Memories of Thanksgiving Day With the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium
Note: This article was originally published three years ago, on Nov. 26, 2012.
Most people spend Thanksgiving Day with families gathered around the dinner table.
During the 1970’s, I spent most of my Thanksgiving days and nights at Texas Stadium, watching the Dallas Cowboys. My mother and father (divorced since I was 2) both had season tickets for many years. That meant I two options for seats. So, I was lucky enough see just about every Dallas home game during the 1970’s, which were the glory years of greatness. If you were a football fan, especially a teenager, I can’t imagine a better time or place or a better football team to cheer for than those great Dallas teams coached by legendary Tom Landry.
Our affection for nostalgia allows us to connect that rare occasion to connection with our roots, and mine are buried deeper than most. In today’s column, I shall recall some of my fondest memories of those unforgettable Thanksgiving games played at Texas Stadium, which was demolished in 2011.
The first professional football game I ever attended was the 1970 playoff showdown between the Dallas and the Detroit Lions. I was eight years old. I remember everything like it was yesterday. Really, I do.
That was the last NFL playoff game ever played at the Cotton Bowl in Fair Park. Dallas won 5-0. That’s right, 5-0! The Cowboys won the game by scoring just a field goal and a safety. After that win, my beloved Cowboys went on to beat San Francisco in the NFC Championship game in the last professional football game ever played at old Kezar Stadium. However, Dallas lost to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V on a fluke play and last-second field goal. That was a disgraceful game, as Dallas was so much better than Baltimore, it was ridiculous. That was also the first NFL game that I ever bet. I had Dallas at even money for $1. After losing that buck, I’ve been trying to get “even” ever since. Here’s a short film clip from that game:
The 1971 Cowboys were one of the greatest NFL teams of all-time. Look at this roster:
Quarterbacks: Roger Staubach, Craig Morton, Jerry Rhome…….Running Backs: Calvin Hill, Duane Thomas, Walt Garrison, Dan Reeves…..Tight Ends: Mike Ditka and Billy Truax…..Offensive Linemen: John Niland, Dave Manders, Rayfield Wright, Ralph Neely, Forrest Gregg……Wide Receivers: Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth
Then, the defense was astounding. Consider what this Dallas defense gave up in six NFL playoff games 1970-1971: 0, 10, 16, 12, 3, and 3 — that’s just over 7 points allowed in six games against PLAYOFF TEAMS! That was better than the Chicago Bears 1985-1986 or the Pittsburgh Steelers 1978-1979, which are widely regarded as the best defenses in history.
Defensive Line: Bob Lilly, Jethro Pugh, Larry Cole, George Andrie…..Linebackers: Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley, DD Lewis….Defensive Backs: Mel Renfro, Herb Adderley, Cornell Green, Charlie Waters, Cliff Harris.
Most impressive was the Dallas used both Tom Landry’s offensive and defensive systems. Vince Lombardi was the greatest coach in NFL history. But Tom Landry had the best football mind of anyone that ever coached, along with Paul Brown and Bill Bellichick.
I saw my first Thanksgiving Day game in 1971. We were still living in Albuquerque, NM at the time. But my mother and I flew on an airline called Texas International (Remember “TI”) to visit my grandmother in Dallas to attend this game. Hey, I had a cool mom.
That was the first time I ever saw glistening new Texas Stadium in person. To a nine-year-old kid, it made quite an impression. I would eventually come to despise Texas Stadium for a lot of reasons. But when it first opened, it was a football wonderland.
Dallas beat the Los Angeles Rams that day 28-21 (I don’t have to look it up).
Most vivid memory of that game was the Los Angeles Rams uniforms. Those were the coolest shade of blue you’ve ever seen. Today, I have no idea why those ugly St. Louis Rams uniforms are not burned. They should go back to the simple dark blue and pure white (see above). Pure class. Those are some of the greatest NFL uniforms in history. You should see them in person. Fabulous!
Another memory of Texas Stadium during those early years was that Dallas management, led by Tex Schramm, prohibited any banners from being hung at Texas Stadium. The Cowboys wanted a pristine atmosphere for their martini-sipping fans from Highland Park and therefore would not allow anyone to hang signs over the balconies. So, you never see banners in Texas Stadium until the mid- to late 1970s.
You’re looking at the face of the great defensive lineman Cedrick Hardman, from the San Francisco 49ers. I met him a few years ago. One of my favorite players of all time. He’s still the 49ers all-time sack leader. I think he was NFL defensive player of the year once, but I’m too lazy to look it up.
