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.
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.
Carnell Lake, former Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety: We were a team that was 7-4 at the time, so there was a lot on the line going into the game against Detroit. All I kept thinking was, if we win the game, we're 8-4, it would be a great record to have. In order to keep our hopes alive for the playoffs, we needed these games.
We didn't think we'd be in this kind of dogfight with Detroit. But we had Jerome Bettis, Dermontti Dawson, Alan Faneca. I was thinking, we've got the squad. We can beat this team.
And then the coin toss happened.
Though the Steelers were the better team going into the game (they made the playoffs in each of the six previous years and went to the AFC Championship Game in the 1997 postseason; the Lions, meanwhile, were 4-7), they actually needed a 25-yard field goal from kicker Norm Johnson at the end of regulation to tie 16-16 and send the game into overtime. Even when the Lions have been at their woeful worst, they have often put on a good show on Thanksgiving, so the competitiveness of this contest should not have been a great surprise.
Bill Cowher, former Steelers head coach: They had one of the best field-goal kickers in the league in Jason Hanson. The importance of this flip is huge.
At the time, the NFL mandated that the captain of the visiting team call heads or tails while the coin was in the air. Phil Luckett was the NFL referee for the game, and he turned to Bettis, one of the Steelers' captains at midfield for the overtime coin flip, and told him to call it in the air. On television, the word, "tails" can be heard. But then Luckett said, "Heads is the call. He said heads. It is a tails."
"We did not win a game the rest of the year. Such a small, minor detail totally destroyed the rest of our season." -- Bill Cowher
Charlie Batch, former Detroit Lions quarterback (also a Pittsburgh-area native who later played for the Steelers): We're sitting there and Robert Porcher and Ray Roberts go out for the coin flip, and you see Jerome and Carnell walking out. At that point, as the coin drops, you see the reaction from Jerome and Carnell, and what the heck just happened at the coin flip?
Jerome Bettis, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back: I called the coin flip at the beginning of the game and I called heads. And so in overtime, I was going to call heads. I went to say heads and I said, "Huh-tails." I was trying to change from heads to tails. But when the ref heard me say, "Huh," he said I said heads. He didn't hear me all the way through. I always called heads every game, but it was OT, so I wanted to call tails. I said, what are you talking about; even the Lions players were like, "Whoa!" I called tails.
Lake: I was standing right there, Jerome said tails. He may have double clutched the tails, I'll give people that. But he did say tails. I briefly looked over at the Detroit players, I said, you guys know what he called, too.
Batch: Our two captains run off with big smiles on their faces. We got the ball. Why [are] Jerome and Carnell arguing and now Cowher started walking on the field arguing with the referee? We don't know what the hell just happened, but we got the ball. Porcher said let's just go down and score and get the hell out of here.
Luckett walked over to Cowher to explain.
Lake: The referee kind of ignored us and went to Bill and pleaded his case before we could get to him. Bill didn't quite know what was going on.
Cowher: Phil comes over and said Jerome called heads and it was tails. Carnell yelled, "You're lying." Everyone is looking at me. You know when your two kids come in from outside, who threw the stone? He did it first! Why are you guys yelling at me?
The biggest thing is, Jerome Bettis and Carnell Lake, those are two of the most honest people; whatever they told you, they would not lie about anything. They are two guys you would leave your kids with. And now I have them and poor Phil Luckett -- he's looking at me, Jerome is mad, Carnell is looking at me, and I'm saying, "I believe you, but what do you want me to do? You're my guys. I do believe you."
Then I heard it, and ... weeellll.
Lake: I'm thinking I'd never seen a more crooked ref. I was so mad at him. This guy is not even trying to listen to us. And where are all the other refs? Then I'm thinking this is going to get resolved in the booth.
It was not, and the Steelers, still enraged, kicked off. The Lions started their drive at the Steelers' 30-yard line. A few completions followed.
Cowher: Jerome is on the sideline saying we should stage a protest, and I'm like, Jerome, how about we stop these guys on third down?
After a facemask penalty and a couple of Barry Sanders runs, Hanson kicked a 42-yard field goal that won the game. Batch still wasn't entirely sure what happened until he got home, and he didn't get the full story until he was watching halftime of the Vikings-Cowboys matchup, and it was explained.
