The 'Friends' Geller Cup Thanksgiving Game Was the Platonic Ideal of Merging Sports and Pop Culture
By Kyle Koster
The One with the Football is the ninth episode of Friends‘ third season and aired on November 21, 1996. It is one of the series’ Thanksgiving episodes although it aired a week ahead of the actual holiday. It went up against Diagnosis Murder, Martin and High Incident at 8 p.m. NBC would air Home Alone during primetime the following Thursday.
It is a beloved episode currently available on Netflix. Gawker ranked it the 12th best out of 236, an impressive feat considering there is no major plot reveal, memorable gimmick or marquee guest appearance. In many ways it’s the perfect 90s sitcom installment: moderately funny with relatable people in relatable situations completely bereft of any meaningful stakes.
That’s the point — to be light, carefree, to not accidentally elicit any higher thinking. To walk away with no takeaways, no concerns. And I wish I could do that. But I can’t. You see, there’s something entirely disturbing about The One with the Football.
Come with me, won’t you, on a fun-ruining expedition to overanalyze art and sport not intended to be analyzed. The journey takes us to a place you’ll never expect — where tinfoil hats are needed, where the genesis of one of football’s most perplexing trends may lie.
We enter on Rachel and Monica’s apartment. They are talking with Phoebe. It’s Thanksgiving Day and the boys (Ross, Joey and Chandler) are watching football instead of helping out. More specifically, they are watching a New York Giants home game, which is believable only if we’re to assume they’ve also acquired a working time machine.
(The Giants actually have a rich tradition of playing on Turkey Day. In 1926 they beat the Brooklyn Lions, 17-0. From 1929-1938 they played on the holiday, but always as the visiting team against crosstown rivals Staten Island Stapletons or Brooklyn Dodgers. Their next two appearances came in 1982 and 1992, both in Pontiac against the Detroit Lions.)
When halftime comes, Joey suggests tossing the ol’ pigskin around or, as he puts it, “get a little 3-on-3 going.” It’s a fine idea born out of a desire to burn a few calories while deepening friendships. What Joey doesn’t know, however, is that his words are the key to unlocking a dark secret shared by Ross and Monica Geller.
Long ago they were forbidden to ever play football again by the familial matriarch after a once-sacred tradition called the Geller Bowl turned violent. There is still lingering bad blood between the blood relatives, although they share a profound sense of loss and yearning for the Geller Cup, a bauble tossed into a lake by a father 12 years ago seeking to fix his fractured brood.
Monica and Ross are adults now with careers and expensive apartments in the beautiful West Village. They figure if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere — including the gridiron. They want to prove to themselves and each other that they can play a competitive sport again. After appeals to both better angels and darker demons, it is decided that a game will be played.
The gang shows up at a tiny city park. Leaves coat the ground. Young New Yorkers look on from a swing set. Old New Yorkers look on from a park bench. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.
It won’t be. It will become very, very serious.
Rachel, sporting pigtails she didn’t have minutes before, wastes no time proving she has stone hands by treating a lob from Ross like a tetherball to be sent far away from her body. In the fashion of every diva wide receiver of the time, she takes umbrage with her boyfriend’s throw, claiming it almost hit her in the face. It is a sign of the fractured on-field relationship to come and perhaps the fractured off-field relationship explored in later seasons.
This sorry display leads to Rachel becoming Mrs. Irrelevant in the player draft held minutes later, joining Chandler and Ross versus Monica, Joey and Phoebe. Rough boundary lines are established. Turkey-basting responsibilities dictate a 28-minute game.
It is immediately clear that Phoebe is not a plug-and-play talent. Not only does she lack focus, she shamelessly asks Monica what “blocking” entails. But hiccups like this should be expected, especially after the neophyte openly admitted to never playing football moments earlier.
Classic draft reach right there.
A game-opening kickoff is attempted by Chandler because kickoffs were still a valued part of the game in 1996. For reasons beyond comprehension, Ross tees the ball up high on his angled foot, at least five inches above the ground. Chandler’s leg path veers directly into his roommate’s foot while the pigskins drops to the ground, at most, a foot away. Chandler ends up simply throwing the ball to the receiving team.
We already have a rule change ratified unilaterally.
Joey, looking like a middle linebacker in a maroon football jersey, catches it and makes it halfway (that is to say 15 feet) down the field before employing a fake lateral to no one in particular. The move causes Ross to drop to the ground as if he’s been shot by a sniper.
The male Geller’s squad is as inept on offense as it was on special teams. Chandler lines up directly under center before some mild homophobia dictates running things out of shotgun instead. His first pass to a wide-open Rachel is not corralled. This isn’t fun anymore for Ross. He decides to install a new offense in which his girlfriend “goes deep” on every play. It’s clear she’ll only be a decoy.
It is heartbreaking. More than that, it’s not good team ball. On a three-person team, every warm body is valuable.
We jump forward an unidentified length of time. While retrieving an errant pass, Joey meets a Dutch woman whose first name is difficult to pronounce. Harmless flirting ensues but it is soon replaced by a fierce show of peacocking from both Joey and Chandler as they vie for the affections of this mysterious, companionless European woman who has shown up in a park on Thanksgiving Day wearing nice clothes. It is unclear why she is so interested in this three-on-three American football match, but hey.
