NFL Thanksgiving: John Madden, the Turkey Leg Award, and the Turducken

Nostalgia surrounding football on Thanksgiving often revolves around two things; the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions hosting games, and John Madden ranting and raving about football and his favorite elements of the Thanksgiving Day feast. While the Cowboys and Lions still host games every season on Thanksgiving, John Madden retired from broadcasting in 2008 and stopped calling Thanksgiving games in 2002 when he moved to ABC.

But despite Madden’s retirement, his legacy on Thanksgiving lives on through the traditions that he started, including awarding the game’s MVP with a food-based prize. Let’s look back on how John Madden’s name became associated with his infamous six-legged turkey and turducken.

John Madden began the tradition of awarding turkey legs

The Detroit Lions MVPs gather around John Madden's six-legged turkey back in 1999
The Detroit Lions MVPs gather around John Madden’s six-legged turkey back in 1999 | Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

In 1989, John Madden awarded the very first CBS Turkey Leg Award to Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles. The award was an actual cooked turkey leg, one that the player would take a bite out of in his post-game interview. In 1990, when he gave the turkey leg to Emmitt Smith, Madden said that he wished the turkey had five more legs so that he could award Smith’s offensive linemen with turkey legs, too.

This comment led Joe Pat Fieseler, owner of Harvey’s Barbecue Pit in Texas, to invent the six-legged turkey that would go on to become a staple of John Madden’s Thanksgiving broadcasts. When Madden moved from CBS to Fox in 1994, he took the Turkey Leg Award with him, awarding it through his last season with Fox in 2001.

Fox replaced the Turkey Leg Award with the much less popular Galloping Gobbler Award in 2002. They retired the Gobbler in 2016 in favor of a Game Ball that is awarded to the game’s MVP on Thanksgiving. The NBC primetime game on Thanksgiving awards the top players of the game with turkey legs in honor of Madden’s old tradition.

John Madden and the turducken

You could hear the glee in John Madden’s voice the Thanksgiving Day that he described what the turducken was on-air. “This is a turducken right here, where we’ve got, you know what a turducken is, a turducken, this thing here, is a de-boned duck, stuffed in a de-boned chicken, stuffed in a de-boned turkey,” Madden explained to the viewers at home. “With stuffing. Now you’re talking! And that has eight legs.”

“You cut this right down the middle,” Madden demonstrated with his hand. “And then you cut sideways, and you get a little turkey, and a little chicken, and a little duck. Now that’s there, that’s a turducken.”

According to a report on the turducken written by For the Win, sales of the turducken skyrocketed after John Madden made people aware of the creation in 1997. Madden talked about his first introduction to the turducken in a 2002 interview with the New York Times.

“The P.R. guy for the Saints brought me one,” Madden told the Times. “And he brought it to the booth. It smelled and looked so good. I didn’t have any plates or silverware or anything, and I just started eating it with my hands.”

Madden and Thanksgiving go hand in hand

It has been almost two decades since John Madden’s last Thanksgiving Day broadcast, and the man’s legacy still lives on. His love for football and food were both contagious, and on what day do those two things come together more perfectly than Thanksgiving?

You probably won’t see any turduckens or eight-legged turkeys or other such monstrosities on today’s broadcasts. But we can all still remember them fondly, thanks to John Madden.