Batch: We had all these people over for Thanksgiving. It was like 75 people, and it was a house divided, because everybody who came up from Pittsburgh were Steelers fans. So I walked into my house, and everybody is pissed off about how the game ended. Not, "Great job, Charlie." It was, "That's B.S., I can't believe that happened."
Luckett became a punching bag, roundly mocked for what most -- including Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms, who called the game for CBS -- assumed was his mistake. Within a few days, though, local Pittsburgh station KDKA enhanced the audio on the game tape, finding that the word "heads" could be heard before "tails." A detailed account that ran in the May 1999 issue of Referee Magazine pieced together what happened. When Luckett went to speak to Cowher after the flip, television microphones picked up what was said. Luckett told Cowher that Bettis had called "head-tails," and he was going with heads, because that was what Bettis said first, and the proper procedure mandated the referee go with the first choice. The microphone at the sideline also picked up what sounds like an admission of guilt from Bettis: "I said, 'Huh,' I said, 'Huh.' " The tape then picks up Bettis explaining to Cowher that the coin hadn't even hit the ground before he said tails.
Luckett talked that night to the NFL's director of officiating and then sent a written report. According to Referee Magazine, which had a copy of Luckett's report, he noted that saying the coin hadn't yet hit the ground demonstrated that Bettis and Lake knew they had messed up the call. "Naturally, I am disappointed with what all transpired, but I did what I felt was right," Luckett wrote.
Four days later, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue released a statement that said he had read Luckett's report and the comments from Bettis and Lake. "All three individuals have excellent reputations and are known to be men of integrity. However, their conflicting accounts do not resolve the matter."
The NFL changed its procedure immediately, mandating that the referee ask the visiting team captain to call heads or tails before the coin is flipped and for the back judge and field judge to remain at midfield for the toss -- giving everyone the opportunity to make sure they hear the call correctly, and that there are multiple witnesses. Still, because the NFL did not strongly articulate that Luckett had handled the situation correctly, he remained the object of derision.
Batch: I was [Bettis'] locker mate for four years. At least once a year, it would always come up, because we would talk about Thanksgiving. He's still ticked off about how it ended. Jerome said, "I called tails." I said, "Sure, but you also called heads." He will not tell that story to its entirety right now. I remember at the 20-year mark, I said, "It's been 20 years. You can admit it. You're in the Hall of Fame." He still laughs, but he doesn't ever say it.
Bettis: That was the last time I ever called. I got fired after that. Coach Cowher said, "You're fired."
Lake: After they made the changes, they invited Joe Namath to participate in the Super Bowl coin toss, and they gave him the coin to flip, and he didn't wait for anybody to call it. The ref caught it in mid-air. I thought, well, there you go, Joe was old-school NFL, he was used to calling it in the air.
Cowher: We did not win a game the rest of the year. Such a small, minor detail totally destroyed the rest of our season. It was one of those things as a coach, it never comes down to one play. Except for that.
The Detroit Lions didn't win another game that season, either.
Dave Campo, former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator: I'd have rather been there, in an overtime game with a chance to win, than our Thanksgiving game.
In 1998, the Cowboys were still within the championship window of The Triplets -- the Cowboys had won the third of three Super Bowls with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin in 1995 -- and were 8-3 entering the Thanksgiving contest. They had a high-ranking scoring offense and defense and, of course, star power. Just not the biggest star of this game.
Randy Moss, former Minnesota Vikings receiver: I just remember my first Thanksgiving game, growing up and always playing football, our little form of football, before the game came on, and I was just thinking during the week, "Now I'm playing the big game." I was more excited and antsy to get on the field. And it was my first meeting against Dallas. I owed them one. There were a lot of emotions running through my head because of the draft and what didn't happen, and at the same time, I'm getting to play on Thanksgiving, where in the past, I'm eating and watching the game.
"Everything just came to life when I went out there and started warming up." -- Randy Moss
The Minnesota Vikings were 10-1 entering Thanksgiving and on the way to setting the record at the time for scoring offense. Quarterback Randall Cunningham was an All-Pro that season. So was the rookie wide receiver -- Moss -- who was the 21st overall pick in 1998.
