It's always been a day for football. For years, Thanksgiving meant the big high school game in the morning. After sitting out in the cold, one appreciated coming home to a fire and the Detroit Lions-Green Bay Packers game on television and the meal of the year. The sounds of Penn-Cornell on radio might be heard, too.
Texas-Texas A&M is still often played on Thanksgiving -- and Texans take it seriously. Football and Thanksgiving have been linked almost as long as the game has been played. On Thanksgiving Day 1887, Yale and Harvard met before 24,000 at the Polo Grounds. Yale won, 17-8, with the help of its center, "Pa" Corbin, who twice kicked the ball forward, then picked it up and ran with it. The center scored a touchdown and set up a field goal with his forward kicks.
In fact, a football historian reports that New York women, following Victorian tastes, stayed away from sporting events until college football on Thanksgiving became, around the turn of the century, as fashionable as the annual fall horse show. Then, it occurred to a psychologist of the time that football held "a strange fascination" for women, reports Benjamin Rader in "American Sports," "perhaps . . . because it demonstrates the power to protect and defend."
Today, Thanksgiving remains the day of the neighborhood "Turkey Bowl," touch games played by fathers and sons, friends and relatives. Or sitting by the hearth and receiving reports of games from locations far and frigid, including sailors at the South Pole playing their informal holiday "Penguin Bowl."
If one cares about football, he probably has a Thanksgiving game memory. Mine is of our high school quarterback, Denny Cox -- not once, but twice -- in the big Calvert Hall-Loyola game our senior year, faking a Harry Gilmer-like jump pass, then dropping to earth and lofting an easy touchdown toss to a wide-open receiver who had broken deep behind the mesmerized defense. It wasn't enough for Calvert Hall to win that morning, but happily those passes float softly through a reverie of mine this time every year.
High school football on Thanksgiving is an American staple: Coolidge and H.D. Woodson will decide the Interhigh League championship at 11 this morning at RFK Stadium; at Georgetown Prep the metro all-star game will be played at 11:30. When it comes to tradition, consider an encounter today in Boston, the 100th Latin vs. English game.
Among the pros, Detroit-Green Bay is identified with Thanksgiving. Watching today's Lions-Packers game, indoors at the Silverdome -- before or after eating a turkey dinner -- might put one to sleep, but in the '50s and early '60s the Lions and Packers played 13 straight, usually hard-fought games, all in the cold outdoors. The Lions won nine with one tie -- when then-Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi said, "Enough." He didn't like playing on the road with a short work week -- being the Lions' annual turkey.
Of all who played in those games -- Bobby Layne, Doak Walker -- one stands out for some: Tobin Rote. If Tobin Rote wasn't playing for the Packers, he was playing for the Lions. In one uniform or the other, he played in the game for almost the entire '50s.
His favorite? "I guess it had to be '56," he said this week. "That's the game that got me traded to Detroit."
The Lions had beaten the Packers 13 of 14. But on Thanksgiving Day 1956, Rote passed for two touchdowns and ran for another, all in the fourth period, to lead the Packers to a 24-20 upset.
"If [Lions linebacker] Joe Schmidt ran left, I threw right; if he ran right, I threw left," Rote recalled. "That's when [Lions coach] Buddy Parker said, 'I got to get him.' "
With the Lions the next couple of years, Rote could count on enjoying Thanksgiving.
Even more opportunistic than the Lions, the Cowboys have stuffed their traditional Thanksgiving day opponents to a 14-3-1 record since the Dallas game's inception in 1966. (The Seattle Seahawks, who play there today, were beaten in their last Thanksgiving visit to Dallas, 51-7). The Redskins have been the unlucky foe three times -- losing them all, including one of the most agonizing in their history. Remember Clint Longley?
It was Nov. 28, 1974. Texas Stadium. The Redskins were 35 seconds from victory and a playoff spot when rookie Longley hit a desperation 50-yard pass to Drew Pearson. Final: 24-23, Cowboys.
The Redskins' scouting report on Longley had read: "Average set up and delivery, not exceptional quick release. Has a good strong arm but throws off balance and falls away a lot."
Before the game, Redskins defensive tackle Diron Talbert had said, "If you knock Staubach out, you've got that rookie facing you. That's one of our goals. If we do that, it's great. He's all they have."
Around Washington, thousands of turkey dinners were ruined, and an anguished George Allen moaned, "Toughest loss we've ever had."
Thanksgiving and football were meant for each other, but clearly the meal is better if your team doesn't lose.