In 2013, Thanksgiving and NFL football are inextricably bound, seamlessly and seemingly always this way. But the history of the NFL and this holiday is neither as clean nor as simple as the NFL would have us believe. There have been a great many more NFL games played on Thanksgiving than the NFL cares to talk about, for reasons that will be made plain below. It's not that the NFL and Thanksgiving don't go well together -- they do, for reasons good and bad. It's just that not every Thanksgiving game follows the NFL's narrative. This was written by amateur NFL historians David Roth and Jeff Johnson.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles, 1979
In the Philadelphia of the late 1970s, it was understood that fans at any and every type of sporting event would behave unreasonably. That they threw batteries at referees is common knowledge; less widely known is that Phillies fans routinely launched cans of expired tuna fish at opposing players. Eagles fans once trapped Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram in a McDonald's bathroom and made him eat Egg McMuffins until he couldn't see.
Stram was eventually rescued, but the rowdy crowd forced him to coach on the sidelines wearing a T-shirt that said "Hank Stram's Privates," with an arrow pointing downwards.
The whole city was filled with vile, sick people. Fans kidnapped Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt and made him punt, in loafers and slacks, for an entire home game against the Houston Oilers. They once put hot cinnamon oil in Washington Redskins QB Billy Kilmer's mouthguard and wouldn't let him take it out until his lips and gums were torched. This last offense was justified under the guise of fresher breath. "C'mon Kilmer. You're old. You smell like Band-aids and vinegar." After the game, many of the fans forced Kilmer to thank them, even though "th" sounds were especially painful for him in his condition.
Which is to say that no one expected Thanksgiving 1979 to be any different. The challenge for Eagles security was to mitigate gameday carnage to the greatest extent possible; one of these innovations, the practice of taking crossbows and hatchets from fans attempting to bring them into the stadium, continues to this day at Eagles games, and in some other cities as well. Another innovation fared less well.
For this Thanksgiving afternoon game, all fans attending the game that were able to prove that their names were Kevin received a bag of lukewarm gravy. The Kevins, many of them already drunk or watching the game from the sour bottom of a Qaalude gully, were told that they could do whatever they pleased with that bag of gravy. Census data told the Eagles that Kevin was the best first name for this plan, but an estimated 659 Kevins showed up for the game.
By the third quarter, the Steelers were covered in beige splotches. Franco Harris played the whole game with his body Saran Wrapped to protect himself. By halftime, Steelers head coach Chuck Noll looked like one of the convicts who dug his way out of prison at the beginning of "Raising Arizona."
This was, Eagles officials would later allow, the best-case scenario. The idea was: "This is a preventative measure." Gravy, at this temperature, would not burn. It wouldn't sting. It contained small flecks of basil, which is good for the skin. It also tasted great.
The problem: Distributing the bagged gravy only empowered the Kevins, and Kevins from all over the northeast -- many of them not even Eagles fans -- showed up at the game. There were Kevins with grudges. Kevins who wanted only to hurl hot liquid. Kevins who brought their own meat to the game and used the gravy to keep it moist and add flavor. An AMC Pacer filled with Kevins came all the way from Moline, Illinois. And then the inevitable.
Once the gravy was gone, the Kevins stormed the field. They took a curling iron to what remained of Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw's hair; the amateur perm -- performed by hundreds of drunken Kevins using a since-recalled product called Kurli -- is considered to be a major factor in Bradshaw's present baldness. The Kevins picked up Harold Carmichael and wouldn't leave until they'd heaved him across the goal line 41 times. After the game, Carmichael allowed that his hips were chafed from being hoisted and heaved, but added, "the most important thing is we got the win."
When the clock read all zeroes and the Eagles had "won" 351-19, the Kevins marched on City Hall and captured it easily. The lawyering Kevins, for a brief window, diverted significant portions SEPTA revenues to small pubs in Philadelphia's Old City, Beard/German Village, Cathedral Goiter, and Grumptown neighborhoods. Many pub owners received new carpeting, others drapes. No games have been played on Thanksgiving on the East Coast ever since.
The "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" Game
Cleveland Browns at Miami Dolphins, 2006
This game, an ill-fated NFL tie-in with Best Buy, technically was not played on Thanksgiving. The first and likely only NFL Doorbuster Kickoff Classic was played at 3 a.m. on Friday, with a Best Buy-themed (and -shaped) football, and was broadcast in every Best Buy parking lot to the crowds camped there, waiting to surge into stores.
The two teams were bleary and not sharp; it would later be revealed that Browns coach Romeo Crennel had insisted on serving the team a large Thanksgiving dinner, at which he'd delivered a particularly emotional toast about the meaning of family. Several players, including quarterback Derek Anderson, reported being dehydrated after weeping so much, so deeply. Members of the Dolphins, who had observed the Miami tradition of spending Thanksgiving at nightclubs, were clearly inebriated and arrived by limousine in groups of three and four, beginning 15 minutes after kickoff. The game ended, shortly before sunrise, in a 5-5 tie.
If the game is remembered at all, it's for a halftime show that lasted 171 minutes, and which featured J.Lo and Marc Anthony performing an on-field production of Edward Albee's bruising domestic drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Mike Nichols directed, and Lou Diamond Phillips and Nelly Furtado co-starred. The crowd was riveted. Albee's family called it the purest distillation of his vision ever produced, despite the widely held public opinion was that Furtado was overmatched as Honey. It also resulted in an embarrassing on-air argument between broadcasters Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels:
Collinsworth: And that is how couples fight, Al. Not sure this is the appropriate venue for it, but wow-
Michaels: For my money, this doesn't touch The Mountain Goats Tallahassee and it's not just because-
Collinsworth: Here we go again, Al. You've always valued music over theater and I never minded. Until tonight. This is it.
