Marching bands and football have filled the autumn air together for more than a century, but in 1982, as families finalized their Thanksgiving plans, the relationship grew too close. That’s when the band took the field in Berkeley and total chaos ensued. Five days later, with order seemingly restored, a one-man band took the field in Detroit and wrought a different kind of chaos, a Thanksgiving Day fury that changed the game forever.
November 25, 1982 – Thanksgiving Day – New York Giants at Detroit
In the late 1920s, Thanksgiving Day in New York meant the Giants and Staten Island Stapletons colliding for Empire State bragging rights. But the Great Depression sunk Staten Island’s team, and with it, the Giants’ traditional Thanksgiving game. A half-century would pass before football once again filled the New York turkey-day cornucopia.
For the 1982 Giants, it meant a short week of preparation after a dismal performance against Washington. It was also a chance to restore their status before a national television audience stung by the players’ strike. Fifty-seven days and seven games were lost to the walkout, fans were dispirited and boos rained freely during the return to game action four days prior. With the spirit of Thanksgiving now upon them, the reception remained chilly in suburban Detroit, where thousands of no-shows made the Silverdome even more dreary than usual.
Lawrence Taylor was gloomy, too. His body ached and the strike had cost him thousands of dollars, his only solace being a return home to Virginia where he played quarterback in a pickup touch football league. Against the Redskins, he sprained his right knee badly enough to have it braced, making him doubtful for Detroit. Worse still, his team was winless. It wasn’t the encore performance he envisioned after being named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie in 1981, a season in which his Giants posted their first winning campaign in a decade.
Taylor told the New York Times that he was thinking too much, not playing instinctually. He aimed to change that in Detroit, if only he could get on the field.
At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Taylor was a chiseled, sleek ghost in the Giants’ all-white road uniform – a beacon in the Silverdome’s dusk – but his knee howled, even in warm-ups. When Eric Hipple led Detroit’s offense onto the field for its first series, Taylor was caged on the sideline. He remained there, an injured spectator, until early in the second quarter, but even with Taylor on the field, there was no defense for Eddie Murray’s strong right leg and the Giants limped into halftime trailing 6-0.
Taylor boiled in the dressing room. He and his fellow Crunch Bunch linebackers had lost their reckless, hard-hitting way. He vowed to find it in the second half, imploring the defense to rediscover itself, to attack. Gary Danielson was unaware of the brewing fury. Lions head coach Monte Clark asked him to relieve Hipple at quarterback in the second half, an invitation he might have declined had he known of Taylor’s intensifying bloodlust. As it was, Danielson jogged the Lions out for their opening possession, perched at the 32-yard line on the right hash.
The sixth-year man from Purdue began his cadence with split backs behind and a tight end anchoring the right side. Across the line of scrimmage to his left, looming upright and coiled, was No. 56. The plan was to open the series with play action and a quick throw to the wide side, but when Danielson spun from the fake, all he saw was Taylor closing fast. Detroit’s left tackle, 265-pound Karl Baldischwiler, was overturned in the background. Taylor had caught him in a hurried kick step with such speed and force that the big man was instantly overwhelmed, barely a speed bump in Taylor’s destructive path. Danielson rushed his throw, Harry Carson intercepted and the Giants eventually turned it into three points.
Detroit started its ensuing drive on the 20 with Billy Sims alone in the backfield. David Hill, a tight end, anchored the left side along with an h-back, putting nearly 1,000 pounds of human plow on Taylor’s side of center. He squared himself with Hill, who surged forward at the snap but hit air as Taylor side-stepped him deftly.
In the middle, Amos Fowler – Detroit’s center – cut Bill Neill to open a hole, but the Giants nose tackle managed to grab Sims’ ankle as he probed the running lane. Sims dangled for an instant before Taylor knifed in and jarred the ball loose with a flawless form tackle. Brad Van Pelt recovered the fumble, and after another Giants field goal, the score was tied.
Detroit eventually managed an advance to its 46 before Taylor struck again. Foolishly determined to slow him with a single blocker, the Lions aligned with split backs and a tight end to the right. On the left, Taylor stood five feet outside Baldischwiler who was face-to-face with Giants defensive end Phil Tabor. At the snap, Baldischwiler took Tabor, leaving 285-pound left guard Homer Elias to handle Taylor. Elias kicked out and drove himself into Taylor’s left shoulder, but he was already beat. Taylor grabbed Danielson with his right hand, planted his feet and flung him with swirling, tornadic force for an emphatic 11-yard loss. Taylor was already sauntering back to his teammates when the Lions quarterback stopped spinning.
With both offenses sputtering, the score remained tied into the fourth quarter. Eventually Detroit caught a spark, driving to the Giants 4, and on third-and-goal the Lions called time-out. On the New York sideline, defensive coordinator Bill Parcells reminded his linebackers of how Green Bay exploited them for a touchdown in a similar situation earlier in the season. There would be no assignment uncertainty this time. If Detroit came out with split backs and a tight end to Taylor’s side, he would cover whomever went outside and Brian Kelley would take the inside.
As the Lions broke their huddle, the formation was just as Parcells had predicted. Danielson walked them to the line and Taylor nodded at Kelley. At the snap, Hill, the tight end, broke inside, and Kelley marked his man. Horace King, a running back, swung out at Taylor on an option route. Danielson’s eyes never left King as he rammed into Taylor and cut hard to the outside. Knowing he had help from Terry Jackson over the top, Taylor undercut King’s route, breaking before Danielson released the throw.
In a supremely athletic stretch, Taylor snatched Danielson’s pass and turned upfield. Ninety-seven yards of empty green stretched before him and he crossed it with sprinter’s speed.
“The ball in my hand took care of all the pain from the injury,” Taylor later told Frank Litsky of the Times.
As Taylor celebrated in the end zone with a feet-first slide, John Madden explained the two-quarter rampage witnessed by his CBS audience. “There are some defensive players who are great enough to dominate a game and win by themselves – and that’s the type of defensive player Lawrence Taylor is.”
An extra point made it 13-6, which would be the final tally on a day in which every point the Giants scored was directly attributable to Taylor.
In New York they celebrated, raising a turkey leg salute to their newest hero, but for the NFL’s offensive play-callers, there was only stuffing and indigestion as they schemed in vain. Taylor, in his prime, simply could not be stopped.