On This Date in Sports September 5, 2002: Thursday Night Kickoff
In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The NFL begins a new tradition as two teams open the season on Thursday Night. The New York Giants host the San Francisco 49ers in the first Thursday Night opener, which features a day of celebration with a concert in Times Square. The game is tight throughout, with the 49ers winning 16-13 on a field goal by Jose Cortez with six seconds left in regulation.
The idea for the Thursday Night Kickoff was to boost New York and Washington following the September 11th attacks in 2001. The first game was set for the Meadowlands in 2002, with the second Thursday Night Kickoff in 2003 promised to FedEx in Washington. The events were considered a huge success as the NFL’s efforts helped raise $1.9 billion over a 14-month period.
Complete with a concert in Times Square, the new Thursday Night opener helped turn Week 1 into a grand event that the NFL had been seeking for years. Previously the season would start on Labor Day Weekend, but somehow it seemed to blend into the holiday. Starting the season on a Thursday Night gave the NFL a chance to give fans one game to celebrate the beginning of a new season while previewing the rest of the schedule.
The Giants received the ball but failed to go anywhere, punting without making a first down. The Niners would drive the ball deep into Giants' territory on their first possession and came away with nothing as Jose Cortez had a 25-yard field goal attempt blocked by Mike Rosenthal. The Giants would take the ensuing possession down to the San Francisco 11-yard line to set up Matt Bryant for a 29-yard field goal to take an initial 3-0 lead. The 49ers quickly answered Jose Cortez hit a 23-yard field goal to tie the game 3-3 at the end of the first quarter. The Giants' defense continued to bend, not break in the second quarter, as Cortez missed a 48-yard attempt. With the game still tied 3-3, the Giants executed a strong two-minute drive to set up Matt Bryant for a 33-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. The Giants maintained the 6-3 lead until late in the third quarter, when the Niners scored the game’s first touchdown, with Jeff Garcia completing a nine-yard pass to Garrison Hearst to give San Francisco the lead for the first time, 10-6. As Zack Bronson picked off Kerry Collins, things began to look bleak for New York in the fourth quarter. The Niners would extend their lead to 13-6 on the ensuing possession, with Cortez nailing a 33-yard field goal. Now down a touchdown in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Giants offense, which had been unable to do much for most of the game, finally got a nice drive going. The drive would take more than six minutes, but as the two-minute warning hit, Tiki Barber was able to punch the ball in the end zone to even the score at 13-13. It would not take the Niners long to answer, as Jeff Garcia got their two-minute attack started in style with a 33-yard completion to Terrell Owens. Garcia would use the clock perfectly, as Jose Cortez hit a 36-yard field goal with six seconds left on the clock. The Giants would get the ball with five seconds left but could not make the miracle lateral plays as the 49ers won 16-13.
The two teams would meet again on Wild Card Weekend, with the New York Giants blowing a 24-point lead in the third quarter. The 49ers' 39-28 win after trailing 38-14 marked the second-largest comeback in NFL postseason history.
The Washington Redskins would beat the New York Jets 16-13 in the Thursday Night opener in 2003, completing the promise to the two cities affected by the 9/11 terror attacks. In the years following, the NFL would have the defending Super Bowl champion host the Thursday Night opener, beginning in 2004 in Foxboro with the New England Patriots beating the Indianapolis Colts 27-24.