Sports Nut

Turkey Day in Dallas

How the Cowboys ruined Thanksgiving.

The Cowboys, ruiners of Thanksgiving.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This morning, like all mornings, the dog-walking ritual led past the house where Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and his family had lived during most of what’s now known, almost exclusively, as his “storied tenure.”

Spacious home, circular drive out front, guest house in the back. Perhaps it is because the man who lived on the corner was named, I swear to God, Edgar Allan Poe, but the old Landry homestead whispers of stories from those thrilling days of yesterday. And this particular week, I feel compelled to say to the dog, “Look there, Rambo. You know used to live there? The man who ruined Thanksgiving. That’s who.”

In fairness to Landry, the Thanksgiving gambit wasn’t his idea. Yes, Landry was the chief tactical officer of the greatest sports-marketing taskforce of its era. But it was general manager Tex Schramm, a former employee of CBS Sports, who in 1966 recognized that an annual home game on Turkey Day could help transform his young franchise into America’s Team.

Flashback: Thanksgiving, 1966. I was writing for the Fort Worth Press at the time. Earlier that year, the wife of Cleveland Browns quarterback Frank Ryan had ventured into the public print and referred to his Cowboys counterpart, Don Meredith, as a “loser.” Would the allure of a football game—one preceded by those fighting words—draw certain men to abandon their loved ones on a holiday occasion? Well, 80,259 fans showed up at the Cotton Bowl, the most ever to see a game in Dallas. Every seat was occupied, and the aisles were jammed. The Cowboys, who at that point had yet to have a winning season, beat the mighty Cleveland Browns 26-14, and throughout the last quarter everyone was chanting, “Ryan is a loser!” Dallas was en route to its initial division championship, and the frothing Thanksgiving multitudes anointed pro sports’ new megateam.

About two hours after the game, Meredith himself materialized in a well-known honky-tonk just south of downtown called Dewey Groom’s Longhorn Ranch. It was Thanksgiving night, the joint was packed, and Dandy Don wanted to be seen. He had, in tow, a man with dark hair trimmed Ward Cleaver-style, a fellow who looked almost Pentecostal in his plain dark suit, white shirt, and narrow black tie. I recognized him as a promising songwriter and struggling singer named Willie Nelson. Enriched with holiday cheer, I approached Nelson and assured him that superstardom lurked just ahead. Although he does not remember the occasion, it provided the foundation of his career.

At the conclusion of the evening, one factor emerged, blazingly evident: The face of the traditional Thanksgiving in North Texas had just undergone a massive makeover.

The Texas-Texas A&M rivalry had been a Thanksgiving staple since the advent of nationally televised college games. People cared about the game, sure, but the college game was usually over before 3 o’clock.

But the Cowboys, the all-new, chrome-plated muscle car of the NFL—they were going to have a bigger impact on Dallas-Fort Worth Thanksgivings than the discovery of alcohol would have on St. Patrick’s Day. And the results—and the 3:15 p.m. CST annual kickoff—have not been entirely rewarding. The football game dictates what time people are supposed to show up and what time you serve them the meal. It’s too early for a lot of people and too late for the rest, and all too often you’re stuck with guests who are unfit for the highway. Put the food out in the middle of the first quarter and you’ll set the table for a Thanksgiving parade, with various guests getting up and looking into the den to check on the score.

The natural solution to the mealtime quandary has been to turn the sit-down affair into a tailgate party. Begin early. Ideally, have a nephew on leave from the Coast Guard who’s willing to tend bar. The football aspect has warped Thanksgiving in this region to the point that the success of the family interchange relies mostly on the outcome of the game. I assume that family counselors, emergency rooms, and divorce lawyers see business skyrocket when the Cowboys lose on Thanksgiving.

Sometimes even the most innocent remark can spoil the whole weekend. From past years, I hear the voice of a 7-year-old child. “Mom,” the voice says. “After the Cowboys lost, Dad was in the kitchen and he said the fuck-word and Grandma heard him.” Mom issues Dad a look of, to be charitable, profound dismay. Unkind remarks ensue, and by the conclusion of the evening, Dad could show Tiger Woods a thing or two about a hard luck Thanksgiving … all because Dallas chose to lose.

The worst was the Great White Apocalypse of 1993. Thanksgiving brought two things to town: the Miami Dolphins and a North Dakota–quality blizzard. The playing field was coated with ice and sleet. The Dolphins’ last-gasp field goal effort was partially blocked, ending the game. Well, it would have ended the game, but Dallas’ Leon Lett for some reason decided to skid into the ball, kicking it free. The Dolphins recovered, kicked the winning field goal, and won the game.

What bonehead stuff. TV sets throughout the region did not survive the festivities, having been kicked by grown men and struck by glass containers. Worse, the ice was so deep and solid that guests were trapped. Driving, even to the corner bottle shop, was unthinkable. So now the host was stuck with the demanding in-law and the surly stepkid though Thursday night … Friday … Saturday … and finally the roads were cleared on Sunday. The thing that kept us all from murdering each other, remembers one survivor of the shittiest freeze in Texas football history, was the unification that came from our mutual contempt of Leon Lett.

So I’ll walk past the Landry house on Thanksgiving morning and try to pick up on his aura. With the Eagles in Arlington on Thursday, the mood of the Cowboys fan is drifting dangerously close to the rapture zone. Common sense paranoia suggests a Thanksgiving ambush. The occasion seems to call for cocktails about a half hour before kickoff. Maybe those Coast Guard Bloody Marys my nephew used to prepare: ample portions of PGA (pure grain alcohol) and dill pickle juice to mitigate the low-rent taste. Three of those, and you can experience post-game aches and pains, just like the real players do. It’s Texas Thanksgiving tradition.