A coach, a referee, a player and a body part. What do they have in common? Infamy!
Despite the reason for the season, there have been a handful of NFL villains that have ruined Thanksgiving for the rest of us.
Of course, considering the league has been playing games on Thanksgiving for nearly a century, that’s not half bad. The NFL has featured Thanksgiving day games dating all the way back to its inaugural season in 1920.
Not surprisingly, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys — the two teams most associated with the holiday — have tallied the most wins, 35 and 29 respectively, while Detroit has been the biggest loser of any NFL team on Thanksgiving (38).
As usual, this year’s slate of Thanksgiving games consists of three contests. The Philadelphia Eagles are on the road to take on the Detroit Lions to start the day, then the Carolina Panthers are visiting the Dallas Cowboys late in the afternoon, while the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers will close the day out at Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving night.
While it remains to be seen if any players in these upcoming games will join the list of NFL Thanksgiving villains, the following men will forever be remembered for their infamous acts on the gridiron.
Buddy Ryan, head coach, Philadelphia Eagles (1989)
Before the Bountygate scandal that rocked the New Orleans Saints in 2012, the league had a series of games, featuring legendary head coach Buddy Ryan, called “Bounty Bowl.” The first of these two games, pitting the Eagles and Cowboys, took place on Thanksgiving day in 1989 and are known for the alleged bounty Ryan placed on Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman and kicker Luis Zendejas.
Former Dallas head coach Jimmy Johnson alleges Ryan has put a bounty of $500 on Aikman and another $200 on Zendejas. To this day, it’s not known why Ryan would put a bounty on a kicker, but there is hardly any doubt about the legitimacy of these allegations.
After the Thanksgiving game in which Zendejas staggered to the wrong sideline following the game’s opening kickoff, the kicker himself spoke up about the whole thing.
”It’s stupid to have a coach like that in the N.F.L., the fat little guy,” Zendejas said of Ryan after Thursday’s game. ”He can’t take you out himself, so he pays somebody else to do it for him. That’s about as low as you can get.”
This kind of activity would never be tolerated in this day and age, but back in the 1980s the league wasn’t as safety-conscious. Still, despite the fact that Ryan is one of the legendary coaches in league history, he’ll always be remembered for his despicable acts of poor character on one of America’s most popular holidays.
Leon Lett, defensive end, Dallas Cowboys (1993)
Not every villain is aware of their villainous acts while they are pulling them off. Such was the case in 1993 when Leon Lett became enemy No. 1 for Cowboys fans when he unwittingly, single-handedly, lost the game for Dallas.
Texas stadium was a big snow-filled playground that day if you remember, and both teams had trouble scoring throughout the contest. With the game on the line (Dallas was up 14-13) and 15 seconds left on the clock, Miami Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich lined up for a 40-yard game-winning field goal which the Cowboys blocked, thus sealing the win for the home team…or so we all thought.
All the Cowboys had to do was just leave the ball alone to win the game, based on the rules at that time. Of course these days, players can return blocked field goals for touchdowns, but that wasn’t the case in 1993.
Someone forgot to tell Lett about the rule, though.
As the ball spun on the snow-covered ground, with Dolphins players just standing around watching, unable to change the outcome of the certain loss, Lett dove for the ball inexplicably, booted it down the field where the Dolphins were able to recover for a chip-in field goal attempt to win the game, which they did.
The worst part about all this was that it was the second time in less than one calendar year that Lett had gained infamy after a bit of showboating cost his team a touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII.
Phil Luckett, referee (1998)
Even if most of you don’t recognize the name Phil Luckett, you’d be hard pressed to find many Pittsburgh Steelers fans who won’t remember who he is.
Pittsburgh was in Detroit for a Thanksgiving showdown with the Lions, and the game was still undecided after 60 minutes with the score tied up at 16-16. Legendary Steelers running back Jerome Bettis called out heads and then said tails before the coin hit the turf on the overtime coin-toss. Luckett said “heads is the call” before the coin hit the turf, prompting Bettis to go ballistic after the Lions were awarded the ball to start overtime.
At the time, overtime was a sudden-death affair, meaning the team that scored first won the game — period. Therefore, getting that coin-toss wrong cost Pittsburgh the game because the Lions made a field goal on the first overtime possession to win 19-16.
The Steelers took the loss awfully hard and failed to pick up another win the rest of the season.
This incident prompted NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to change the overtime rules. Since that ill-fated moment for Bettis, all coin-toss calls are made before the coin is tossed, rather than at the same time.
Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle, Detroit Lions (2011)
Easily the baddest of the bad on this list, Suh’s Thanksgiving stomp is among the most egregious, most infamous of all villainous acts in NFL history.
The Lions were hosting the red-hot Green Bay Packers, who went on to win their 17th straight game by a score of 27-15. Early in the third quarter, with Green Bay already up 7-0, Suh got into an altercation with Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith on the ground.
No big deal, right? Offensive and defensive linemen get into it all the time. But Suh then crossed the line in a horrifying way. First he slammed Dietrich-Smith’s head into the ground a few times and then he full-on stomped on the center’s arm.
Already with a terrible reputation for being a dirty player at that time, Suh’s stomp earned him the resentment of many an NFL player, especially after he refused to take responsibility for his actions.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my coaches and my true fans for allowing the refs to have an opportunity to take me out of this game,” Suh said, via ESPN. “What I did was remove myself from the situation the best way I felt, with me being held down.”
Right…Suh was the victim. Of course!
It should be noted, he still has a bad reputation to this day for being one of the dirtiest players of all time.
Mark Sanchez, quarterback, New York Jets (2012)
And now we come to it, the infamous butt-fumble. Most NFL fans remember this play but forget it happened on Thanksgiving and that it occurred on the first primetime Thanksgiving game on broadcast television.
Early in the second quarter after the New England Patriots had scored a huge 83-yard touchdown to go up 14-0, Sanchez infamously ran into the behind of offensive guard Brandon Moore on a busted play, fumbling the ball.
Perhaps, if we’re being fair to Sanchez, Moore’s derriere deserves at least part of the blame for being in the way, thus causing Sanchez to suffer through one of the most embarrassing experiences in league history.
The butt-fumble was recovered by Steve Gregory of the Patriots, who ran it back for a touchdown to give New England a 21-0 lead. Incredibly, New England scored again on the very next play following the extra point when Joe McKnight fumbled the kickoff return and Julian Edelman returned that fumble for another touchdown. After going up 28-0, the Patriots went on to blow out the Jets 49-19.