Delicious memories

Some of the NFL’s most memorable characters and unforgettable plays are associated with Thanksgiving Day, and the list of holiday classics begins with November 28, 1929. That’s when Chicago Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers wrote his name into the NFL record book by scoring all of the Cardinals’ points in a 40-6 victory over their crosstown rivals, the Chicago Bears. How monumental was the feat? It has not been equaled in 71 NFL seasons.

“There never was a better player than Ernie Nevers -- not as far as I’m concerned,” said legendary halfback Harold (Red) Grange, who was on the field for the Bears that day.

But Nevers is in good company when it comes to Thanksgiving memories. Here is a sampler of some of the best:

Lions Sack the Pack (1962)

Detroit had eyed this game since dropping a 9-7 heartbreaker in the final minute to the defending NFL champions in October. Green Bay entered the rematch with a 10-0 record, but the Lions’ defense had Packers quarterback Bart Starr under siege from the start in a 26-14 victory. It would be the only blemish in another championship season for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay team.

Starr was dropped for a 15-yard loss the first time he tried to pass, and it snowballed from there. If it wasn’t tackle Alex Karras coming from one side or tackle Roger Brown coming from the other, it was Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt. The Lions posted 11 sacks (12 is the NFL record), sending the Packers’ vaunted offense backward for a staggering 110 yards in losses.

Lions quarterback Milt Plum passed for a pair of touchdowns to Gail Cogdill, but the real story was the defense.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Schmidt said.

The Tyler Rose (1979)

Future Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell was a teenager in Tyler, Texas, when Texas Stadium opened about 100 miles away in Irving. As a member of the Oilers, the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back played only one regular-season game in the new stadium -- and he made the most of it.

It was on Thanksgiving Day, 1979, and the Oilers and Cowboys met in a rare clash of intrastate rivals.

“That game sure was big around the state,” then-Houston coach Bum Phillips says.

Phillips’s star running back, who was en route to a 1,697-yard, 19-touchdown performance in only his second NFL season, was oblivious to the hoopla surrounding the matchup.

“It’s just another football game,” Campbell said before the game. “It’s nothing personal.”

But the fury with which Campbell ran belied his nonchalance. He blistered the Cowboys for 195 rushing yards to key the Oilers’ 30-24 victory. Campbell carried 33 times and scored on runs of 61 and 27 yards.

Two weeks later, Houston beat Pittsburgh to secure a wild-card berth in the playoffs. The Oilers reached the AFC Championship Game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Steelers.

Wild One (1987)

There was little to indicate that the Thanksgiving Day game between Minnesota and Dallas in 1987 would be a classic. The Vikings were just 6-4, the Cowboys 5-5. Still, both teams remained in the chase for a wild-card playoff spot -- and both played as if there were no tomorrow.

Minnesota jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and held advantages of 28-14 and 38-24. But Dallas rallied each time behind embattled quarterback Danny White, who did not know he would be starting (instead of Steve Pelleur) until pregame warmups. White passed for 341 yards and 4 touchdowns (including 3 in the second half to Mike Renfro), but it was the interception he threw in overtime that led to the Vikings’ winning touchdown.

Linebacker Scott Studwell picked off the pass, and running back Darrin Nelson secured Minnesota’s 44-38 victory with a 24-yard touchdown run 7:51 into the extra session. Nelson, who had a 52-yard touchdown run earlier in the game, ran for 118 yards on 16 carries.

“Before the game, we talked like this was a playoff game, and in a way it was,” Cowboys safety Bill Bates said after the game. His words were prophetic. Minnesota went on to finish the regular season with an 8-7 record and edged 7-8 Dallas for the final postseason berth in the NFC.

Snow Trouble (1993)

The 1993 game between Dallas and Miami was your typical Thanksgiving Day game -- unless you consider Keith Byars equaled the Dolphins record with a 77-yard touchdown run, Cowboys rookie Kevin Williams scored twice (including a spectacular 64-yard punt return to put the Cowboys ahead), and the fact that a surprise snowstorm hit Texas Stadium and left the field covered in sleet.

As Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich lined up for a game-winning 41-yard field-goal attempt with 15 seconds remaining in the game, who would have guessed that the previous feats would quickly become just a footnote.

Dallas defensive end Jimmie Jones blocked Stoyanovich’s field-goal attempt, and Cowboys players, coaches, and fans began celebrating an apparent 14-13 victory.

Darrin Smith, Darren Woodson, and other Dallas players motioned their teammates away from the ball as it rolled inside the 10-yard line. Then, to their dismay, Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, slipping and sliding on the icy, snow-covered turf, tried to pick up the ball. It bounced off his foot at the 7. Because Lett touched the ball, it was live, and Miami’s Jeff Dellenbach recovered on the 1-yard line with three seconds to go. Stoyanovich then kicked a 19-yard field goal as time ran out for a 16-14 victory.

“This is Thanksgiving Day, and I want to give thanks,” Stoyanovich said. “I’m just thankful I got another chance.”

Fortunately for Lett, the gaffe became merely a footnote to the Cowboys’ season, which ended with a victory over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVIII at the Georgia Dome.

Lion Heart (1995)

Scott Mitchell knows that football on Thanksgiving is as anticipated as a turkey dinner.

“It’s an American tradition,” the Detroit quarterback said after leading his team to a 44-38 victory over Minnesota in 1995. “As a player, you realize everybody is watching. It’s exciting.”

Mitchell thrilled Lions fans by completing 30 of 45 passes for a club-record 410 yards and 4 touchdowns. He shattered the franchise mark of 374 yards set by legendary Bobby Layne in 1950.

Brett Perriman (153 yards), Herman Moore (127), and Johnnie Morton (102) each caught passes for more than 100 yards, and running back Barry Sanders added 138 yards on the ground for Detroit, which amassed 534 total yards.

Despite Mitchell’s record-breaking performance, the game was not decided until the final play, when Warren Moon’s desperation pass was intercepted in the end zone as time expired. The victory was the third in a string of seven that carried the Lions to the playoffs after a 3-6 start.

Grateful Quarterback (1998)

“Why do you want to talk to him?” Vikings coach Dennis Green asked media members when they went looking for wide receiver Randy Moss after Minnesota’s 46-36 victory over Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, 1998. “He only caught three passes.”

True, 3 receptions were not much for a player who would go on to catch 69 passes as a rookie, but Moss’s catches went for 56, 56, and 51 yards, all of them touchdowns.

The Cowboys, hampered by the absence of Pro Bowl cornerback Deion Sanders, who was out with an injury, outplayed the Vikings on paper, holding advantages in first downs, total yards, and time of possession. However, they were buried under a barrage of long plays by the Vikings. In addition to Moss’s touchdowns, Cris Carter caught a 54-yard touchdown in the first quarter and Leroy Hoard ran 50 yards for a touchdown. Moss set up another touchdown by drawing a 50-yard penalty for pass interference on Dallas.

Moss’s performance made it a happy Thanksgiving holiday for Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham, who passed for 359 yards and 4 touchdowns.

“I’m thankful that we got him,” Cunningham said.

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