I have had many blessings in my life; the most important being the first. I was born into a wonderful family, and was lucky enough to grow up in a safe, comfortable suburb on the southwest side of Chicago. I have been very fortunate, and I am deeply grateful.
My mom was an incredible cook, and I think a key ingredient was the love she put into it. Her food was so good it actually made you happy. She lived to have the whole family together, and make everyone happy, especially on holidays. Mom approached Thanksgiving and Christmas like the cooking Olympics; an incredible amount of planning and preparation went into making it look easy. She always won gold in my eyes.
As soon as Thanksgiving dinner was over, I was 100% focused on Christmas, and my two biggest goals were creating a wish list for Santa and watching Christmas specials on TV. It was the only time of year I was excited by catalogs in the mail and the TV Listings in the Sunday paper. Watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas were essential holiday rituals. I grew to love the movies A Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Carol (starring Reginald Owen). As cable and VCR's did not yet exist, you had one shot per year, and the TV Guide was your friend.
Baseball had always been my favorite sport. To me, baseball equaled play-everyday equaled summer; football equaled play-once-a-week equaled school. I grew up watching Notre Dame football, and loved to toss the pigskin around or play a pickup game in the park, but it wasn't the same. Since I never played on a team or in any organized fashion, I didn't understand it as well as baseball. I certainly never associated football with Thanksgiving.
In 1975, the Chicago Bears drafted a running back named Walter Payton. I didn't notice. In '76, he ran for nearly 1400 yards and 13 touchdowns. I noticed. In 1977, Notre Dame had a quarterback named Joe Montana, who led them to a National Championship. By then, my understanding of the game had grown and it was a thrilling season. I watched the Irish intently, and found I was still hungry for football the next day. I turned on the TV one Sunday after church, and saw Walter Payton run the ball for the first time. It was beautiful. Yes, he had speed and athleticism, but his passion caught me off guard. It leaped off the screen, both obvious and contagious.
On Sunday November 20 1977, just before Thanksgiving, I watched my first NFL game start to finish. Walter Payton ran for 275 yards, breaking the NFL single game record of 273 set by OJ Simpson. Of course that gained national attention, but Sweetness absolutely electrified Chicago. I wasn't the only kid transformed; it was all anyone could talk about at school on Monday.
We played football after school that day, and someone said they were going to play a big game with uncles and cousins on Thanksgiving morning, which he called the "Turkey Bowl."
What? I never heard of such a thing.
Someone else asked him how early the game started, wondering how he could play football, eat the big family dinner and watch the Bears play Detroit.
What? The Bears play on Thanksgiving?
Everyone looked at me, shaking their heads. I learned that football had been played on Thanksgiving from the beginning, and the Bears would play at Detroit that year.
Thanksgiving morning, I got up and went to play football in the park with my friends. I had a blast! Afterwords, I showered and got ready to go wherever we were going for dinner that evening. When everyone else was getting ready, I turned on the TV and caught some of the game. Driving to our destination, all I could think about was what I was missing. When we arrived, I dutifully said hello to everyone and then sneaked away to find a TV. I got caught and was scolded, being reminded that this was a special day for family, not football. I knew that, I just didn't want to miss Walter.
In one year I went from never associating football with Thanksgiving, to not being able to imagine it without it. I played football in Turkey Bowls for years to come. At first, the majority of my family considered it blasphemous to watch the games on TV that day. Over the years, that has changed for the most part, especially if the Bears are playing. Now there are three games on Thanksgiving.
How does your family handle the NFL on Thanksgiving Day?