As consummate creatures of habit, many NFL players and coaches are uncomfortable with a Thursday game on their schedule.
But for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, playing on Thanksgiving Day is part of their annual routine. While others sit down to turkey and dressing, the Lions and Cowboys play host to nationally televised games.
They say they feel a certain sense of pride, knowing they are a large part of the holiday observance. They see their involvement as more of a privilege than a disruption.
We always felt that it was our game because of the history and the tradition, former Lions linebacker Chris Spielman says. Its kind of like a college atmosphere that is not always present in the NFL. When you hear people talk around town during that week, all anyone has to say is, You going to the game? And right away everybody knows theyre talking about the Thanksgiving game.
For a few of the [eight] years I was in Detroit, that was really the most exciting part of the season for the Lions.
Thanksgiving opponents, who rotate each year, might not always share that enthusiasm. Besides having to travel, they face the challenges of coping with a condensed schedule that allows them only three days to recover from one game and to prepare for another.
Its a quick turnaround from a Sunday to a Thursday game, but we did it every year, so we knew the routine, says former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. We knew the schedule. And we got to play it at home. The team that has to travel is taking one extra day to fly in after a short week, so its harder on them.
The Lions began hosting Thanksgiving Day games in 1934. Thirty-two years later, the Cowboys followed suit when no other team would answer Commissioner Pete Rozelles request and make a permanent commitment to the day. Then-Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm reasoned that it would be a good way for his club to gain publicity.
The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game in all but 6 of the last 67 years (the Philadelphia Eagles hosted in 1939 and 1940 and none were played from 1941-44 because of World War II) while the Cowboys have done so every season except 1975 and 1977, when the league allowed the St. Louis Cardinals to take their place.
Not surprisingly, the Lions and Cowboys have feasted on Thanksgiving opponents, with 32-27-2 and 21-11-1 records, respectively.
When we were going strong, a lot of teams came into Texas Stadium and just didnt really believe that they could beat us, Aikman says.
Aikmans favorite Thanksgiving moment came in 1990, his second NFL season, when he rallied the Cowboys from a 17-0 deficit to a 27-17 victory over NFC East-rival Washington. It was a sign of things to come for the Cowboys, who had lost 33 of their previous 39 games. Former Dallas receiver Michael Irvin declared it the victory of all victories.
With injuries to Aikman and Rodney Peete, third-stringer Jason Garrett was forced to start in the 1994 Thanksgiving game against Green Bay. But even after completing 8 of 9 second-half passes for 198 yards and 2 touchdowns to give the Cowboys a 42-31 victory, Garrett correctly predicted he would be back on the scout team Monday.
Unfortunately for the Lions, two of their more memorable Thanksgiving games featured big plays by the opposition.
In 1980, right after Chicago quarterback Vince Evans ran for the tying touchdown as time expired, Dave Williams returned the overtime kickoff 95 yards for the decisive score in a 23-17 Bears win. We had the fastest guy on our team, Ray Williams, a track guy, playing safety for us on the kickoff, former Lions general manager Chuck Schmidt recalls. And their Williams ran right past him like he was standing still, even though our guy had the angle on him.
Two years later, with the Lions on the New York Giants 4-yard line late in the fourth quarter, linebacker Lawrence Taylor intercepted a swing pass by Gary Danielson and returned it 97 yards for the winning touchdown in a 13-6 victory. The play actually resulted from a mistake on Taylors part. He was supposed to cover a back coming out of the backfield and missed him, so he just dropped back and their guy threw the ball right to him, says New England coach Bill Belichick, who was the Giants linebackers coach at the time. If he did what he was supposed to do, we probably wouldnt have won.
For the most part, Lions and Cowboys players have taken a methodical approach to getting ready for their Thanksgiving games. The first step is to forget about the previous Sundays game as quickly as possible, regardless of the outcome. The next step is to dive immediately into preparation for Thursdays opponent. Ordinarily a team will spend Monday reviewing videotape of the game that was just played, Tuesday putting a game plan together, and Wednesday and Thursday watching tape of the opponent and installing and practicing the game plan.
The coaching staff usually begins to assemble strategy for the Thanksgiving game within hours, if not minutes, after leaving the field on Sunday. When Spielman was with Detroit, players were off on Monday of Thanksgiving Week and practiced on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, most players, seeking a competitive edge, came to work for at least part of Monday to start watching videotape.
Another crucial element of preparation is to avoid treating it differently from any other week, even if -- as has long been the case with the Lions -- there is a traditional team turkey dinner after Wednesdays practice.
For me -- and I think for most guys -- it was just your regular routine on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, as far as it feeling like Saturday night and Sunday morning, Spielman says. You just bump it up three days.
For Spielman and several of his Lions teammates, the three days they had off after the game was a perfect chance to get some Christmas shopping out of the way.
During the Cowboys championship years, Aikman saw the much-needed late-season respite as a final pit stop before the few remaining laps of their Super Bowl runs.
After that game, we always looked upon it as another bye week because it would give us ten days of rest prior to playing that next game, Aikman says. When we were moving along pretty good, we always felt, if we were able to get through the Thanksgiving Day game, then it really just allowed us to get fresh prior to that last push of that last three or four games going into the playoffs.