Editor’s note: In November’s Thanksgiving Sports Moments, we’re reminiscing about some of the best NFL, college football and sports culture events around Thanksgiving.
In sports, a coin toss is supposed to be easy, not memorable.
But one call for heads or tails from Detroit’s Thanksgiving 25 years ago is still talked about by those who attended.
The coin toss between the Detroit Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Pontiac Silverdome before overtime remains famous (or so it does, depending on which fence you’re on). Steelers running back Jerome Bettis was asked by referee Phil Luckett to call heads or tails.
Bettis was called “Tails”. I heard Luckett “Heads.”
The result of the gaffe gave Detroit its first possession in overtime, and the Lions ended a seven-play drive on a 42-yard Jason Hanson field goal to beat the Steelers 19-16 in overtime.
Before the reveal, Luckett spoke to Detroit’s Robert Porcher and Ray Roberts and Pittsburgh Bettis and defensive end Carnell Lake:
The first team to score wins the game. We will have a toss to see who receives it. Who calls Pittsburgh?
Luckett told Bettis to call heads or tails in the air.
“It’s the call,” Luckett said.
“I said tail,” Bettis replied.
“It’s heads. It’s tails,” Mike Luckett said to the Lions, Steelers and 78,139 in attendance at the Silverdome.
“Reference! He called it a tail! Scattered Lake said to Luckett.
“We want the ball,” Porcher said, turning to Luckett.
In the year November 26, 1998 #Steelers #Lions Phil Luckett 😖 @JeromeBettis36 #Thanksgiving pic.twitter.com/vDHsFy2TVh
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) November 26, 2021
Twenty-five years later, the whole situation is a source of humor for the people involved. Well… at least for the Lions.
“We didn’t want to correct it,” said Porcher, a former Detroit defensive captain. “So yes, I am with the authorities. If the cameras are on, I’m with the authorities.
Porcher looked at Detroit’s offensive captain, Roberts, in midfield. Both were shocked by what had happened – but couldn’t argue against a decision that was in their team’s best interest.
“I looked at Ray and I was like, ‘We’re going to take the ball,'” Porcher said. “Jerome said, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ … I turned to the side, and I couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe it.”
It wasn’t a great day for the future Hall of Fame running backs competing in the game. Bettis finished with 67 yards on 26 carries. Barry Sanders rushed 20 times for just 33 yards – 21 yards coming on one carry.
Actually, there weren’t many offensive signs during that Thanksgiving game. Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw for 225 yards with a touchdown and an interception and was sacked five times. Detroit quarterback Charlie Bach threw for 236 yards and a score but was sacked four times. Lions receiver Herman Moore finished with eight catches for 148 yards and had the most offensive stats of the afternoon.
With everything that happened on the field, rumors of a botched coin toss led most of the stories the next day.
“I remember the game not going well for me, but (the coin toss error) was something that had never happened before in my career or even watching football,” Sanders said. Did you get that part wrong?
But if I’m not mistaken, it’s finally helping us.
Sanders did enough in overtime to cap Hanson’s final drive on a 9-yard run for the Lions. The field goal was Hansen’s fourth of the day.
“Jason Hansen did what he always does,” Porcher said. “It was a done deal. It was time to go home and celebrate.
Steeler Bettis, who participated in the coin toss, was a tyrant of fate. Bettis is from Detroit, and playing the Lions on Thanksgiving was a chance to celebrate in his hometown.
Instead, it became associated with one of the strangest moments in NFL Thanksgiving game history.
“I know Jerome very well as a Detroit boy,” Sanders said. “It was weird, really, weird that he called it a tail or something, and it ended up being a tail and they gave it to us. They did not listen to everything that was called or they misled him.
There is pain. Then there’s Jerome Bettis’ illness on Thanksgiving. pic.twitter.com/rjWNPzRB2k
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) November 28, 2019
Porcher is still friends with Bettis. It has become a tradition of thanksgiving for Porcher as a confused Bettis looks into the lake to find out what happened.
It’s a good source of laughs for Porcher. For Betis, not so much. But apparently Bettis has a good sense of humor.
“He doesn’t bring it up every time we see each other, but he definitely comes up,” Porcher said. “And then at Thanksgiving, they always show it. Sometimes he and I text. We don’t do it every Thanksgiving, but I’ll be like, ‘Hey man, just checking on you.’
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(Photos by Robert Porcher and Jerome Bettis: Tom Pigeon / AllSports and Arthur Anderson / Getty Images)