Hardman and the 49ers destroyed the Cowboys in the 1972 Thanksgiving Day game. Again, I remember the score. It was 31-10. By this time, my mother and I had moved to Dallas. We had season tickets in the end zone. Hardman ran back a Craig Morton fumble and an interception for a touchdown, I believe.
This game left me in tears. I was crying after Dallas lost.
The history of this game is interesting. Dallas has beaten the 49ers in the 1970 NFC Championship. Then, Dallas dominated the 49ers again in the 1971 NFC Championship game at home. Dallas had the 49ers number. So, it was a shock to see San Francisco come into the home of the defending Super Bowl champion (the Cowboys win the 1971 Super Bowl) and win by three touchdowns.
One reason why Dallas had an off year in 1972 was due to Roger Staubach being out the entire season. He has been knocked unconscious in a preseason game at the L.A. Coliseum and was out every game with a separated shoulder. So, the lackluster Cal QB Craig Morton had to start every week. Dallas would get its revenge against the 49ers a few months later in the playoff game at San Francisco. Roger Staubach, who had not played a game in a year, came off the bench like a hero and threw two touchdown passes in the last two minutes of the game to pull off a stunning comeback (this was the same day as the “Immaculate Reception” happened in Pittsburgh, which is why it’s largely forgotten — but Staubach’s comeback off the bench in that game was every bit as memorable).
That 1972 49ers upset win at Dallas was one of the great John Brodie’s last games. That was such a painful season for me. I wish Dallas had made it to the Super Bowl that year, because they would have beaten the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
You’re looking at one of the best defensive linemen of all time — Bob Lilly. He was the Cowboys first draft pick ever, in 1960. Lilly came up along with Tom Landry during the painful early years and blossomed into one of the NFL’s most dominant players for more than a decade. He was a Pro-Bowler just about every year he played and was the first Cowboy to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
When I saw Lilly play in the 1973 Thanksgiving Day game that was to be his last season as a healthy and feared All-Pro lineman. He spent is final season riding the bench with devastating a knee injury.
I got to meet Bob Lilly one time when I was 12-years-old. When he shook my hand, I told my mother that I would not ever wash my hand again because I got to touch Bob Lilly. Oh well, the things you think as a kid.
The 1974 Thanksgiving Day game was one of the most memorable in Cowboy history and certainly one of the greatest comebacks in the storied Dallas-Washington rivalry.
The Redskins were coached by the great George Allen, who was pretty much the exact opposite of Tom Landry in every way. Allen was emotional. Landry was stone-faced. Allen was a players coach. Landry was a “system” coach. Allen loved veteran players who were cut by other teams. Landry cut players and replaced them like spark plugs. They were like night and day.
Just before that 1974 game, Redskins defensive tackle Diron Talbert made a bold prediction in the media — something that would never happen today. Talbert said his goal was to knock Roger Staubach out of the game. Imagine today, a player saying he wanted to knock the opposing quarterback unconscious. The NFL would levy heavy fines and suspensions for that. But forty years ago, the NFL was different.
Talbert was a graduate of the University of Texas. He absolutely hated the Cowboys. So, he wanted to knock out Staubach.
Well, that’s exactly what happened. Talbert knocked Staubach silly in the middle of the third quarter. There’s a famous film clip of Staubach leaning over the Dallas bench being revived with smelling salts. He suffered a concussion and later said he didn’t even know where he was while the rest of the game was being played.
Talbert figured that if they could knock out Staubach, Dallas would essentially be dead. Mission accomplished. The Redskins were ahead by 13 points and Staubach was on the Dallas bench seeing purple elephants. Off the bench comes some couch potato-looking rookie who who had never taken an NFL snap before. The kid even had braces. Braces! The quarterback’s name was Clint Longley.
This game was right out of a storybook.
My dad took me to this game. We had great seats near the field on about the 10 yard line in the first deck. Dallas played a horrible game and was down 27-14 with about 6:00 left in the game. I remember my dad saying, “let’s go.” Fans began streaming for the exits in swarms. Fortunately, there was a long line of fans heading to the exit to get into the tunnel. You had to walk up a long stairway to the top of the first deck, which was quite a hike. Just when it looked like Dallas was finished, Longley took a snap and threw a long touchdown pass with just a few minutes left in the game. I remember standing there right at the exit with my dad. We stood and watched.
So, Dallas was behind 27-21 with two minutes left. Next, we watched the Doomsday Defense rise to the occasion and force Washington to go three-and-out. Dallas had no timeouts left and got the ball back at midfield. Just seconds remained.
Even under these circumstances, Dallas was still a huge underdog. 50 yards away. No timeouts. Rookie quarterback.