Moss was no under-the-radar prospect. He was a former West Virginia high school player of the year in both football and basketball and a state track champion in the 100 and 200 meters. Former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz said he was the best high school player he had ever seen. At Marshall University, he was a first-team All-American. He dropped in the draft because of perceived character issues -- Moss had served a brief stint in jail for his involvement in a fight. Notre Dame, where Moss had dreamed of playing, denied his enrollment. He switched to Florida State, and while redshirting his freshman year, he tested positive for marijuana while he served the remainder of the jail sentence in a work-release program. The violation of probation caused his dismissal from Florida State. After starring at Marshall -- he finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting behind Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf -- he entered the 1998 draft. The Cowboys were interested, and so was Moss. He had grown up a Cowboys fan and wanted to go to Dallas.
Moss: I knew a few guys. I met Michael Irvin on my visit there. Then I was told I was going to be a Cowboy. I'm a country boy. There are so many closet Dallas Cowboys fans out there, for me to come back home, screaming and talking about being a Cowboy, I had a lot of people excited, not just myself.
On draft day, with the eighth overall pick, the Cowboys selected defensive end Greg Ellis. Moss tumbled down the board. Jones admits it was character concerns that caused the Cowboys to pass on Moss.
Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner: He was on the board. We'd had a great evaluation, great reports from the coaches on Ellis. We were a little reluctant to go that high with a receiver, but that and the combination of what Greg Ellis was as far as his character, Randy was getting a little criticism at that time. We had great experiences having great receivers with Michael Irvin. Michael came ready to play 24 hours a day, on and off the field. We had had great success with receivers that had a lot of energy on and off the field and had a lot of personality. Frankly, I was reminded that we were zigging rather than zagging making that decision. Unquestionably, Randy was a difference maker.
That was obvious from Moss' first big national game, Week 5 at Lambeau Field on Monday Night Football, when he caught five passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
Brian Billick, former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator: The first time, they were one-on-one, and he went by them. They did two on him. Then they triple-teamed him, and he goes up and pulls the ball down. They were looking back to (Green Bay coach Mike) Holmgren like, what do you want us to do? There's three of us here, and we can't come up with the ball.
Leroy Hoard, former Minnesota Vikings running back: We saw him in practice. He'd be talking to the defensive backs as he's running with them. He's so tall. And he's wearing thigh pads, which no receivers did. You don't realize how fast he is.
The Vikings had beaten the Packers for the second time in the 1998 season the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Moss: I remember all the old-school guys, Randall McDaniel, Cris Carter, Andrew Glover, those guys were in the cold tub. I really wasn't a cold-tub guy. It was my rookie year, I was full of energy. They were like, hey, man, we just played a few days ago, young buck, you need to get in this water. And I was like, I ain't getting in no water. They got out of the water, grabbed me and put me in there. That game against Dallas was on turf, they were talking about how tired our legs were going to be. I tried to get out, they kept me down in there. After, my legs just, like, damn, did I just play four days ago? So ever since that, if the cold tub is making me feel like that, I've got to keep doing that.
Billick: Early in the week, (late Vikings head coach) Denny Green was saying we may have a tough time slowing them down. So if you want to schedule a track meet, that's OK. A lot of vertical shots and being aggressive.
On that day, 32.7 million people were watching; it is still the ninth-most watched Thanksgiving game in history.
Moss: The game plan was to get everybody involved. It wasn't just the Randy Moss show.
It's true that others were very involved. Cris Carter, himself a future Hall of Famer, caught seven passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. The Vikings rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns, led by Hoard. Randall Cunningham had a confounding stat line -- he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes, 17 of 34, but they went for 359 yards and four touchdowns.
The fifth play of the game, less than two minutes in, was a flea flicker -- Moss' first catch of the day, a 51-yard touchdown reception.
Moss: We're going deep regardless.
Billick: We found there were some teams early on that were, we're not going to let this rookie dictate to us. And they'd get scorched and go, OK, maybe we've got to double him. Dallas was going to try to go man up. So, we'll show you early.
Campo: He was wide open. Kevin Smith, one of the best corners, tried to hit him. He ran right by him.
