History Of Thanksgiving Football Games
Food, family and football. In some places, that's what Thanksgiving is all about. If you do it right, you can watch football for the entire day and only be interrupted to take in some turkey or nibble on a piece of pie. But the Pilgrims weren't tossing a pigskin between courses at the first Thanksgiving, so how did this tradition of gridiron and gratitude come about? We did a little research to find out.
Football & Turkey
Football and Thanksgiving is a tradition that's been around longer than shopping for holiday gifts on Black Friday; in fact, it's almost as old as the game itself. Though there were versions of the game being played as early as the 17th century, the first games that were played as we know them now started in the 1860s by East Coast college students. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday and by 1869, according to Philadelphia's The Evening Telegraph, the first intercollegiate football game was played on Thanksgiving Day between Rutgers University and Princeton University. By 1882, the Intercollegiate Football Association made Thanksgiving the day on which the two best college football teams would face off to declare a champion. Today, there are no championship games in the National Collegiate Athletic Association; rather, the best teams play in bowl games around the holidays with one of the biggest on New Year's Day at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Pro Teams Follow Suit
Early regional football leagues that predate the NFL played football games on Thanksgiving Day starting in the 1890s. By 1922 when the NFL had established itself, the tradition of a Thanksgiving football game was a matter of course. It was a largely Midwestern custom, but it quickly expanded to include teams from other regions.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a Detroit radio station owner, George A. Richards, took over a football team in Ohio called the Spartans of Portsmouth in 1934. The town was too small to support a professional team, so Richards moved the team to Detroit and renamed it the Lions. As a move to promote the team, in 1934 he arranged for a game to be played on Thanksgiving Day against the Chicago Bears at the University of Detroit stadium. Though the Lions lost, Richards was a winner having sold out the stadium and broadcasting the game on the radio to 94 stations across the nation. With the exception of World War II, Detroit has hosted or played a game on Thanksgiving every year since.
Dallas hosted its first football game on Thanksgiving in 1966. It was part of a magical marketing plan from the genius behind the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, General Manager Tex Schramm. He saw it as an opportunity to give the team a little exposure. In fact, it gave the team a lot of exposure: attendance at the game broke records with more than 80,000 fans in the stadium. Since that day, the Cowboys have only skipped the Thanksgiving match twice.