The two quarreled throughout the second half, which was marked by a rash of hamstring pulls for both teams.
Jon Kitna's Message Game
Cincinnati at New England, 2002
Before the 2002 season, Bengals owner Mike Brown complained to the league that his team had been denied the opportunity to build a national fan base through holiday games. Brown, moved by television shots of military members watching games on Thanksgiving, became obsessed with the Bengals becoming "the Coast Guard's team," and threatened to play an unsanctioned game on Thanksgiving if the NFL did not deliver an official one. "I should tell you that Cincinnati is full of people who think they can beat the Bengals," he wrote in a letter to then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "Whole town full of freaking tough guys. Buncha fat shits, more like." The league caved and gave Brown the game.
The game itself was uninteresting, a lopsided New England rout that's most notable for Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's insistence that he was playing to show fans "the reason for the season," and to "put Christ back in Thanksgiving." Kitna finished 17 for 41 with a touchdown and five interceptions.
The most enduring artifact of the game is not Kitna's statline or fervor, but the seven-song EP by Jon Bon Jovi and Bill Belichick that all fans in attendance received. The songs -- spare, tender, and revelatory -- are widely considered Belichick's most personal work, and were recorded by Will Oldham on his farm in North Carolina. The record is highlighted by the haunted nine-minute ballad "Brother Lyle," in which Belichick sings in a near whisper about his hunting trips with former Broncos defensive end Lyle Alzado. Highly prized by collectors, it's almost impossible to find today.
Vince Evans vs. Don Dokken
Los Angeles, 1987
1987 was supposed to be a magical year for Vince Evans. The former Bears quarterback had returned to the NFL after several years in the USFL, and found himself in Los Angeles, where he'd gone to school at USC, as a backup with the Raiders. These were the Silver and Black Attack teams of Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson; all Evans had to do, he figured, was hand the ball off and the team would probably win. He had an Alfa Romeo convertible. There was talk of a guest-starring role as a visiting professor on "The Facts of Life." Things were going well.
Evans was also madly in love with a woman he'd met at the Chateau Marmont over drinks one night with Ken Wahl and Carlos Santana. There was just one problem. She was the wife of the heavy metal singer Don Dokken. Or ex-wife. Christ, the stories were never clear, they never ended. This was the problem. There were many, many drives through Laurel Canyon, tears on both sides. Evans professed his devotion. He had never been this open with a woman before. He'd never met a woman like Cherri.
There was no Raiders game on Thanksgiving in ‘87. Instead, for Evans, there was a quiet dinner with the lady, which was interrupted by Don Dokken pulling down the front wall of Evans's dining room with his 4x4 and some chains. He'd driven right onto his lawn and filmed it all for a music video. Thought it looked pretty cool. So did his wife, or ex-wife, or whatever. Evans, standing amid crumbled drywall and a damaged LeRoy Neiman painting of Jay Schroeder, didn't agree. It was the end of the affair.
Evans did gain 13.1 yards per scramble that season. Running away, one might guess, from the pain of a broken heart. The "Facts of Life" thing didn't come together, either.
Hungry Hungry Hipple
Green Bay at Detroit Lions, 1986
In 1986, the Detroit Lions were a shambles. In today's NFL, MSRA is considered a real threat in NFL locker rooms, but in the less sanitary NFL of the Reagan years, MRSA was a sort of low-level constant. The larger threat was fenestrated bowel, or Lynn Dickey's Disease, the cause of which is usually used athletic tape being "jokingly" discarded into Gatorade kegs. You get old adhesive, male body hair and various bodily drippings interacting with artificial lemon and lime flavors, forming bonds with the electrolytes and such, and even the hardest-nosed and oldest-school of players were vulnerable.
The lay definition of fenestrated bowel is "toilet paranoia," which aptly sums up the extent to which the disease is a mental disorder. You think you have to go to the bathroom, but you actually don't. Still, your brain will not let you get off the throne. Steadfast refusal. An outbreak of Lynn Dickey's Disease right before the holiday left the Lions shorthanded and toilet bound; the receivers were paranoid about having an accident in tight silver pants, right there on television.
With so many of the team's pass-catchers sidelined, Eric Hipple volunteered to move to play receiver. An interesting note: One receiver, Jeff Chadwick, only pretended to have fenestrated bowel because he really wanted to go to a Thanksgiving party for "All My Children" in New York City, where his sister was a production assistant. He was later busted when Lions kicker Eddie Murray saw him playing a dentist on the soap opera; they'd given him a walk-on role during his visit.
On Thanksgiving, Hipple caught 17 Joe Ferguson passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns in a shootout. He looked like a much slower version of Don Beebe, but played with the sheer balls of Jeff Query. He moonwalked in the end zone, twice; after one score, Hipple pulled a feather from his helmet, and the camera caught him raising and lowering his eyebrows in a pervy way, before he gently blew it into the crowd. Hipple is the last recipient of The Ombudsman's Chalice, an award formerly given to the player who displays "the most attention to detail" in a holiday game.