(Steve Corkran/Mercury News) – The game was played 39 years ago, to the day, yet Hall of Fame center Jim Otto remembers in vivid detail the grass condition, the steel beams supporting the stadium and that the Raiders lost a game they should have won.
It has been a long wait, but today the Raiders finally get another chance to play on Thanksgiving Day, against the Dallas Cowboys at their new, state-of-the-art stadium.
The Raiders are looking forward to it.
“As a little kid growing up, you always dreamed of this day,” quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said. “And now, to be able to play in a nationally televised (game) on Thanksgiving, everyone’s home with their families eating turkey, it’s just unbelievable.”
Playing on Thanksgiving was commonplace for the Raiders during the first 10 years of their existence. They played four games on Thanksgiving from 1963-68, including two at the Oakland Coliseum.
Yet, the game the Raiders played against the Detroit Lions in 1970 at Tiger Stadium stood out for many reasons.
For one, it was a rare chance for the Raiders to play a nationally televised game; “Monday Night Football” was in its inaugural season and had yet to become a showcase event. More important, it was an opportunity for the Raiders to go toe to toe with one of the established big boys from the NFL.
The Raiders entered pro football as one of the eight original franchises in the upstart American Football League in 1960. The AFL merged with the NFL in
“Anytime we went against an NFC team, it was always special to us guys that had been American Football League players for so long,” Otto said. “It was always big for us to go against them and prove that we were better than the National Football League.”
The Raiders jumped to a 14-0 lead that day in 1970. But the Lions scored the final 28 points for the victory.
Raiders Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown also participated in that game, but only because of injuries to two other cornerbacks early in the game. Brown still was recovering from surgery to repair a separated shoulder.
“Next thing I know, two weeks after operating on my shoulder, I was back in the game playing,” Brown recalled. “I played pretty much the second quarter of that game. Fred Biletnikoff was having a great game, especially in the first half. We bounced back, came back, tried to do what we could do. It was just a tough game.”
Biletnikoff, a Hall of Fame wide receiver, had touchdown catches of 23 and 21 yards from quarterback Daryle Lamonica in the first half. Otto said the Raiders spent the rest of the game squandering scoring opportunities.
“I know that we dropped some passes that could have been touchdowns, could have been scores for us,” Otto said. “We jumped out ahead of them right away, but then all of a sudden, we got stymied, and they got those scores to beat us.”
The tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day began in 1934, when Lions owner George A. Richards sought a way to compete with the popularity of the Detroit Tigers and slugger Hank Greenberg. Playing on Thanksgiving, he surmised, just might give his newly relocated team added exposure. The Lions, who were the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans from 1930-33, were playing before crowds no larger than 15,000, despite winning 10 of their first 11 games.
Adding to the Thanksgiving Day attraction was the opponent — the undefeated and defending champion Chicago Bears, coached by George Halas — and the fact that Richards also owned a radio station. Richards used his clout to convince the NBC Radio Network to carry the game on 94 stations from coast to coast. The game sold out two weeks in advance and drew an estimated 26,000 fans to University of Detroit Stadium, with an additional 25,000 turned away.
This year marks the 70th Thanksgiving game for the Lions — the series was postponed from 1939-44 because of World War II.
The Cowboys joined the Thanksgiving Day tradition in 1966, when general manager Tex Schramm wanted more exposure for his franchise.
The NFL was so concerned that fans wouldn’t embrace the idea that it guaranteed the Cowboys a certain amount of revenue in case ticket sales lagged. Instead, the Cowboys shattered their attendance record with 80,259 fans at the Cotton Bowl in a 26-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns. They have hosted a Thanksgiving Day game every year since except for 1975 and ’77.
The Thanksgiving Day opponents for the Cowboys and Lions are random, so the Raiders don’t know when their next chance will come. They waited 39 years for this one.