Thanksgiving Day has been associated with college football since the game’s earliest days. Starting in 1876, Yale began playing a near annual Thanksgiving Day game in the New York City area against either Princeton or Harvard. These contests often drew crowds in excess of 40,000 people. Fans could also be spotted watching the game from a surrounding viaduct, rail lines and atop nearby Coogan’s Bluff. However, these annual games in New York ended in the early 1890’s.
Luckily, the practice of playing games on Thanksgiving Day quickly went far beyond New York. There were 88 games scheduled for the 1920 season. Over the years, the numbers of days played on the holiday dwindled down to a single game by 1980. This season only the Texas Tech-Texas and South Florida-Central Florida games will be played on Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the most memorable Thanksgiving Day game was played between top ranked Nebraska and second ranked Oklahoma in 1971. Billed as the “Game of the Century” the game was viewed by a television audience 55 million people. That was the largest number of people to ever watch a college game at the time. Nebraska took a 14-3 lead when Hall of Famer Johnny Rodgers returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown. Behind quarterback Jack Mildren, OU battled back and took a 17-14 halftime lead when Milden hit Jon Harrison for a score with five second left in the half.
In the second half, Nebraska rallied with two scoring drives that ended with Jeff Kinney touchdowns giving the Huskers a 28-17 edge. Back came the Sooners as Mildren ran for one score and connected again with Harrison giving OU a 31-28 fourth quarter lead. With seven minutes to play Jerry Tagge led the Huskers on a 74-yard time-consuming drive. The big plays were a Tagge to Rodgers third and eight completion for 11 yards that Rodgers caught while falling to his knees, and a 17-yard gain by Kinney on a third and one situation at the OU 35. Six plays later Kinney scored giving Nebraska a 35-31 win.
To those millions watching at home they got far more than an extra helping of Pumpkin Pie as two teams combined for 829 yards of offense and nine touchdowns.