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NFL Stadiums and Thanksgiving Games

Texas Stadium

A trivia question to challenge family members over Thanksgiving: Which stadium has hosted the most Turkey Day games in National Football League history?

Third place goes to the Pontiac Silverdome, which opened in 1975 with a fiberglass fabric roof and a record-setting capacity of 82,000. The Detroit Lions hosted 27 games in the Silverdome on Thanksgiving and won 16 of them, including the NFL’s first Thanksgiving overtime game on November 27, 1980. The Chicago Bears’ Dave Williams opened up sudden death with a 95-yard game-winning kickoff return, lifting the Bears to a 23-17 victory. The Lions struck back 17 years later, also on November 27, routing the Bears 55-20 behind Barry Sanders’ 167 rushing yards, three touchdowns and a slew of highlight-reel moves. The Lions’ 55 points, matched by Miami in 1977, remains the highest single-game output for one team on Thanksgiving.

Second place also belongs to the Motor City. From 1934-1937, springing from a promotional brainchild hatched by owner George A. Richards, the Lions played George Halas’s Chicago Bears at University of Detroit Stadium on Turkey Day. On November 24, 1938, the Lions and Bears renewed Thanksgiving acquaintances in what was then called Briggs Stadium.  A crowd of 26,278 roared as Vern Huffman hit with Chuck Hanneman for a 23-yard tie-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter, sending the Lions to a 14-7 victory and a season sweep of Chicago. The game was not played from 1939-1944. Following the conclusion of World War II, however, Briggs Stadium – renamed Tiger Stadium in 1961 – went on to host Thanksgiving Day games for the next 30 years, uninterrupted. The Lions’ record in those games, in total: 14-15-2.

The final Thanksgiving Day game at Tiger Stadium was also the franchise’s final outdoor home game. November 28, 1974, was frigid and blustery. It had been a tumultuous season for the Lions, losing their first four games, winning their next four, falling in Oakland, and then besting both the Giants and the Bears to set up this home finale against the Denver Broncos. Temperatures stood at 32 degrees at kickoff, with the wind chill at 21 degrees, snowflakes in the air and 51,157 in the seats. Lions star Steve Owens left in the first quarter with a career-ending knee injury. Detroit did wipe out an early 10-3 deficit to take a 17-10 lead at the half – only to see the Broncos score three touchdowns in the third quarter, en route to a 31-27 win and the end of football on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

The answer to our trivia question is Texas Stadium, replacing the Cotton Bowl as the Dallas Cowboys’ home field in 1971 and hosting 36 Thanksgiving Day football games through 2008 (with the exception of 1975 and 1977, when the St. Louis Cardinals briefly replaced the Cowboys as host), when it was replaced by what is now known as AT&T Stadium. When it finally opened, following a long build-up and construction delays, no less a persona than Billy Graham declared, “This is the most dramatic stadium I have ever seen, and I’ve been in great stadiums all over the world.” Texas Stadium was originally conceived as a trailblazing facility – the first stadium to feature a retractable roof. It ended up with a hole in a fixed roof, conceived by Clint Murchison, Jr., as a way to shelter the fans, but not the players, with the sun beating down on the AstroTurf. (As the quip goes, attributed to linebacker D.D. Lewis, the hole in the roof was there for G-d to watch his favorite team.)

In their first year playing at Texas Stadium, Tom Landry’s Cowboys went 11-3, held off a good Rams team on Thanksgiving, 28-21, thanks to Duane Thomas’s tie-breaking touchdown run in the fourth quarter, and later went on to capture the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.

Dallas finished 22-14 all-time at Texas Stadium on Turkey Day, winning each year from 1980-1985. The Cowboys might have had an even longer Thanksgiving Day winning streak a decade later, if not for a Leon Lett brain sprain. Lett had already made himself comically famous, losing a chance for a fumble-return TD in Super Bowl XXVII in January of 1993, holding out the football as he approached the end zone, which allowed it to be poked away from behind by a hustling Don Beebe. Still, the Cowboys had won the game 52-17. No harm done there. On November 25, 1993, Lett cost Dallas a certain win against Miami. The Cowboys led the Dolphins 14-13 with under ten seconds to play. The Dolphins’ Pete Stoyanovich’s 40-yard field goal attempt on the snowy Texas Stadium turf was blocked, skidding toward the goal line. Lett unthinkingly chased after the football, sliding into it and making it a live ball. It was recovered by the Dolphins at the one yard line with three seconds to play, setting up a second Stoyanovich attempt. This kick went through, giving Miami a remarkable 16-14 win. The Cowboys had won three straight games on Thanksgiving before Lett’s gaffe, and they won three straight games on Thanksgiving in the years following it.

One other current stadium bears mentioning when it comes to Thanksgiving history. Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the Friendly Confines itself, hosted the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals in Turkey Day city championships in 1923, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929 (when Ernie Nevers of the Cardinals set the National Football League record with six touchdowns in one game), 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1933, after which the Cardinals took to hosting the Green Bay Packers at Wrigley on Thanksgiving in 1934 and 1935. In all, the NFL held 13 Thanksgiving Day games at Wrigley Field, more than any other stadium outside of the Dallas and Detroit metropolitan regions.

Photo by John Tornow. used under a Creative Commons license

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August Publications