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The strangest Thanksgiving football game ever played

Lee Balterman / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images

Football on Thanksgiving is synonymous with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. Those teams have hosted back-to-back matchups on the holiday since the dawn of the Super Bowl era. But neither was involved in the NFL's strangest Thanksgiving clash.

That game took place 70 years ago. Back then, the Dallas Texans earned the only win of their sorry existence, punishing the overconfident Chicago Bears for fielding a depleted lineup in Akron, Ohio. A high school championship contested on the same grass earlier that day - Thursday, Nov. 27, 1952 - drew six times as many fans.

Akron Beacon Journal

Before the pro game kicked off, Texans coach Jimmy Phelan puffed on a cigar in the bowels of the Rubber Bowl and told his squad to be thankful. Horrid on the field and hemorrhaging money, the Texans were sold to the league at midseason and hit the road for the rest of 1952. Phelan pointed out a silver lining: The crowd in Akron was so small, the players could walk through the stands and shake hands with every spectator.

"All of those clubs who have won have never had the experience that you're going to have today," Phelan told the team, as recalled by the late halfback Buddy Young in a TV feature.

No NFL franchise has folded since the Texans did the month after Thanksgiving. They were born from the remains of the New York Yanks, who went belly up themselves in 1951. Dallas businessman Giles Miller bought the Yanks' player contracts in order to break new ground, establishing the league's first team in a southern state.

The NFL in 1952 was made up of recognizable clubs and inaccurate passers. One quarterback threw for more than 200 yards per game that year; the All-Pro passers failed to complete half of their attempts. Los Angeles Rams cornerback Night Train Lane hauled in 14 interceptions in a dozen appearances, setting a single-season record that still stands.

The Texans' futility was comprehensive. They ranked last in yardage gained, sacks allowed, points against, punts forced, field goals attempted and made, and punt blocks conceded. Accounting for sacks and picks, the average Texans dropback produced 0.7 adjusted net yards, per Pro Football Reference, meaning they were always liable to lose ground.

Bad luck was the only kind they experienced. Phelan was a renowned college bench boss, but the three pro teams he coached all folded in a four-year span. The Texans drafted a future Hall of Famer at second overall in 1952, only to have the player, California-born-and-raised linebacker Les Richter, say he'd sooner retire than move to Dallas.

The Texans traded Richter to the Rams, then settled for moral victories when the '52 season started. Trailing 42-0 in L.A. in Week 6, they scored three touchdowns to ruin the 23-point spread. Down by one score to the Rams in its Week 7 rematch, Dallas gave up a pick-6 and a punt-return touchdown in the fourth quarter, saddening 10,000 fans at the Cotton Bowl.

Halfback George Taliaferro, shown in this playing card, was one of two Texans who made the 1952 Pro Bowl. Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

The Texans' cavernous home sat 75,000 but was never more than a quarter full. College football was king in Dallas, and as ESPN once noted in a story about the team's demise, the Texans alienated Black fans by segregating them in worse seats. Before national TV revenue enriched NFL franchises, they depended on ticket sales to survive. Phelan canceled practice ahead of the Rams rematch so his players could race to the bank to deposit their pay.

Miller forfeited control of the Texans to the NFL in mid-November, so the 0-9 team faced the Bears on Thanksgiving at a neutral site. Content to relax as they played out the string, most of the Texans ran volleyball drills at practice in Akron, using the crossbar as a makeshift net, while a few linemen took snaps at quarterback.

"And what did you say the Texans have for a record?" Don Plath, a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, asked rhetorically in the next day's newspaper.

Their opponent in Akron was mediocre in 1952 but historically formidable. Coached by founding owner George Halas, an NFL champion in four different decades, the Bears thumped the Texans 38-20 at Wrigley Field in Week 3 and edged the favored Lions by a point four days before Thanksgiving. Those teams, and the Green Bay Packers, were part of the '52 holiday slate, the first to be televised nationally via the DuMont network.

Texans-Bears commanded little buzz locally. More than 14,000 fans on Thanksgiving morning flocked to the Rubber Bowl to watch Akron's high school title game, but only 2,208 were present for the NFL contest, per the Beacon Journal. Halas opted to rest many of his starters shortly before the 2:45 p.m. kickoff. Players lit fires in trash cans on either sideline to offset the wind chill, according to ESPN.

The Texans greeted every fan personally before the Bears fell flat. Two Bears drives stalled deep in Texans territory when kicker George Blanda - the NFL's future career scoring leader - missed short field-goal tries. Doubling as the quarterback, Blanda was intercepted in the end zone on another series and a teammate fumbled inside the Texans' 10-yard line, though Chicago soon managed to tackle Young behind his goal line for a safety.

Chicago fumbling the ensuing free kick sprung the Texans for back-to-back touchdown drives. The second score came off a splendid trick play. Texans halfback George Taliaferro - the NFL's first Black draft pick - ran right and threw cross-field to the back of the end zone, where receiver Dick Wilkins leaped to snag the ball under duress.

Sloppiness burned both teams after halftime. Another Chicago interception - in all, the Bears threw four picks and lost four fumbles - led to Texans quarterback Frank Tripucka sneaking into the end zone from a yard out. Tripucka fumbled at his own goal line later, then was picked off as the Bears punched in three straight scores, storming back to lead 23-20 as the fourth quarter waned.

The starters Halas inserted to save face couldn't contain Tripucka in the clutch. Acquired via trade before the second Rams matchup, Tripucka authored his new team's greatest moment. His six completions on the 75-yard drive that clinched the victory included a red-zone lob to Tom Keane, who wrested the ball from his defender's grasp. Two plays later, Tripucka sneaked to the left and cleared the plane with 34 seconds on the clock.

Dallas QB Frank Tripucka. Denver Post / Getty Images

The Texans won 27-23, improving to 1-9 on the strength of an all-time upset. Halas kicked a Bears defensive back and berated his players for losing to "these bums," Chicago linebacker George Connor recounted years later in the TV feature.

"Unaccustomed as I am to winning, I feel alright," Phelan, succinct in victory, told The Associated Press postgame.

"The hopeless, homeless, hapless, what-have-you Texans, humiliated and mutilated in nine previous games and hungry enough to eat bear, did just that," the Akron Beacon Journal wrote in its recap. Besides the Bears, the only people who felt let down by the thriller were "the turkey eaters who stayed home," the paper added.

The Texans' demise loomed. They lost consecutive blowouts and were disbanded two weeks after Thanksgiving. Phelan never coached again and Tripucka, like half of his teammates, never returned to the NFL. (He did later star for the Denver Broncos in the upstart American Football League.)

Defunct for 70 years, the Texans remain linked to modern NFL teams. They beat Chicago, share a nickname with Houston, and were a forerunner to Indianapolis: the Texans' contracts were transferred to the expansion Baltimore Colts. A different Dallas Texans team was founded in the AFL and moved to Kansas City to become the Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Cowboys debuted in the NFL in 1960 and boomed in popularity.

As for the Lions, the other Thanksgiving mainstay: They pounded the Texans 41-6 to end the '52 season, then kept rolling and won the NFL title.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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