Ask an NFL player how it feels to play on a day most Americans are relaxing in front of the TV with a belly full of stuffing, and nearly all will say the tradeoff is worth it.
“It’s your opportunity to be the entertainment,” says former NFL linebacker Bart Scott, who played on Thanksgiving for the New York Jets in 2012. “You know everyone in America is watching you,” says former Detroit Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell, who played in three Thanksgiving games with the Detroit Lions in the 1990s. “And that’s a cool thing. I never felt deprived. If you think about it, a lot of people go and play football on Thanksgiving anyway. We just felt we had our own little pre-Thanksgiving pickup game. It just happened to be on national television. In front of millions of people.”
For Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, the Thanksgiving game had its gastronomic advantages. “All the dudes that play on Sunday, they can’t really enjoy Thanksgiving,” says Irvin, now an NFL Network analyst. After all, with a game coming up in a few days, they can’t overindulge. But Irvin’s Cowboys had a ten-day break after their Turkey Day clashes, enough time to feast like a civilian. Irvin remembers coming back to his place after the games — Dallas and Detroit always play at home — and raiding the fridge. “Eat, fall asleep, eat, fall asleep,” he says. “You can go three of four rounds. It was a treat.”
But that doesn’t mean playing on Turkey Day doesn’t have a downside. The NFL’s longstanding tradition of Thanksgiving day games has produced plenty of moments that ruined players’ holidays. Below, former NFL players recall games that spoiled their sweet potatoes.
1. Bounty Bowls
Who wants to spend a holiday getting smacked around by three All-Pro defensive lineman? When Troy Aikman was a rookie quarterback for a 1-15 Dallas team back in 1989, Philadelphia’s trio of Reggie White — a future Hall of Famer — Jerome Brown, and Clyde Simmons pounded Aikman in his inaugural Thanksgiving game. Philly won 27-0. “At the end of the game,” says Aikman, now the lead NFL color analyst for Fox, “they X-rayed both my knees, both shoulders, and my elbow. I would have sworn they were going to have to put me in a cast.”
The beating was so severe that Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson accused Eagles coach Buddy Ryan of offering a $500 bounty on Aikman and a $200 bounty on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas, whom the Eagles had cut earlier that year. ”It’s stupid to have a coach like that in the N.F.L., the fat little guy,” Zendejas, who suffered a concussion after being hit on a kickoff, said of Ryan. ”He can’t take you out himself, so he pays somebody else to do it for him. That’s about as low as you can get.” Johnson said he would have confronted Ryan after the game if Ryan hadn’t gotten “his big, fat rear end in the dressing room” so quickly. Ryan denied the bounty charge, and took mock exception to all the talk about his weight. “I resent that,” Ryan said. “I’ve been on a diet, I lost a couple pounds, and I thought I was looking good.”
Turns out Aikman was OK — but he wouldn’t have necessarily minded a short stint on the injured list. “We played Philadelphia two weeks later, so I was almost hopeful that something was wrong,” says Aikman. The first game was christened Bounty Bowl I. The Eagles won again in Bounty Bowl II, two weeks later, and Philly fans pelted the field, and CBS broadcasters Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw, with ice balls.
Following the Thanksgiving debacle, Aikman — who will call Thursday’s Dallas-Philly game, hopefully not Bounty Bowl III — drove back to his parents’ place in Oklahoma. “I had plenty of time to reflect,” says Aikman with a laugh, “on that season, that day, and why I decided to play professional football.”
2. Butt Fumbles
Scott, then a Jets linebacker, didn’t see exactly what transpired on Thanksgiving night, in East Rutherford, N.J., two years ago. He was on the sideline when Jets QB Mark Sanchez muffed a handoff, then tried to run forward before colliding into the behind of lineman Brandon Moore. The ball popped loose, and Steve Gregory of the New England Patriots picked it up and ran for a 32-yard touchdown, giving New England a 21-0 lead in the second quarter (the Pats would go on to win the game 49-19). A little later that night, Scott, now a studio analyst for The NFL Today on CBS, saw the clip that launched a million memes: the Butt Fumble.
