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Turkey Day Football: History, Rivalries and Upsets.

The first American Thanksgiving was a three-day harvest festival celebrated in 1621. The only pigskin in the vicinity was smoking on the table, probably with an apple in its yap. It was not yet on the football field, although over the last century football and thanksgiving have gone together like turkey and cranberry sauce.

It has become an American tradition. Football has always been a significant part of the culture of cities and small towns, and the tradition of playing football on Thanksgiving was commonplace from the 1920s through the 50s with the focus on high school teams. It may be difficult for many to fathom now, but high school football was king for decades across America, until the college and pro games began to overshadow it through the expanse of television in the 1960s. High schools ended their season on Thanksgiving Day, so rivalries and even championships were often at stake, making Turkey Day football a much-anticipated event.

Athletes might not always admit it, but playing on national television does help raise their game a notch. Thanksgiving provides a few teams that privilege of showcasing their skills before the whole country. One of the most important pro football games took place on Thanksgiving Day in 1925, when Illinois college star Red Grange turned pro and brought on the first football sellout at Wrigley Field with the Chicago Bears.

There have been many memorable surprises and upsets, too, on Thanksgiving weekend. The Detroit Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving since 1934 and every year since World War II ended in 1945. One of the most memorable games occurred on Turkey Day, 1962. The Green Bay Packers were 9-0 on the way to another NFL championship under Vince Lombardi. The Lions got up for the game and not only upset the Packers, but played like wild men, sacking QB Bart Starr eleven times for 110 yards! Jim Taylor, the NFL's leading rusher, managed just 47 yards as the Lions jumped to a 26-0 lead on the way to a 26-14 upset. It was the only defeat in a 13-1 Packers season. Lombardi was so furious with the defeat and the fact that Green Bay had to play Thursday on short rest, that after the 1963 game (a 13-13 tie with the Lions), he refused to play on Thanksgiving again. The Lions still seem to get fired up for the tradition, going 7-4 against the spread the last 11 years on the holiday, including three straight up wins as a dog.

With so much of the country watching, upsets are not uncommon. In 2001, there were 12 college and pro football games played Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, and the underdog was 11-1 against the spread. Five dogs won straight up, including Colorado as a 10-point dog smashing Nebraska 62-36, the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.

Another unforgettable game occurred 21 years ago. By a scheduling quirk, the Boston College versus Miami football game was changed from September to the day after Thanksgiving to showcase star quarterbacks Bernie Kosar and Doug Flutie. Kosar had helped Miami win the national championship the year before as a freshman, while Flutie was a senior on his way to becoming college football’s all-time passer. The two didn’t disappoint, electrifying the nation in a back and forth thriller. Kosar passed for over 400 yards, while Flutie was 34-of-46 for 472 yards. The game came down to the final play, with Flutie connecting on a 48-yard TD pass in a 47-45 win at the buzzer, cementing his Heisman Trophy.

College football is littered with surprising finishes and colossal upsets. Here is a list of some of the biggest upsets in history, compiled from the Gold Sheet or available outlaw lines:

1985 Oregon State (+36) tops Washington, 21-20

1985 UTEP (+36) over BYU, 23-16

1972 Missouri (+35) beat Notre Dame, 30-26

1974 Purdue (+34) at Notre Dame, 31-20

1992 Iowa State (+29) over Nebraska, 19-10

1969 San Jose State (+29) at Oregon, 36-34

1995 Northwestern (+28) over Notre Dame, 17-15

1942 Holy Cross (+28) beats Boston College, 55-12

One thing that stands out from this list is the number of “public teams” like Notre Dame, Nebraska and Washington that got upset. This is an example of how odds makers have to add points to public teams, as well as how smaller schools will get fired up to face big-name schools. The other thing is the final game on the list, one that took place Thanksgiving weekend. Back in 1942, Boston College had a powerhouse team utilizing the new “T-Formation,” which the NFL Bears had used two years earlier to destroy the Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 NFL Championship game. Yes, essentially the “Super Bowl” of 1940 was a 73-0 blowout!

In late November of 1942, BC was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation in college football, closing in on the school’s first national championship. The Eagles had beaten powerhouses Clemson and the North Carolina Naval Flight School, and had outscored opponents 249-19, posting shutouts in five of its eight games. In the final tune-up before the bowls, BC played a 4-4-1 Holy Cross team and was a 4-TD favorite. Yet, fired-up Holy Cross flattened the No. 1 ranked Eagles 55-12 in one of the biggest upsets in college football history.

That’s a good example of how rivalries can force bettors to ignore point spreads, or take a closer look at the dog, not to mention high-profile games this time of year. For history buffs, a sidelight to that 1942 game was what happened afterward. Many of the Boston College players and coaches had scheduled a party at Boston’s Cocoanut Grove restaurant that evening to celebrate their 9-0 season. With the stunning defeat, the party was cancelled. That night, the Grove caught fire in one of the worst tragedies in American history, with 492 people dying. The Eagles equipment manager died, along with the starting fullback for the 1941 Crusaders. While sports is an enjoyable distraction, filled with upsets and rivalries, let’s not forget to keep things in perspective and give special thanks on Turkey Day for all we’ve been blessed with.

By Jim Feist.

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