NFL Turkey Leg Award, explained: How John Madden started a Thanksgiving tradition

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There is no food that goes hand in hand with Thanksgiving more than Turkey. And there is no sport that is more synonymous with vacation than football.

So it seems only natural that the two should meet on the field.

For years, the NFL has hosted matches on Thanksgiving Day, and all the way back to 1989, the game’s MVP has been awarded not with a trophy, but with a turkey leg. Let’s face it, on Thanksgiving, the turkey leg is more exciting than any trophy that can be awarded anyway.

How did this tasty tradition come about? Sporting News dives in.

MORE: That’s why the Cowboys always play on Thanksgiving

How the NFL Turkey Leg Award started

During the 1989 Thanksgiving game between the Eagles and Cowboys, legendary commentator John Madden decided that the MVP for the game should receive a turkey leg as a prize for their performance in the game.

Eagles linebacker Reggie White was the first ever recipient of the turkey leg award after leading the Philadelphia defense to a 27-0 shutout by Troy Aikman and the Cowboys.

But the legend of the turkey leg price still had to grow.

The following year, Madden again presented the award, this time to Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith. Smith had taken 23 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-17 win over the Redskins. After the game, Madden noted that he wished he could give out six turkey legs, one to Smith and one to each of Dallas’ five offensive linemen, prompting Joe Pat Fieseler, owner of Harvey’s Barbecue Pit, to create a six-legged Turkey according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in an article from November 25, 1998.

“We had to find turkeys that had a lot of legs on them,” Madden told Star-Telegram. “There’s only one place you can get a turkey with more than two legs, and that’s in Texas.”

Fieseler explained that although it might look like a strange bird, it actually has an explanation of where it comes from.

“The story I like to tell is that these turkeys are growing on a farm near the Glen Rose nuclear power plant,” Fieseler told Star-Telegram.

The actual origin of the six-legged turkey is not that it is a radiated bird. Two legs are natural, of course, and the other four are fastened using three-inch wooden spears, according to the report.

To this day, there are still turkey legs for the top players in the primetime NBC game on Thursday night.

MORE: That’s why lions always play on Thanksgiving

Galloping gobbler

Madden continued to award the prize to players until he left Fox in 2001, after which the network began handing out a small trophy called “Galloping Gobbler”. The trophy looked like a small turkey wearing a helmet and standing in a position.

This price was less popular. Smith was the first winner of the award, claiming it looked like a Cris Collinsworth bobblehead, and after leaving it behind his closet, the award was later found in the trash, according to Fox Sports.

The award changed its appearance over the years and later became a bronze turkey statue with a football, before in 2011 it was simply changed to a plaque. It was retired in 2017 and was replaced with the “Game Ball”, which was later replaced with a championship belt in 2019.

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The origin of the turkey bone trophy is often tied to Madden’s turducken.

The turduck is a boned duck stuffed inside a boned chicken stuffed inside a boned turkey. During the Thanksgiving match between the bears and the lions in 1997, Madden introduced the world to the turdock and explained it on the broadcast as he and Pat Summerall stood in the stall in front of both it and the six-legged turkey.

Madden explained to The New York Times in 2002 that he was introduced to the court by a member of the PR staff from the Saints. Madden said he did not have the plate or utensils, but that it smelled and looked so good that he decided to dig in with his hands.

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