Skip to main content

Thanksgiving Day. In millions of American households, watching a day’s worth of football games is just as much a part of the family tradition as turkey and dressing. The Detroit Lions have hosted a game every year since 1945. The Dallas Cowboys joined the fun in 1978.

In the history of Thanksgiving Day games, only one running back has ever topped the 200-yard mark in a game. Four out of the top five performances came from Hall of Famers. Who holds the record for most rushing yards on Thanksgiving Day?

5. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions (1997) – 167 yards

With Dallas and Detroit each annually hosting games, there’s a high likelihood a player from one of those teams would make the top 5. Coming in at No. 5 is Hall of Famer Barry Sanders. In 1997, Sanders had the best year of his career running for an NFL-leading 2,053 yards.

On Thanksgiving against the Chicago Bears, Sanders scored three touchdowns on 19 carries for 167 yards as the Lions won going away 55-20. It is the fifth-most rushing yards in the history of Thanksgiving Day games.  

4. Walter Payton, Chicago Bears (1981) – 179 yards

Walter Payton has fourth-most rushing yards on Thanksgiving Day.
Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears rushed for 179 yards on Thanksgiving Day in 1981. | Photo by James V. Biever/Getty Images

The Chicago Bears have played the role of visitor on Thanksgiving numerous times. During the 1981 season against the Dallas Cowboys, Bears running back Walter Payton was part of a Chicago team that entered the game with a 3-9 record.

Sweetness was the lone offensive weapon that day and carried the ball 38 times for 179 yards, but he failed to reach the end zone and the Bears fell short to the Pokes by a score of 10-9.

3. Earl Campbell, Houston Oilers (1979) – 195 yards

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys battled the in-state rival Houston Oilers three times, the first in 1979. During that contest, the Oilers had second-year running back Earl Campbell, who was in the middle of three consecutive seasons where he led the league in rushing and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. Campbell ran over the Cowboys defense to the tune of 195 yards on 33 carries, for the third-highest number of rushing yards on Thanksgiving Day.

2. Bob Hoernschemeyer, Detroit Lions (1950) – 198 yards

Bob who? That’s how most football fans respond when they read the name Bob Hoernschemeyer, much less try to pronounce it. Hoernschemeyer set his mark in 1950 when the Lions hosted the New York Yanks. 

In the fourth quarter, with the game well in hand, Hoernschemeyer scored the lone touchdown of his entire season on an impressive 96-yard run. It was almost half of his game total of 198 yards on 17 carries, a staggering 11.64 yards per attempt. The two-time Pro Bowler Hoernschemeyer is a great answer to a trivia question about most rushing yards on Thanksgiving Day. 

1. O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills (1976) – 273 yards

Long before he was the subject of documentaries on his life and the murder of his wife, O.J. Simpson was one of the NFL’s best running backs. There was no better evidence of this than in 1976 when Simpson was in the final season of a five-year stretch where he led the NFL in rushing four out of five years and was an All-Pro and Pro Bowl recipient each season. 

That season The Juice finished with 1,503 yards, an incredible 273 of it coming on Thanksgiving Day when the Buffalo Bills traveled to Detroit. The 2-9 Bills struggled on offense that season. Simpson was the offense. Against the Lions, he finished the contest with 273 yards on 29 carries, an impressive 9.41 yards per tote. He scored two touchdowns. It still wasn’t enough as the Bills fell 27-14. 

O.J. Simpson’s record for most rushing yards on Thanksgiving Day has lasted for 44 years. No one has come close in more than two decades. A lot has happened since Simpson set the mark. There are documentaries to prove it. 

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.


The NFL’s Fastest Runner in the 2021-2022 Season Holds 3 of the Top 5 Speeds