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Such a festive intersection of family and football over oh, these many years, especially for the Dallas Cowboys franchise and their fans for these past seven decades, starting with the very first time they played one of the previous 51 Thanksgiving Day games at either the Cotton Bowl or Texas Stadium or now AT&T Stadium for this the 52nd edition of the holiday tradition.
Why, for me, can vividly remember our yearly family tradition of gathering at my Aunt Pat’s house on Thanksgiving Day in the south suburbs of Chicago. Of course at the big table down in the basement, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins boyfriends, 20, 25 strong. And what it meant to graduate at some point from the kids’ table to sit with the grownups.
How great it was to be the only grandson/nephew, too, granting me special privileges, like being able to watch the Detroit Lions game upstairs before dinner back in the day in one-TV households, and then being excused in time to head back for the start of the Cowboys game as a teenager.
Funny thing was my uncles would use the excuse they were coming upstairs to like keep me company, but in reality it was to find a place to take a nap away from the clutter.
“It’s part of our American tradition,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said, and should know since he has played and coached with the Cowboys now for 21 years. “Cowboys football on Thanksgiving.”
Absolutely. It was 1966 when the Cowboys first joined in the holiday affair, president Tex Schramm answering NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s call to add a second game to the Thanksgiving Day ledger. Schramm was willing to take a chance, trying to gain some national exposure for his expansion franchise that after six seasons had yet to produce a winning one.
The late Schramm was quoted back in the day, saying of his reasoning for taking a chance that “they would come” to watch a football game on a holiday: “That’s when we were struggling and willing to do whatever we could do to get crowds. CBS was our network then. Detroit had been playing a morning Thanksgiving game for years and they were looking for an afternoon game to follow. We were one of the new kids on the block and I told them we would be interested.”
But Schramm also understood the chance he was taking, trying to intercede with family holiday traditions.
“There was some concern whether it would do well,” he said for a Dallas Morning News story in 1985, “and the league got the other members together to guarantee us a certain gate.”
And what do you know, 80,259 showed up that day to see Dallas beat Cleveland, 26-14, at that time the largest crowd to ever attend a Cowboys home game.
From that point on, the Cowboys have played 50 more times on Thanksgiving Day, their streak interrupted in 1975 and 1977 when some teams in the NFL complained Dallas had an unfair advantage of playing a home game every year during the short week. So in those two seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals played host to the second Thanksgiving outing. The Cardinals were defeated soundly in both years, and those holiday games did not go over as well with the home folks. The Cards wanted out.
So Schramm told Rozelle, if the Cowboys were to resume playing host to that second Thanksgiving Day game he wanted the NFL to guarantee him they would continue with this tradition into perpetuity. So the league did so with a handshake agreement, and here are the Cowboys, Thanksgiving Day 2019, playing the Buffalo Bills at AT&T Stadium, their 52nd such game, the Cowboys going 31-19-1 over these first 51 – nearly half of those losses having occurred during this century (nine).
And what a hit the game has been, for as Cowboys perennial Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin said, and remember, has only been alive long enough for 29 of these Thanksgiving Day games while now playing in his sixth, “It’s a great tradition.”
“I loved it,” said Cowboys veteran Jason Witten about the Thanksgiving Day games, “Grew up watching it. Oh absolutely, every Thanksgiving watching it. The whole family watching.”
And now, getting to actually play in a 16th one during his franchise record-setting season, Witten said, “The Cowboys, you’ve got to pinch yourself being a part of that.”
Same for former Cowboys Pro Bowl cornerback Everson Walls, who grew up in the Hamilton Park area of Dallas before then playing his first nine seasons in the NFL with the team that was practicing a few blocks away.
“I thought it was special,” Walls said of getting to play for the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. “I’m one of those guys that if we’re going to play on national TV that day, that’s primetime, and I always played well on primetime.
“Primetime games, when it’s just us, all eyes are on you. That’s the best time to play.”
Garrett knows that only too well. Not only did he follow the Cowboys growing up, and then play and coach for the team, but he also got to start at quarterback in a Thanksgiving Day game back in 1994.
“Football was a big deal in the family,” said Garrett, whose father Jim was a longtime scout for the team while brother Judd is currently the Cowboys’ director of advanced scouting and assistant wide receivers coach. “We always played football, you know, outside in the backyard, down at the playground, and that led into a turkey dinner, and then it led into football (on TV). Football was always a big part of our lives growing up, like it is for so many people.
“To be a part of this tradition as a player and a coach, it has just been an incredible experience for us. We grew up watching it and now to have a chance to be part of it has been a great experience for everybody.”
Truly a family affair, right? As a kid watching, as a young man playing and now a