As we wind down the list of most influential moments on Thanksgiving Day in Packers history and make our way to the top spot, let’s take a moment to visit those that did not crack the top five:
1929: Green Bay 0, Frankford Yellow Jackets 0–The only blemish on an otherwise perfect season for the NFL Champion Packers.
1956: Green Bay 24, Detroit 20–Broke a seven-game Thanksgiving Day losing streak that dates back to 1932.
1970: Dallas 16, Green Bay 3–First Thanksgiving Day game between the Packers and Cowboys.
1994: Dallas 42, Green Bay 31–The “Jason Garrett Game.” Enough said.
Full disclosure: the number one game on this list may not be the most influential game on Thanksgiving in Packers history, but it is most definitely the most exciting and thrilling contest witnessed by most Packers fans who are similar in age to the guy writing this. As a senior in high school at the time of this game, the Packers were 14 years removed from their last division title and 10 years away from their third all-time Super Bowl berth. Times were bleak in Titletown, but one Thanksgiving game in 1986 made the turkey and stuffing digest a bit easier for those celebrating the holiday in Wisconsin.
1. November 27, 1986: Green Bay 44, Detroit 40
It was Week 13 in the 1986 NFL season, and the Packers limped into the Silverdome on Thanksgiving Day with a paltry 2-10 record. To say the campaign up to this point was a disappointment would be a vast understatement, and the players were surely counting down the days until they could clean out their lockers and reset for next year. But, this was a nationally-televised game, with legends Pat Summerall and John Madden on the call, and the top broadcasting crew on CBS was rarely assigned to a last-place team. If only the Packers could muster up some drama to justify their presence in the Silverdome…
OFFENSIVE FIREWORKS IN PONTIAC
The defenses were evidently given the option to show up during the course of the game, which was definitely opposite what the prognosticators thought when they set the over/under line at 40; the game went “over” at halftime.
The two teams traded blows in this back-and-forth matchup, one that rewarded those who were fans of plenty of offense. After the Lions jumped out to a 10-0 lead, the Packers scored 16 unanswered points thanks to three field goals from Al Del Greco and a special teams fumble recovery in the end zone. After Walter Stanley scored the first of his three touchdowns on a pass from Randy Wright (pictured below), the Lions clawed back with a touchdown of their own before the half, making the Packers lead 23-20 at the break.
THE SECOND HALF WAS MESMERIZING, AND WALTER STANLEY BECAME A LEGEND
The Lions asserted themselves by scoring the first 17 points of the second half to take a commanding 37-23 lead, but Stanley caught his second touchdown of the day to make it seven-point deficit heading into the final quarter.
The Lions held a slim 40-37 lead late in the fourth quarter when they were forced to punt from their own 37 with 41 seconds to play. Things looked bleak for the Packers until Walter Stanley caught Jim Arnold’s punt on his own 17 yard-line on the right side, traversed left to about midfield, then reversed field, and ultimately raced 83 yards down his own sideline for his third touchdown of the game to seal the Packers’ third win of the season.
Link to video of Stanley’s game-winning punt return:
STANLEY’S MOMENT WAS NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN
Before the historic punt return, head coach and Packer legend Forrest Gregg gave explicit instructions to Stanley that he should NOT under any circumstances attempt to return the kick; in fact, he was supposed to make a fair catch because the Packers went for an all-out block of the punt, leaving little to no blocking for a potential return. Gregg was afraid of a penalty that would back the Packers up further, and he was also worried about a turnover that would potentially clinch the game for the Lions.
“I wasn’t supposed to run,” Stanley said after the game. “It was set up for a block, and I was supposed to fair-catch. But I decided not to because I wanted to get something going.”
Even Gregg, who was not always known for his easy-going demeanor, especially when his instructions were ignored, could not find fault for Stanley’s improvisation. “All I know is the guy is a good athlete and has a lot of heart,” Gregg said. “A lot of things can happen, and it did on that. Walter had an outstanding game. I think they probably underestimated his ability a little bit. Nobody will be guilty of that again.”
As stated, was this “influential” in the Packers’ Thanksgiving Day lore? Probably not, but it sure as hell was exciting and memorable. Players make plays, and even though Stanley’s three touchdowns that day equaled 50% of his career total, he picked the right stage to make his name remembered and etched in the memories of those living in Wisconsin and, because of the explosion of the popularity surrounding Thanksgiving Day football, the country 37 years after the game.