Rachel is still unhappy with her lack of touches. Chandler, already trying to do too much before meeting the Dutch woman, fumbles an end-around with no defensive player within two yards. He is pressing.
Joey scoops it up and appears destined to score before he’s caught from behind by his roommate, who employs a jersey-ripping tackle.
The unsportsmanlike play only escalates the tension, which is already high for the viewer because not knowing the current score makes a modern man very anxious. Perhaps audiences in the mid-90s dealt better with the lack of a scoreboard constantly providing updates. But in 2022, it just feels wrong, like one is in jail or something.
So, to recap, at this point we’ve seen lackluster play, poor sportsmanship, shaky front-office decisions and underwhelming visual presentation. Bad, bad football from the ground up.
Thankfully, Monica provides a game reset. The score is tied, Something to Something, and time is running out. Her apparent touchdown pass to Phoebe sparks off a tremendous argument amongst the gang that devolves into physical violence because it’s unclear if the play got off in time.
The gang agrees to call it halftime and heads back inside.
This is all exposition to pave the path for a big reveal. Monica has, in her possession, the sacred Geller Cup. She confesses to retrieving it from the lake as her parents drove Ross to the hospital. This means she literally risked her life for the trophy (which Chandler describes as “a Troll doll nailed to a 2 x 4”) by jumping into a frigid Northeastern body of water in late-November.
Its appearance and battle of rightful ownership reopens old wounds. Unresolved past conflict must be resolved.
The second half is played with blistering intensity from the jump. Monica form-tackles Chandler to emasculate him in front of the one “fan” and potential romantic partner. This enrages Ross, who unleashes a montage full of highlights and lowlights.
Chandler takes a cheap shot after Joey burns him for a touchdown. Ross pantses his sister on a post pattern and capitalizes with a pick-six. Phoebe delivers a devastating stiff-arm to Chandler.
It’s entertaining, but it is sloppy football.
Suddenly it’s Monica’s Team 42, Ross’ Team 21. Monica is so confident that she trades Joey for Rachel, who has been virtually invisible the entire game. It’s a cocky move and plays right into that girls vs. boys trope that served as the bedrock for so much comedy of the era.
We’ll soon find out if girls can play football and if boys drool or rule.
The Dutch woman picks Chandler over Joey but then leaves after he reveals himself to be shallow. Now, it’s important to point out that while all of this is going on, the clock continues to run. We know this because Ross says “the clock is ticking, we have no time and we’re losing to girls.”
Monica throws salt into this wound by calling the men “hairy-back Maries.” That’s when things really get off the rails.
Phoebe exposes herself to Chandler and strips him of the ball. All three ladies hop on Joey’s back. Phoebe forces Chandler into a pricker bush by chasing him with her bare chest.
It is swarming, sexually-aggressive defense.
Suddenly there’s 90 seconds remaining and Monica’s team trails by two points. There must have been a safety involved but that footage was left on the cutting room floor. A trick play is designed in which Rachel is to throw a halfback pass. Understandably rusty, she responds by sprinting on the outside of a chain-link fence and throwing a point-blank rocket into Monica’s face.
One would think Rachel will never see the football again. But on the game’s final play, Phoebe is locked up in double-coverage and Monica sends a desperation heave to her only other option. Against all odds, Rachel hauls it in.
She is overjoyed and that elation leads her to do something that will plague football for the next two decades.
It is at this point that I ask you, dear reader, to take everything you think you know about Friends canon and football players celebrating prematurely near the goal line and forget it. Because what I’m suggesting is that what Rachel does after catching that football sent a ripple through time and still impacts the collegiate and professional game to this day.
In all her euphoria, she celebrates too early. She spikes the ball short of the pole designated the end zone. Only Chandler notices, and his pithy comments lead to a wild scramble for the football. The Geller siblings fight the hardest, their drive fueled by decades of sibling rivalry. Even when the rest of the gang calls it quits to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, Ross and Monica remain entangled in an epic struggle for the football.
Maybe it’s not about the football at all. Maybe the football represents something more, like parental love or an honored birthright.
I don’t know because I’m just a blogger, not some high-minded sitcom writer.
The episode ends. No real lessons are learned. What stands out the most is how terrible the football was, from the opening kick to the final fumble. It’s almost as if the goal was to make people laugh and not create an instructional video for peewee teams.
But there’s something haunting about that final sequence when Rachel prematurely drops the football. Something hard to forget and let go.
Slate dutifully complied the 32 times a player has dropped the football on the way to the end zone. While there were a few examples before this episode aired, it didn’t start happening with regularity until 2008. By 2014, it was a full-fledged epidemic. Is it a coincidence that players who were in their most formative years when The One with the Football aired have been the most susceptible to falling victim to this behavior?
Is a memory of Rachel discarding the rock before reaching paydirt burned somewhere deep inside these player’s minds, waiting to snap them into action at the most inopportune time?
Stay woke, people. Truth is often stranger than fiction, especially serialized comedy.