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OPINION: Thankful For Lesson Learned On Long-Ago Turkey Day

November 24, 2021 at 5:53 a.m.

For the 54th time, the Dallas Cowboys are playing on Thanksgiving. They're almost as much a part of the holiday as turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie and naps.

At some point during today's Dallas-Las Vegas Raiders broadcast, Clint Longley will be mentioned. The name carries me back to a famous Turkey Day tussle in 1974 and a defeat that lingers 47 years later.

As an 8-year-old, I didn't know what life was truly about. That made it easy to get swept away by sports -- particularly the NFL -- and see games as monumental events.

Being a third-generation Washington fan growing up in Fayetteville, Ark., a Cowboys hotbed, fueled the fire. Virginia relatives often sent me Washington gear -- sweatshirts, jackets and stocking caps. I wore the burgundy-and-gold garb proudly even though Dallas-loving friends teased me a lot at school.

I embraced Washington's collection of colorful characters. Many were past 30, and it was known as the league's oldest squad. Called the Over the Hill Gang, they brought success to the nation's capital after decades of failure. Eccentric and emotional coach George Allen, a defensive mastermind, took the job in 1971 and immediately turned the franchise around. Allen made a point of loading the roster with veterans because he didn't trust young players.

Allen first led his crew to a wild-card playoff berth, then to Super Bowl VII after the 1972 season. Washington lost, but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm. It was a fun bunch to cheer for. As my interest grew, another playoff trip followed in 1973. More good times were expected in '74.

Buttoned-down Dallas, guided by stoic coach Tom Landry and squeaky-clean quarterback Roger Staubach, served as a perfect adversary for Allen and his aging band of free spirits. Allen long despised the mighty Cowboys and now faced them twice a year in the NFC East. He inflamed the rivalry, which became the hottest and most bitter in the NFL.

I hated Dallas, too.

That brings us to Nov. 28, 1974. Washington entered at 8-3, fighting for the division title. The Cowboys were an uncharacteristic 6-5. My large stepfamily staged a delicious Thanksgiving feast, featuring all the trimmings. I hit the desserts especially hard before kickoff. Sitting in front of a fancy wood-paneled color TV, I wished we had one like it back at our apartment.

Then the showdown started. I refused to leave my spot on the floor. Washington led 16-3 in the third quarter and knocked Staubach out of the game. Dallas was done, right? Wrong.

Longley, an unheralded rookie quarterback, replaced Staubach and sparked a comeback, throwing two touchdown passes. The second TD came with less than a minute left and gave Dallas an improbable 24-23 victory. Hearing the crowd roar and seeing the Cowboys celebrate left me in stunned silence. My appetite disappeared faster than Washington's lead. Most members of the stepfamily favored Dallas, but they went easy on me.

It was the first time I remember feeling deeply disappointed, which speaks volumes about how lucky I was. When a football loss is the worst thing you face, life is going pretty well. That's what I eventually learned from that day.

And what of Longley? His moment in the sun proved fleeting. He was out of the league after 1976.

The defeat still bothers me just a little, but the lesson it taught about appreciating what's really important resonates much more. And I'm thankful for that.

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