November 25, 1993 – Miami Dolphins 16, Dallas Cowboys 14
My first memories of the Dallas Cowboys come from Tom Landry’s last year. That 1988 season when the team won just three games. After that season, the team got the top pick of the draft, Jerry Jones became the owner, and soon after, fired the franchise’s only coach. The famously stoic Landry supposedly cried when he met with players one last time.
I remember more of the 1989 season. The Cowboys, under Jimmy Johnson, drafted Troy Aikman with that first pick, traded Herschel Walker—their best player—then lost every single game except one. Their lone win came against Washington, the defending Super Bowl champs. Those were my first full memories of the Cowboys. And then, to my surprise, the team I knew as losers, became great.
When one’s 13 years old and the team they love becomes great, it’s easy to expect they’ll always win. That was me. So, on a snowy Thanksgiving in 1993, when the Cowboys lost to the Dolphins, I felt crushed. It wasn’t so much that they lost, but how it happened.
I can still remember the Cowboys blocking a last-second field goal and me thinking they’d won. I can still remember Jerry Jones, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin, celebrating, thinking the same. I remember seeing that brown football, spinning so innocently atop the white snow. Then, for reasons only he knows, Leon Lett tried to jump on top of it, only to kick it and have the Dolphins recover. I remember feeling helpless, watching Dolphins’ players use towels and their cleats to clean the snow and ice from the spot their kicker would try to win the game again.
The Dolphins made the field goal and won. The game ended. Not only was my Thanksgiving ruined, but so too was my entire weekend. When one’s 13 years old, they lack perspective.
November 26, 1998 – Minnesota Vikings 46, Dallas Cowboys 36
In 1997, the team lost their last five games of the season. They finished with a 6–10 record. After the season, Barry Switzer was out as head coach. Though aging, The Triplets—Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith—could still play. Because of their tumultuous 1997 season, the Cowboys had the 8th pick of the draft. Perhaps, if the team could use that pick to rebuild alongside The Triplets, without tearing it all down, that dreadful season could account for something.
Randy Moss was in that draft. The wide receiver from Marshall was a generational talent with a penchant for getting into trouble. So much trouble Notre Dame and Florida State both said they’d rather not deal with him. So much trouble, that when draft day came, team after team passed on Moss.
When the receiver dropped to the 8th pick, Moss was convinced the Cowboys would draft him. Moss’s mother thought the same. But instead, the Cowboys selected Greg Ellis. The Vikings drafted Moss with the 21st pick. Upset, Moss vowed revenge. He swore that anytime he’d play the Cowboys, he’d remember how depressed his mother looked when the team refused to draft him.
Moss’s first game against the Cowboys came on Thanksgiving 1998. In what became known among Cowboy fans as “The Randy Moss Game,” the rookie receiver caught just 3 passes, but each of them went for long touchdowns of over 50 yards. After his third touchdown, the television camera zoomed in on Moss sitting on the bench. And though the audio wasn’t broadcast, it looked like he said something to his mother.
I watched that game while living in Tucson. I had moved from Phoenix to live with a girlfriend. That was a mistake for both of us. That Thanksgiving, away from my family, I watched Randy Moss end any hope I had that the Cowboys would be alright.
November 22, 2001 – Denver Broncos 26, Dallas Cowboys 24
The Cowboys’ dark years were from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Their years of greatness didn’t just end, the team descended to the bottom of their division. By 2001, two years had passed since Michael Irvin retired after almost being paralyzed, lying motionless near the 40-yard line of Veterans Stadium while Eagles fans cheered. That 2001 season was the first without Troy Aikman. In his last play, he suffered yet another concussion. By 2001, Emmitt Smith was the last of The Triplets and even he, was no longer the player he’d once been. He split carries with Troy Hambrick, an undrafted free agent who’d played division two college football.
But of all the awful moments during the Cowboys’ dark years, this game might have been the lowest point. On that Thanksgiving game—four days removed from a humiliating loss in which their rivals, the Eagles, returned two interceptions for touchdowns—the team had only won two games all season. The player synonymous with draft bust, Ryan Leaf, was the quarterback handing off the ball to Emmitt.
