue with this tradition into perpetuity. So the league did so with a handshake agreement, and here are the Cowboys, Thanksgiving Day 2019, playing the Buffalo Bills at AT&T Stadium, their 52nd such game, the Cowboys going 31-19-1 over these first 51 – nearly half of those losses having occurred during this century (nine).
And what a hit the game has been, for as Cowboys perennial Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin said, and remember, has only been alive long enough for 29 of these Thanksgiving Day games while now playing in his sixth, “It’s a great tradition.”
“I loved it,” said Cowboys veteran Jason Witten about the Thanksgiving Day games, “Grew up watching it. Oh absolutely, every Thanksgiving watching it. The whole family watching.”
And now, getting to actually play in a 16th one during his franchise record-setting season, Witten said, “The Cowboys, you’ve got to pinch yourself being a part of that.”
Same for former Cowboys Pro Bowl cornerback Everson Walls, who grew up in the Hamilton Park area of Dallas before then playing his first nine seasons in the NFL with the team that was practicing a few blocks away.
“I thought it was special,” Walls said of getting to play for the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. “I’m one of those guys that if we’re going to play on national TV that day, that’s primetime, and I always played well on primetime.
“Primetime games, when it’s just us, all eyes are on you. That’s the best time to play.”
Garrett knows that only too well. Not only did he follow the Cowboys growing up, and then play and coach for the team, but he also got to start at quarterback in a Thanksgiving Day game back in 1994.
“Football was a big deal in the family,” said Garrett, whose father Jim was a longtime scout for the team while brother Judd is currently the Cowboys’ director of advanced scouting and assistant wide receivers coach. “We always played football, you know, outside in the backyard, down at the playground, and that led into a turkey dinner, and then it led into football (on TV). Football was always a big part of our lives growing up, like it is for so many people.
“To be a part of this tradition as a player and a coach, it has just been an incredible experience for us. We grew up watching it and now to have a chance to be part of it has been a great experience for everybody.”
Truly a family affair, right? As a kid watching, as a young man playing and now as an adult coaching.
And how remarkable is this coincidence for me. Growing up, just couldn’t wait to run upstairs at Aunt Pat’s on Thanksgiving Day to watch the Dallas game on TV. And now, well, privileged enough to work on Thanksgiving Day covering these Cowboys, this becoming my Thanksgiving tradition, too, for the past 35 years.
Wouldn’t trade it in for nothin’, because as Martin so appropriately said, “It’s a great tradition.”
Five To Remember
Some of the most memorable Thanksgiving games in Cowboys history.
Eagles 27, Cowboys 0 – Nov. 23, 1989:
This game is not memorable for the score or the significance in what turned out to be a 1-15 season in the first year of ownership for Jerry Jones, with Jimmy Johnson as his head coach. No, this was about what transpired after the game, Johnson accusing Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan of offering players bonuses if they could knock rookie quarterback Troy Aikman out of the game or former Eagles kicker Luis Zendejas, now with the Cowboys. Said Johnson, “I have absolutely no respect for the way they played the game. Oh, I would have said something to Buddy, but he wouldn’t stand on the field long enough. He put his big, fat rear end in the dressing room. … They went for Troy’s ankle once and tried to take a knee another. We’ll have our day. I guarantee you we’ll have our day.” Might have taken a while, but the Cowboys eventually eliminated the Eagles after the 1992 season with a 34-10 thumping in the divisional-round playoff game.
Cowboys 42, Packers 31 – Nov. 24, 1994:
With Aikman and his backup Rodney Peete out with injuries, third-stringer Jason Garrett had to start only his second game in his second NFL season. The Cowboys were trailing 17-6 to Brett Favre’s Packers, but in the second half Garrett followed his pregame advice from now wife Brill, who told him if all else fails “just throw it up high to Alvin,” as in wide receiver Alvin Harper. Garrett did just that, completing three passes for 91 yards to Harper, including a 45-yard touchdown toss in the midst of throwing for 311 yards and leading the Cowboys to a club-record 36 second-half points. “It’s getting to be a few years ago now, but that’s certainly been a great memory for me,” Garrett said recently.
Dolphins 16, Cowboys 14 – Nov. 25, 1993:
After a sleet storm hit Dallas-Fort Worth overnight, the Cowboys had to not only play their coldest game in franchise history on this Thanksgiving, 32 degrees at kickoff, but the Texas Stadium officials had to hurriedly rent these small tractors to plow the frozen tarp and sleet off the field. Then with the Cowboys leading 14-13 with just 15 seconds left in the frigid game, Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich’s 41-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by defensive lineman Jimmie Jones. With the ball spinning like a top on the icy field, fellow defensive lineman Leon Lett, a backup on the special teams and now the Cowboys’ defensive line coach, thought he had to cover the loose ball. Unfortunately, Lett slid into it, creating a live ball that the Dolphins recovered. And now Stoyanovich hit from 19 yards out as the clock expired, the Cowboys losing their second straight and falling to 7-4 in an eventual 12-4, Super Bowl-winning season.
Cowboys 24, Redskins 23 – Nov. 28, 1974:
Now this one sticks in the craw of Redskins fans to this day. The Cowboys were playing Washington for the second time in three games, and after beating the Cowboys in the first one, 28-21, Redskins linebacker Diron Talbert proclaimed that all Washington had to do was knock quarterback Roger Staubach out of the game to win since the Cowboys only had some unknown rookie named Clint Longley as their backup. Well, they did knock Staubach woozy in the second quarter and in comes the raw Longley. The Redskins were up 16-3 in the third quarter before Longley led the Cowboys to three second-half touchdowns, earning Longley the “Mad Bomber” nickname and causing offensive lineman Blaine Nye to proclaim, since no one was sure just how much the live-wire rookie knew, that this was a case of, “The triumph of the uncluttered mind.”
Cowboys 26, Browns 14 – Nov. 24, 1966:
In the team’s very first Thanksgiving game, the Cowboys trailed 14-13 at halftime. But in the third quarter, Cowboys kicker Danny Villanueva hit the final two of his four field goals on the day, and then the Cowboys put the game away in the fourth quarter with Ring of Honor member Don Perkins running one in from 10 yards out. Perkins led the Cowboys with 111 yards rushing on 23 carries. Quarterback Don Meredith completed 16 of 24 passes for 131 yards, which included a second-quarter 6-yard touchdown pass to Dan Reeves. The victory over the Browns was considered to be somewhat of a coming out party for this expansion franchise, defeating a team that had dominated the NFL over the past two decades. Wrote Tex Maule for Sports Illustrated, “Under the noon-bright illumination of extra lights provided for the TV color cameras, Dallas seemed to be a younger, faster edition of the Packers.” They were at that, finishing the season 10-3-1, the Cowboys first winning season in franchise history bringing them the Eastern Conference title.