Craziest moments in NFL history: The Thanksgiving Coin Flip Incident

Craziest moments in NFL history: The Thanksgiving Coin Flip Incident

Published Aug. 11, 2014 10:53 a.m. ET

We're having difficulty containing our excitement for the start of the NFL season. In an effort to cope with that delirium, each day from today until the Sept. 4 kickoff, the Buzzer will post about one crazy moment in NFL history. "Crazy" is subjective, so what does that mean here? In this series we won't be highlighting the most outstanding plays or statistical feats, but those plays that make your jaw drop and cause you to blurt out, "Holy $*%", that was crazy!"

There are two sides to a coin and at least as many sides to a story.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1998, when the Lions and Steelers played to a 16-16 tie in regulation, Steelers captain Jerome Bettis was charged with calling a side for the coin flip on behalf of Pittsburgh to decide possession in overtime.

Head referee Phil Luckett instructed Bettis to call it in the air, the last event the two could agree upon. While the coin spun in the air, Bettis called tails but before the coin tapped the turf, Luckett announced that "heads is the call." 


Bettis contested that he called tails -- the coin's final resting position -- but Luckett alleged that Bettis had first said heads (or "hea-"), the call Luckett announced. Subsequent video enhancement supported Luckett's claim that Bettis first said "heads," plus sideline audio revealed that the running back told Steelers coach Bill Cowher that he indeed indicated heads (or part of the word) before declaring tails.

While millions of Americans wondered if they were living in some comatic tryptophan dream, the Lions won the toss and drove the field, securing a field goal that ended the game a 19-16 Lions victory.

In the week that followed, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced a change to the coin toss rules, mandating that a captain must announce his heads-tails choice prior to the actual flip. 

And more than a decade later, Bettis spoofed the scene during a Super Bowl commercial for Papa John's, only with Peyton Manning as referee and not Phil Luckett. 

However, Luckett's misfortune has kept referees on high alert during the coin toss. Case in point, Terry McAulay's interception of Joe Namath's premature coin toss at Super Bowl XLVIII.  

Previous "Craziest Moments": Fan runs on field to help Patriots' defense ... The Tuck Rule Game ... Saints kicker blows miracle comeback ... The Butt Fumble