If that wasn’t enough, with the Cowboys losing 17–3, Creed put on one of the oddest and worst halftime shows one will ever see. For both Creed and the Cowboys, this game was a combination of everything horrible. The Cowboys lost to the Broncos 26–24. Emmitt finished the game with nine rushing yards on nine carries. It was the middle season of the Dave Campo-as-coach years, when they had three consecutive 5–11 teams.
The following year would be the end of Emmitt as a Cowboy. He, my favorite player, went to play in Arizona. As for Creed, it was the beginning of the end. About 10 years later, the band that had sold over 50 million records was performing in free concerts in an El Paso casino.
November 25, 2010 – New Orleans Saints 30, Dallas Cowboys 27
On my birthday, the Cowboys played on Monday Night Football. I turned 30 and, for the first time in my life, felt like I’d figured some things out. That Monday Night game was the first time Tony Romo got his collarbone broken. He was the player that had revived the once-great turned-sad franchise. He was the 10th starting quarterback since Aikman retired and he was the unexpected franchise player. As soon as Romo broke his collarbone, he laid on the ground, a few feet from the star in the middle of the field. His legs bent, looking straight into the sky, Romo looked like his entire body had broken. I knew then, any chance to salvage the season was lost.
A month later, with Jon Kitna as quarterback, the Cowboys played their Thanksgiving game against the Saints. The Cowboys had only won three games. Conversely, the Saints had only lost three. They were the defending Super Bowl champs and coached by the former Cowboys assistant coach, Sean Payton. Expectedly, the Saints had a 17-point lead. And then, surprisingly, the Cowboys fought back, came from behind, and even took the lead.
Up by four with about three minutes and 20 seconds left in the game, the Cowboys converted on a third down. Kitna threw the ball to Roy Williams, who caught it—a few feet from where Romo had laid broken a month before—then ran 35 more yards. That would’ve almost sealed the win for the Cowboys, but before he got tackled, Williams got stripped of the ball. The Saints recovered and five plays later scored a touchdown. And then, surprisingly, the Cowboys fought back. And then, unsurprisingly, since that’s how it often goes on Thanksgiving, they lost.
The Cowboys’ field goal kick to tie the game, sailed left, and Thanksgiving dinner tasted like it hadn’t been seasoned.
November 26, 2015 – Carolina Panthers 33, Dallas Cowboys 14
Before the season began, I bought tickets for the Thanksgiving game. I was living in Dallas, and my father and sister would drive from El Paso so we could go see the Cowboys play that day. The previous year, the team was playing well again. That was the year referees said Dez Bryant hadn’t caught that ball, robbing the Cowboys of a potential playoff win. Despite that bitter end, the team had high hopes in 2015.
But then, in the season’s second game, Tony Romo broke his collarbone again. The Cowboys then lost seven consecutive games. The losing streak only ended when Romo returned to help beat the Dolphins. The next game—Thanksgiving—the Cowboys played the Panthers who hadn’t lost all season.
It was pouring rain that day in North Texas. Three plays into the game, Carolina returned a Romo interception for a touchdown. Then, about two-and-a-half minutes before halftime, Carolina did the same thing again. The following play, Romo threw another interception. With the Cowboys losing by 20, Luke Bryan performing at halftime, hungry for Thanksgiving dinner, and having a long, wet drive from Arlington back home to Dallas, my father, sister, and I decided to leave early—though we weren’t sure exactly when.
Then, seconds before the third quarter ended, Cowboys losing by 24, Romo got sacked. And again, he laid on the ground looking like he’d been broken. Again, it was his collarbone. We left. We walked in the rain, not knowing then, that we’d just watched Romo play his last meaningful game.
The following season—injured in preseason and eventually replaced by Dak Prescott—Romo didn’t play until a meaningless drive in a meaningless game, on the last game of the season on the first day of 2017. He led the team to a touchdown. Then, Romo sat on the bench and never played again.
More than a year after that, the NFL admitted Dez had caught the ball.
To hear more about the Dallas Cowboys, listen to Puro Pinche Cowboys Podcast. There, Fidel Martinez and I talk about our lives as it relates to the Cowboys.