Thanksgiving 1998: One of the wildest Turkey Days in NFL history

Twenty-five years ago, a surreal coin-toss controversy and a jaw-dropping Randy Moss performance made for one of the wildest Turkey Days in NFL history.
By Judy Battista | November 22, 2023

Football has been as much a part of Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie since shortly after the sport came into existence. College teams began the tradition of playing on the singularly American holiday in 1876. Subsequently, there have been football games on Thanksgiving at all levels of the game, from the backyard pick-up contests that dot every neighborhood to, since its birth in 1920, the National Football League.

In the earliest years, the NFL staged as many as six games on Thanksgiving, all part of an effort to attract attention to the nascent league and attach it to a traditional holiday that was already almost 100 years old, as history professor Matthew Andrews explained to CNN. It worked, to say the least.

The Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1945, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the NFL settled on the routine that is the backdrop in so many living rooms across America, with the Lions hosting the early afternoon game each year, and the Dallas Cowboys hosting in the late afternoon.

Those games — plus a third added in 2006 that can be hosted by any other team and is played in prime time — have provided the athletic hearth around which generations of families have gathered, introducing even the most casual fans to Leon Lett, the Butt Fumble and the Turducken. The games that once cozied up to Thanksgiving on the calendar in order to gain popularity now regularly turn out the biggest viewing audiences of the regular season.

Tens of millions were watching 25 years ago, on what may have been the most memorably weird, confusing and simply thrilling day of Thanksgiving games in the NFL’s history. On Nov. 26, 1998, the Lions beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 19-16, in overtime in a game that included a coin flip that was botched to such a degree that it earned an eternal spot in blooper reels, prompted amateur sleuths to enhance the television audio to get to the bottom of the fiasco, forced the NFL to enact an immediate rule change and, quite possibly, caused the Steelers’ season to go kaput.

And then, with the end of that game and a switch of channels, the NFL went from the ridiculous to the sublime. The jaw-dropping coming-out party for a rookie receiver named Randy Moss began in Dallas, where the Minnesota Vikings beat the Cowboys, 46-36, the proceedings narrated by voices that provided the soundtrack for a generation of football fans: Pat Summerall and John Madden.

There have been many games since then that featured the NFL’s biggest stars and showcased playoff implications, but none has produced the peculiar alchemy of comedy, frustration and brilliance of that day.

What are the holidays without some nostalgia? With this year’s triple-header (Packers at LionsCommanders at Cowboys and 49ers at Seahawks) at hand, those who were there remember a Thanksgiving that remains a football feast without equal.

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The National Football League (NFL) is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). The NFL is one of the four major