Any Jets fan can relate to Scott’s reaction: “Hey man, only us, man. Did that just happen? What? Maaaan. No. Really?”
3. Disrespected Kickers
Between 1992 and 2012, Detroit kicker Jason Hanson played on Thanksgiving every year except one, 2010, when he was injured. In 2003, Hanson kicked five field goals to lead Detroit to a 22-14 win over Green Bay. Near the end of the game, Hanson started to get giddy — he thought he was going to win Fox’s Galloping Gobbler award, given to the MVP of its Thanksgiving game. After all, Hanson scored 15 of Detroit’s 22 points. But when it was time to hand out the turkey trophy, Detroit cornerback Dre’ Bly, who intercepted Brett Favre twice, got the nod. “So there I was, saying ‘yeah, I’m going to get an award on national television,'” Hanson says. “All of a sudden, I see Dre’ Bly mugging it up for the cameras. That’s when you’re reminded that you’re just the kicker.”
4. (Near) Bathroom Brawls
As starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, Mitchell was 2-1 on Thanksgiving. In 1995, he even threw for 410 yards, and four TDs, in a 44-38 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. But Mitchell’s loss, a 28-24 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1996, almost sparked what would have been one of the most infamous moments in NFL history: a post-game melee with fans in a Pontiac Silverdome bathroom.
This was a rough year for Mitchell, who was bothered by injuries, and Detroit, which finished 5-11, in last place in the NFC Central. And the game was excruciating: after a Hanson field goal gave the Lions a 24-21 lead with 8:41 left, Kansas City used its running game to hold onto the ball for the next 7:55, and march 76 yards downfield. Marcus Allen scored the game-winning, 1-yard TD with 46 seconds left.
Afterwards, Mitchell waited to face the expected media scrum at his locker. And waited. But the reporters never came, because they were squaring off with Lions coach Wayne Fontes. “I’m waiting, waiting, waiting,” Mitchell says. “Finally I’m like, ‘I want to go home, I’ve been here a long time, we lost the game and it’s Thanksgiving.'” So Mitchell, who has shed 98 pounds as a contestant on this season’s The Biggest Loser, headed up a Silverdome elevator to the suite where his family watched the game. As he walked down the corridor towards the suite, four fans passed him. “One of them recognized me and makes a comment: ‘Mitchell, you suck.'”
Mitchell brushed off the remark. He peeked in the suite, but his family had already left. Suddenly, he sort of snapped. “Something in my mind in that moment, I was like, ‘you know, I’m not going to take this from this guy.’ So I turned around, left the suite and started chasing four guys down the corridor in the Silverdome.”
Terrible idea. The fans went into the bathroom, and Mitchell followed. When the quarterback got there, they were in the stalls. “So I make a general announcement,” he says. “‘Anybody in here have a problem with me?’ And all of a sudden these four guys walk out of the stalls. I’m standing there, and they’re looking at me. I think they were as shocked as I was that we were going to have this conversation.” One heckler said that he indeed had a beef with Mitchell, and Mitchell told the guy he wouldn’t last a second in the NFL. Third grade stuff, on Thanksgiving. “He said to me, ‘you’d like to hit me, wouldn’t you?'” Mitchell says. “And I said, ‘yeah, actually, I would.'”
“And then the strangest thing happened to me,” says Mitchell. “In the corner of the bathroom was a janitor. And he started talking to me, he says, ‘Scott, you’ve got to leave right now.’ And I was like, ‘you’re right. I do. I need to go.'” And I turned around and walked right out. To this day, I don’t know if it was in my mind because no one was in there when I walked through the doorway.”
Scott Mitchell has a guardian angel that saved him from infamy. “I had lost it,” Mitchell says. “I don’t know if I would have won or lost. But there would have been a fight. It was going to be bad.
“So that was kind of a Thanksgiving moment.”
5. Death by Coin Toss
For Jerome Bettis, the Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions in 1998 was supposed to be a happy homecoming. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back known as The Bus was a Detroit native who learned about football while watching the holiday games; he bowled on the weekends growing up, so Bettis didn’t watch on Sundays. He had 80 friends and family at the game. And the night before, his family hosted around 60 Steelers teammates for an early Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, the works. “We didn’t just have the little guys,” Bettis, now an ESPN analyst, says. “We had the offensive linemen, defensive linemen. Those guys don’t shy away from calories.”