When Moss hauled the ball in at around the 10-yard line, he was at least 5 yards past Smith. Madden noted that with Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders out (he missed the game with an injury), Moss could be the fastest man in the NFL. Moss' second catch of the game, still in the first quarter, was another bomb, a 56-yard touchdown that Moss caught even though Smith, in pursuit and in desperation, grabbed him and was flagged for pass interference. Summerall summed up the play: "Just throw it as far as you can." Madden was enthralled. "This guy is amazing," he said. Summerall added that he couldn't think of a way to stop him. The Cowboys had the same problem with the player Madden called the best wide receiver in football.
Moss: I can remember my receivers coach, God rest his soul, Hubbard Alexander, I scored my first one, he was telling me, hey man, you need to come over here and sit down and get your rest. You need to get your rest. I said, man, I'm not going to need no rest today. It's the Dallas Cowboys, and it's Thanksgiving. He was an older coach. I was more of a sprinter. It was just the history of growing up and watching the game, listening to guys like Summerall and Madden, and now I'm playing in front of millions of people on Thanksgiving. Everything just came to life when I went out there and started warming up.
Jones: Jason Garrett's father (Jim Garrett) had been in our scouting department for almost 20 years. I'll never forget when Randy was on the draft board, he stood up and so passionately said, "I've been doing this over 20 years, and this is the best receiver I've ever evaluated. There is a little criticism about some things, but we are not drafting Sunday school teachers here. We are drafting pro football players. This is the best receiver I've ever evaluated."
Garrett's voice rang in my ear as Randy was making those plays.
In fact, the first two touchdown receptions were just a warm-up for the third, which, even 25 years later, is hard to believe. Near the end of the third quarter, the Vikings had a first-and-10 from their own 44-yard line.
Billick: It was a run. We were doing RPOs 30 years ago. You see it on the film, Randall just looked over at Randy and smiled. It was just a grin, no signal. It was an alley-oop. Randall did a good job of laying it up there on the rim.
Moss: Which is my favorite? Gotta be my sideline.
Troy Aikman, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback: What I remember more than anything was the last one he caught, I was standing right there. It was like a hitch route. It was right in front of me where he caught it. I was standing with (backup QB) Jason Garrett. I remember thinking, I may have said it out loud to Jason, at least he's not going to score a touchdown on that one.
Billick: What was amazing about it was there were about five guys that had angles on Randy. He beat the first guy, and it's, OK, we'll get a good gain here. Randy just takes off down the sideline. They are chasing the rabbit. They get five steps in, and it's, oh s---, this is not going to work, and they turn upfield. The angles they took were for a normal guy.
Hoard: We were saying the same thing you were saying. Wow. The hitch was one of the most amazing things I've seen.
Moss: The one where I stutter-stepped him at the end, shrugged my shoulder at the end when he tried to grab me. My best friend, when that comes up, will say, you remember that play? Yeah, that's the stuff we used to do growing up. That was backyard, go down to the fire hydrant. Talk about razzle-dazzle stuff growing up in West Virginia. The 5-yard hitch. That's got to be my favorite.
The 5-yard hitch became a 56-yard touchdown sprint that left Cowboys defenders flailing in Moss' wake and completed his performance for the ages. Three receptions, 163 yards. Three touchdowns. The Vikings won, 46-36. Though the final score seemed close, even Aikman, who threw for 455 yards (a career high that also remains a Thanksgiving record), says it never felt like the Cowboys were in it.
Campo: That's ridiculous what he did. Next time, can you call me about one of our better games?
Greg Ellis, whom the Cowboys drafted instead of Moss, played 11 seasons and had 77 sacks for the Cowboys, leading the team in sacks six times. He was one of Jones' favorite players. Which did not stop Jones from apologizing to Moss for passing on him.
Jones: Absolutely. I told him if he were there, we were going to take him. I think I told him the first time I had a chance and I think I told him every time I saw him. That was a miss. I will put it right there for me, not drafting Moss with not having won a Super Bowl when we had Tony Romo as one of my handful of biggest what-might-have-beens. Randy was a big lesson for me. It shouldn't have been that hard for me to see that then, because you couldn't help but enjoy Randy Moss. What's ironic is that up to this day, he would have fit the Dallas Cowboys like a glove.
Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Brooke Cersosimo
Illustration by: Jessica Seo
Illustration photos courtesy of: Associated Press