In one of the most amazing plays I’ve ever seen, somehow WR Drew Pearson shook off the defensive back and caught a perfect 50-yard strike at the goal line, just as the final few seconds were ticking off the clock. The crowd went wild. Strangers were hugging each other. The stadium, perhaps half full by that time, went wild.
That was an amazing memory.
I remember after the game, my dad took me to a restaurant in North Dallas called “Little Bit of Sweden.” It was a Scandinavian place. I was only 12-years-old but I remember that being one of the best days of my life. I had a pretty cool dad, too.
My favorite NFL player of all time is Roger Staubach. Three things impressed me most about him — his character, his leadership, and his toughness. I’d like to tell you a little bit more about each.
Roger Staubach was college football’s best player in 1963, the year after I was born. He led the last really good Navy team to a major bowl game. Staubach won the Heisman Trophy that year.
Instead of taking a draft deferment like so many athletes did during that time, Staubach served four years in the U.S. Navy. He did not fight in combat, but was stationed for a time in Vietnam. Because NFL teams knew Staubach was going to Vietnam and would be out of football for at least four years, no team was interested in “wasting” a draft pick on him — except one.
Dallas drafted Staubach in the 1964 draft, with what I think was a tenth-round draft choice. Little did anyone know he would come to be one of the top five NFL quarterbacks of all-time. Talk about a steal.
It’s pretty amazing to think that some of the Cowboys training camps of the 1960s had Don Meredith, Craig Morton, and Roger Staubach in camp. Imagine that. Staubach was allowed to come back to the U.S. for a few weeks every summer to stay in football shape.
SIDE NOTE: One of the ESPN cameramen I met a few years ago played for UCLA during the 1960s and was drafted as a center for the Cowboys. He told some great stories about how Staubach would come into camp and everyone on the team knew he was the leader of the future. It was just a magical quality he had, that no one else could match.
Staubach ended his career as the highest rated NFL passer of all time. His mark has since been eclipsed. But even the losses Dallas suffered during the 1970s — losing in close Super Bowl heartbreakers to Pittsburgh two times — were close winnable games. Even in defeat, he was a gallant loser.
Staubach was also one of the toughest players ever to wear a uniform. He never slid to the turf or ran out of bounds. Staubach was known for lowering his shoulder and plowing head-first into defensive linemen. That’s how he endured a separated shoulder which cost him the entire 1972 season. Staubach also suffered five concussions during his career, the major reason he retired early after the 1979 season. Had Staubach come straight out of Navy in 1964 and taken over for Don Meredith after he retired in 1968, I am convinced Dallas would have won at least two and perhaps three more championships had Staubach been able to lead all the Dallas teams 1968-1983 (15 productive seasons). Staubach’s numbers would have been monstrous.
Courageous. A true leader. And as tough as they come — that was Roger Staubach.
I saw many other Dallas games during the 1970s and on into the 1980s. But it’s the earlier games I remember most. Those games from 1970-1979 were a golden age for a football fan.
Oddly enough, I have not seen a Dallas Cowboys game in person since 1988. Around 1995, I stopped being a fan of the Cowboys and now I can’t stand them. I’ll write about this more at another time.
By December of 1988, the Cowboys were in the midst of a rebuilding phase. The team was terrible. Since owner Clint Murchison had died a few years earlier, there were rumors that the Cowboys were going to be sold.
I went to a late December game played at Texas Stadium. I got my ticket from a scalper for what was probably ten bucks. The dismal Cowboys were playing the NFC East leading Philadelphia Eagles, coached by fiery Buddy Ryan. It was cold and raining that day. Everyone was drinking out of open bottles. There were fist fights in the stands. It was not the Texas Stadium I remembered from many years earlier.
Dallas lost that game. I don’t remember the score. It doesn’t matter. All I remember was the cold. The drinking. The fights.
I was sitting on the 30-yard line across the field, sitting near the Eagles bench. Philadelphia’s win gave them the NFC East division title, and the team was celebrating wildly.
Meanwhile, way across the field Tom Landry and the Cowboys were walking slowly towards the tunnel. The season was over.
At the time, I don’t think anyone realized what a special moment in history that was. Certainly, the players didn’t know. None of the coaches knew. None of the fans knew. As the man in the hat walked into the tunnel on the final day of the 1988 NFL season, we were witnessing the very last game Tom Landry would ever coach. The magical 29-year run as the only head coach in Dallas Cowboys history was over.
Landry would be fired by new owner Jerry Jones a few months later.
Texas Stadium is gone now. So is Tom Landry.
Gone, but never forgotten.
Writer’s Note: After this article was originally published three years ago, I heard from Bob Lilly’s family who offered some kind words for the piece. For me, that was the ultimate compliment.