The game was a tight one. Pittsburgh and Detroit ended regulation tied 16-16 and headed for overtime. At the coin toss, Bettis initially started to call heads, then quickly changed his mind to tails. Referee Phil Luckett missed the switch, and when the coin came up tails, he awarded the ball to the Lions. The Steelers flipped out. “It was like, ‘Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa,'” says Bettis. “‘Wait a second.'” Hines Ward was a rookie wide receiver for Pittsburgh. “It was just shock and confusion,” says Ward, now an NBC commentator.
Back then, overtime was simple sudden death. On Detroit’s first possession, Hanson kicked the game-winner. “That was a rough flight back to Pittsburgh,” says Bettis. The Bus would never take part in a coin toss again. “I got fired,” he says.
6. ‘Not. Leon. Lett.’
“That was the weirdest day ever,” says former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, talking about Thanksgiving Day in Dallas, 1993. First of all, a rare snowstorm blanketed the Metroplex. “I remember driving to the game that day — oh my God, I’ve never been more afraid,” says Irvin, then a Cowboys receiver. “My God, they’re going to cancel the game.”
That didn’t happen, and Dallas took a 14-13 lead over the Miami Dolphins into the final seconds. With the game on the line, Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich lined up for a 41-yard field goal in the sleet and snow. Lined up to block it was a special addition to the Cowboys’ defense.
Before the game, Dallas special teams coach Joe Avezzano had an idea for Johnson. Because of the snow, Avezzano figured, the Dolphins offensive line might have trouble with its footing. Why not put Leon Lett, a 6’6,” 290-lb. defensive lineman, on the field goal blocking team? Maybe he can get his hands on one. Johnson agreed, but no one realized that Lett wasn’t all too familiar with the special teams rules. So when Dallas’ Jimmy Jones blocked Stoyanovich’s attempt, seemingly clinching the Dallas win — owner Jerry Jones raised his victorious arms on the sideline, while Aikman and Irvin embraced — Lett came charging out of nowhere towards the ball, which had sailed past the line of scrimmage and trickled towards the end zone. By rule, the ball was dead, and the game was over, unless a Cowboy player picked it up, or touched it. And Lett’s foot indeed grazed the ball as he slid on the snow: Miami recovered the now live ball, giving Stoyanovich another chance to win the game for the Dolphins, which he did.
Lett had already made a famous gaffe in the previous season’s Super Bowl. With Dallas destroying Buffalo 54-17, Lett recovered a fourth quarter fumble, sprinted towards the end zone for a surefire touchdown, and began to celebrate early. Buffalo’s Don Beebe, however, chased him down, and knocked the ball out of Lett’s hands before he scored. That was embarrassing, but it didn’t cost the Cowboys the game. “Leon Lett, nooooooo,” NBC commentator Bob Trumpy shouted during the Thanksgiving game. “Not. Leon. Lett.”
The season before, Johnson had cut a running back for fumbling during a meaningless game. “I would have bet everything that Leon Lett, the next day, would not have been on the team,” Aikman says. But Johnson actually consoled Lett, who was crying in the training room, telling him he’d be part of the team as long as Johnson was in charge. “Leon was actually one of my favorites, even though he made two of the more famous blunders in NFL history,” Johnson, now a Fox studio analyst, says. “He was a really good player, and a good person.” Lett spent a decade with the Cowboys, winning three Super Bowls, and is now an assistant defensive line coach for the team. Irvin says he thanked Lett for keeping him off the next day’s front pages. “That may have been the worst game I ever played,” Irvin says. “I remember dropping so many passes. I told him, ‘I’m so glad you did that, man.’ They would have been all over me. It would have gotten crazy.”
What was left of Johnson’s holiday — he says he never really celebrated Thanksgiving as a coach — was pretty much ruined. “I doubt if I had any turkey,” Johnson says. “I probably had some nachos and a cold beer. That’s my normal Thanksgiving.”