American Football: Tucking into touchdowns at the Turkey Day feast
Sunday 29 November 2009
What do wildcats, razorbacks and a $1.5 million man called Austin have in common? All three were crucial to the Dallas Cowboys two-stepping all over the Oakland Raiders as the US tucked into Thanksgiving football here this week.
The annual holiday takes its name from the Plymouth Pilgrims, who held the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. These days, with the typical US worker surviving on a spartan diet of two weeks' vacation per year, the fourth Thursday in November – a public holiday since 1941 – offers a much-needed opportunity to kick back and party.
The NFL has seized on Turkey Day and turned it into a razzmatazz-filled feast of football. As more than 45 million birds are served, touchdowns from three back-to-back games are wolfed down by a national audience.
The epicentre of this extravaganza is Dallas, where "America's Team" have been playing on Thanksgiving every year since 1978. This season, taking the excitement to another level, the Cowboys – valued by Forbes at $1.7bn (£1bn) and named the second-richest franchise in sport behind Manchester United – are showcasing their new $1.2bn stadium, complete with retractable roof and end-zone doors.
As flames are thrown into the air, the home gladiators wearing the 1960s Cowboys uniforms – another Thanksgiving tradition – make a unique entrance. They emerge at the 50-yard line from the smoky club lounge, where fans stand within touching distance of their heroes. The players are immaculately turned out, which is no surprise given the NFL's "uniform Nazi" will routinely dish out fines of $5,000 for heinous offences such as an untucked jersey.
All the pomp is magnified on the world's largest high-definition video screen – a 160ft by 72ft monstrosity, hanging 90ft above the field. It perfectly captures the glamour of the world-famous Cowboys cheerleaders and flashes "Intruder Alert" when the Raiders dare to occupy the opposite sideline. Following a rousing rendition of the national anthem by an army sergeant as members of the military hold a giant American flag, the 83,489 fans go crazy.
There is plenty for both sets of fans to give thanks for. For Cowboys' followers, that includes quarterback Tony Romo being back to his best following his summer break-up with reality star Jessica Simpson. The blonde bombshell was blamed for one of his worst performances two years ago, and many diehards considered her to have put a hex on the franchise's leading man. For perennial cellar-dwellers Oakland Raiders there is reason to be cheerful, because their quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the No 1 draft pick in 2007, has been benched after looking anything but. Who shot JR? Turns out his wounds were self-inflicted.
Amid the hoopla, a game of football breaks out and it quickly becomes clear which team are the turkey. Miles Austin, the bright young thing of the Cowboys, displays his talent on the game's first big play, a 49-yard pass down the middle. Dallas then roll out a version of the Wildcat – where the ball is snapped directly to a running back – and Tashard Choice exploits the Razorback formation by rumbling 66 yards to set up a field goal.
It's one-way traffic, and the Raiders even manage to look like the Keystone Kops when two defenders collide trying to intercept a drop by Roy Williams, who admits to me his play "is not living up to expectations". The former Detroit Lion was brought in at a high price and given a $54m contract to give the team a downfield threat, but this day is symptomatic of his season. Just two catches for 15 yards as Romo finds his favourite target Austin seven times for 145 yards and the Cowboys' 24-7 procession is only interrupted by the half-time show, where rock band Daughtry kick off the 13th annual Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign.
Austin wins a share of the "All-Iron" award – literally a mounted silver iron. The 25-year-old tells me he is "not completely shocked" by his breakout season. Like Cowboys fans everywhere, he has a lot to be thankful for.
Sky Sports' live NFL coverage includes two games each Sunday night from 5.30pm and every play-off game plus Super Bowl XLIV on 7 February 2010
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