Press "Enter" to skip to content

Touchdowns and Turkey: a history of Thanksgiving Football

Three things are synonymous with Thanksgiving: food, family and football. Last Thursday was no different as six NFL teams competed while millions of Americans feasted on turkey and stuffing. The NFL does not hold exclusive rights to the concept as high school and college teams hold games across the country as well.

Many fans likely flipped channels back and forth between the Pittsburgh Steelers-Indianapolis Colts and Louisiana State-Texas A&M games. In Baltimore, high schools Calvert Hall and Loyola Blakefield faced off in the 97th meeting of their historic rivalry. Nationally, football on Thanksgiving is a longstanding tradition that dates back over 100 years.

The first football game on Thanksgiving occurred in 1869, about two weeks after Rutgers University defeated Princeton University in what many consider the first ever football game. The Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club faced off in Philadelphia, PA. It remains a mystery whether or not the teams played under similar rules as the Rutgers-Princeton game.

Some of Princeton’s early meetings against arch rival Yale University took place on Thanksgiving. The teams’ second through eighth meetings were all on the last Thursday in November. Yale won the first holiday meeting on Nov. 30, 1876, 2-0. The five contests finished with scores just as minuscule. Through the six games, four of which ended in ties, both teams combined to score six points.

Meanwhile, NFL football on Thanksgiving goes back as far as 1920. Then named the American Professional Football Association, the league put on a whopping five games on the docket.

Among the early mainstays of the Thanksgiving games were the Chicago Bears. Chicago played on Thanksgiving every year between 1920 and 1938 known as the Decatur and Chicago Staleys the first two years. The Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals appeared the second most times (13) in that span followed by the Green Bay Packers (12).

Nowadays, people think of the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions when discussing Thanksgiving football. The Lions Turkey Day tradition began in 1934 after George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans. Later, Richards moved the team to Detroit and renamed them the Lions.

The team experienced early success (10-3 record, plus 179 point differential, 12.5 expected wins), yet, Richards struggled to draw fans to the games. Back in the 1930s, the NFL was not the dominant sport it is today in regards to popularity. Most looked at the league as a sideshow, dwarfed in popularity by Major League Baseball. People looked at college football as more legitimate than the NFL.

Richards noticed the city’s main loyalties still rested with the Tigers. To be fair, the Tigers went 101-53 and won the American League pennant in 1934. Richards needed a way to attract fans to the University of Detroit Stadium. The most fans the Lions drew before Thanksgiving was 15,000. The stadium capacity is 25,000. On Thanksgiving, the perfect storm arrived.

The Lions, 10-1 at the time, faced the defending NFL champion Chicago Bears. Chicago came into the game undefeated and in first place in the NFL West division. Richards, a former radio executive, convinced the NBC Radio Network to broadcast the game over their 94 stations.

In addition, the big game created intrigue within the Motor City. Fans rushed to the box office hoping to see such a pivotal game in person. As a result, the football team that struggled to fill seats turned away thousands yearning to see history. In fact, the game drew 26,000 spectator – a full thousand over capacity.

The game itself exemplified the low scoring nature of the league back then. The two best scoring defenses flexed their muscles. The Bears allowed 283 total yards while the Lions gave up only 193. In the end, the Bears overcame a 16-7 halftime deficit, scoring 11 unanswered points to win 19-16 and earned a spot in the NFL title game.

Though the Lions ultimately came up short, they began a tradition that continues to this day. If nothing else, fans witnessed the greatness of Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders at least once a year.

The Cowboys Thanksgiving history starts in 1966. At this point, the league reduced the Thanksgiving slate to just one game (a Lions home game). Although, the rival American Football League ran Turkey Day games from 1960-1966. League officials wanted to add another game to the holiday schedule.

Cowboy’s then-president and general manager Tex Schramm jumped at the opportunity. Tom Landry’s Cowboys hosted the Cleveland Browns at the Cotton Bowl in front of a record 82,259 fans. Pro Bowl tailback Don Perkins rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown in Dallas’ 26-14 drubbing of the Browns.

Keeping in line with their penchant for oversaturation, the NFL eventually added a nightcap to the festivities. The league scheduled a third Thanksgiving game beginning in the 2006 season. Larry Johnson ran for 157 yards and a score en route to a 19-10 Kansas City Chiefs victory over the Denver Broncos.

Other primetime moments to live on in the history of Thanksgiving football include Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watching himself trip up Jacoby Jones on the big screen, the Harbaugh brothers facing off and the infamous “butt-fumble”.

Football is as ingrained into Thanksgiving as turkey and sweet potato pie. The tradition shows no signs of going anywhere anytime soon.