Stories from the Hall of Fame Archive: The first time the NFL played on Christmas â€” nearly 50 years ago â€” 36 Hall of Famers took part in the 2 games.
The popularity of the National Football League continues to experience exponential growth. The NFL’s 100th season is quickly approaching, and soon the summer heat of July will give way to the cold air of winter. Pro football has become a staple of the holiday season. It is embedded into the American tradition as if it were a slice of apple pie. While 100 years of pro football on Thanksgiving have made the two almost synonymous with one another, playing NFL games on Christmas Day is a relatively recent tradition.
Games played on Christmas might not have the same kind of history as Thanksgiving Day games, but with each NFL season nearing its end as Dec. 25 approaches, the games played on the holiday are usually highly competitive and extremely meaningful.
For example, the first two NFL games played on Christmas Day happened to be the 1971 AFC and NFC divisional playoff games. In all, 36 Pro Football Hall of Famers competed that day to earn a place in their respective conference championship games.
The first game of the doubleheader was an NFC playoff game featuring the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. A combined 19 Hall of Fame members were part of that historic game. Led by a pair of Hall of Fame coaches â€” Bud Grant and Tom Landry â€” and three Hall of Fame front office personnel men â€” Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt and Jim Finks â€” the game also included 14 Hall of Fame players.
Suited up for the Cowboys were Herb Adderley, Lance Alworth, Mike Ditka, Forrest Gregg, Bob Hayes, Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Roger Staubach and Rayfield Wright. Across from them, the Vikings were led by Carl Eller, Paul Krause, Alan Page, Mick Tingelhoff and Ron Yary.
The game was a defensive struggle with the Cowboys leading at halftime, 6-3. Propelled by five takeaways in the game, the Cowboys scored 14 points in the third quarter and took a 20-6 lead into the final period. The Vikings fought back in the fourth quarter but could not complete the comeback and lost 20-12 to the eventual Super Bowl VI champion Cowboys.
The second game that day, the AFC divisional game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins, was even more historical. In the final game at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, a total of 17 future Hall of Famers participated in the longest game in NFL history in terms of game time (82 minutes, 40 seconds).
Chiefs’ Hall of Famers involved in the double-overtime classic were owner Lamar Hunt, coach Hank Stram and eight players: Bobby Bell, Curley Culp, Buck Buchanan, Len Dawson, Willie Lanier, Class of 2019 enshrinee Johnny Robinson, Jan Stenerud and Emmitt Thomas.
The underdog Dolphins were led by coach Don Shula and six Hall of Fame players: Nick Buoniconti, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Jim Langer, Larry Little and Paul Warfield.
Both teams had plenty of opportunities to seal the victory. Kansas City received a great performance from Ed Podolak, who totaled 350 combined net yards and scored two touchdowns. But in the end, it was Garo Yepremian’s 37-yard field goal that gave the Dolphins a 27-24 victory.
After the game, Shula said, “We never won a bigger one. Our guys refused to be beaten. When things looked their darkest, we came up with some good plays.”
Two weeks later, after beating the Baltimore Colts 21-0 in the AFC Championship Game, the Dolphins got a shot at the other Christmas Day victor, the Cowboys, in Super Bowl VI.
It was 19 years after the two matchups in 1971 that the NFL played its next game on Christmas Day. While the 1971 contests remain the only playoff games played on the holiday, regular-season games are becoming more frequent. Throughout the years, many Christmas Day games have become an opportunity for teams to clinch division titles and playoff berths, while eager fans watch and hope their Christmas wishes come true.
In a countdown to the NFLâ€™s Centennial celebration on Sept. 17, 2020,Â Pro Football Hall of Fame Archivist Jon Kendle shares unique stories starting from the leagueâ€™s founding in downtown Canton to the present day.