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Tampa, Thanksgiving Day football have a heritage

From preps to pros, the history of bay area “Turkey Day” football spans generations.
 
The Bucs have played one game on Thanksgiving Day during their existence, a 38-10 loss to Terrell Owens (81) and the Cowboys at Texas Stadium in 2006.
The Bucs have played one game on Thanksgiving Day during their existence, a 38-10 loss to Terrell Owens (81) and the Cowboys at Texas Stadium in 2006. [ Times (2006) ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023|Updated Nov. 23, 2023

TAMPA — For years, it seems we’ve annually celebrated the glorious, gastronomical matrimony of Thanksgiving football and food from afar.

While the in-person parties rage every year in Detroit, Dallas and even Dixie (don’t forget the Egg Bowl), we’re left to revel with our remote controls on Thanksgiving Day, with no actual games to attend or area teams for which to root.

But it hasn’t always been like that. Our local pro and college teams have dabbled in Thanksgiving football, and one of the oldest high school rivalries in the area once was synonymous with the holiday.

Here’s a look at our Thanksgiving football heritage, which might be a bit richer than you presume.

‘Turkey Day’ game

Hillsborough and Plant square off during their 1972 clash at the old Tampa Stadium. For years, the Terriers and Panthers played each other on Thanksgiving in a showdown that came to be known as the "Turkey Day" game. [Hillsborough High School (1972)]
Hillsborough and Plant square off during their 1972 clash at the old Tampa Stadium. For years, the Terriers and Panthers played each other on Thanksgiving in a showdown that came to be known as the "Turkey Day" game. [Hillsborough High School (1972)]

For decades, Plant and Hillsborough — who began playing each other in 1928 — staged their annual showdown on Thanksgiving Day. Because neither school’s home field could accommodate the crowds this rivalry attracted, the game was held for years at Phillips Field (home to University of Tampa football) on the Hillsborough River’s west bank, before moving to Tampa Stadium. Naturally, the game’s history is rife with classics. In 1967, Roger McKinney nailed a 25-yard field goal to lift Hillsborough to a 10-7 win before 16,500 at Tampa Stadium. In 1973 (one of the final “Turkey Day” contests), Plant rallied from a 21-0 deficit for a 29-21 triumph.

Gore on I-4

USF coach Willie Taggart celebrates his team's 44-3 rout of UCF on Thanksgiving night 2015 at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando. [Times (2015)]
USF coach Willie Taggart celebrates his team's 44-3 rout of UCF on Thanksgiving night 2015 at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando. [Times (2015)]

While the USF-UCF rivalry evolved into a Black Friday tradition in its later years (2013-14, 2017-21), it was held on Thanksgiving night in 2015 — and the Bulls bellied up. UCF, playing out a winless season that had resulted in George O’Leary’s resignation weeks earlier, displayed tryptophan grogginess in a 44-3 defeat inside a half-barren Bright House Networks Stadium on UCF’s campus. Quinton Flowers threw for three touchdowns, Marlon Mack ran for 102 yards, and the Bulls defense never allowed the Knights inside the red zone after the game’s first possession. “Our guys came out, and they were in attack mode the entire football game,” Bulls coach Willie Taggart said.

Romo’s record day

In only his fifth NFL start, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw for a franchise record-tying five touchdowns in a 38-10 Thanksgiving Day embarrassment of the Bucs in 2006. [Times (2006)]
In only his fifth NFL start, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw for a franchise record-tying five touchdowns in a 38-10 Thanksgiving Day embarrassment of the Bucs in 2006. [Times (2006)]

The Bucs’ lone Thanksgiving Day contest — Nov. 23, 2006 — turned out to be less digestible than 7-day-old stuffing. Before a national audience, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on five of their first seven possessions in a 38-10 romp. In only his fifth NFL start, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo carved up Monte Kiffin’s defense, throwing for 306 yards and tying Troy Aikman’s franchise record of five touchdown passes. “It was somewhat embarrassing,” Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. “I think everybody was excited to be the only game on in front of however many people watching us. Unfortunately, they probably all turned it off in the third quarter.”

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A ‘Noles night game

FSU coach Bill Peterson brought his team to Tampa Stadium for a Thanksgiving night showdown against Houston in 1970. The Seminoles led the nationally televised contest by nine at halftime before surrendering 41 unanswered second-half points in a 53-21 defeat. [Times (1970)]
FSU coach Bill Peterson brought his team to Tampa Stadium for a Thanksgiving night showdown against Houston in 1970. The Seminoles led the nationally televised contest by nine at halftime before surrendering 41 unanswered second-half points in a 53-21 defeat. [Times (1970)]

For reasons we’ve not been able to uncover, FSU played its 1970 season finale against Houston on Thanksgiving night at Tampa Stadium. A feeble crowd of 18,053 showed up, but millions tuned in on ABC to catch the only college game being broadcast anywhere that night. The Seminoles (7-4) built a nine-point halftime lead — highlighted by Tommy Warren’s 65-yard scoring pass to Barry Smith — before Houston’s high-powered veer offense kicked in and the ‘Noles (six turnovers) began self-destructing. Houston (7-3) scored 41 unanswered second-half points en route to a 53-21 romp. Trivia note: FSU’s staff included linebackers coach Bill Parcells.

Morning glory

Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao will lead the Buccaneers into Friday night's Class 2M region final against Calvary Christian. Several bay area prep football teams practice on Thanksgiving morning in preparation for Black Friday playoff action.
Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao will lead the Buccaneers into Friday night's Class 2M region final against Calvary Christian. Several bay area prep football teams practice on Thanksgiving morning in preparation for Black Friday playoff action. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

If you drive past an area high school on Thanksgiving morning, you just might see a team practicing. Florida’s high school football calendar annually features second- or third-round state playoff action on Black Friday, meaning the practice week of teams still alive culminates with that blissful turkey-day morning walk-through. In fact, many teams make it a preseason goal to be practicing Thanksgiving morning. “We tell parents in our first parent meeting in June to please expect to be in town for Thanksgiving,” said Tampa Bay Tech coach Jayson Roberts, whose team hosts Orlando Jones in a Class 3A region final Friday. “We most certainly will be practicing Thursday (morning).”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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