Touchdowns & Turkeys: A brief history of Thanksgiving football

Matthew Crist looks at how this festive feast of football action came about on the fourth Thursday of each November.
Matthew Crist  |  28th November 2019

Football on Thanksgiving is as traditional as turkey and stuffing, so how did this holiday helping of NFL action come about and why does it prove to be so popular year-after-year?

The first Thanksgiving Day football fixture was played in Philadelphia in 1869 and took place two weeks after Rutgers University defeated Princeton University on November 6th in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in what many believe was the first-ever football game.

The tradition grew as many high schools began playing on this day each year, such as the Boston Latin School, the oldest school in the United States which was established in 1635, who played the English High School of Boston on Thanksgiving in 1887 at Harvard University – the longest continuous Thanksgiving Day rivalry in the country.

Records of pro football being played on Thanksgiving date back to the 1890s, with the first pro–am team, the Allegheny Athletic Association of Pittsburgh, while in 1902, the National Football League (a Major League Baseball-backed organisation based entirely in Pennsylvania and unrelated to the current NFL) attempted to settle its championship over the holiday weekend.

Chicago Bears

The first round of matches played on Thanksgiving as part of the newly formed National Football League took place on November 25, 1920, as the likes of the Akron Pros, the Chicago Tigers and the Dayton Triangles took to the field.

The tradition soon grew in popularity as the public holiday allowed thousands of fans the opportunity to put their free-time to good use and watch a game on a day they would normally be at work.

Detroit host Chicago on Thursday and first faced the Bears on Thanksgiving Day 1934, with the Lions having played on the holiday nearly every year since – as owner GA Richards saw it as an opportunity to get more fans through the turnstiles.

The only time the festive feast of football has been broken for any length of time was between 1941 and 1944 due to the breakout of the Second World War but the end of hostilities soon saw the players return to action once again in 1945 as the Cleveland Rams beat the Detroit Lions 28-21.

The Dallas Cowboys who play Buffalo on Thursday having first  joined in the holiday fun in 1966 when they beat the Cleveland Browns and are now a regular staple for one of the most anticipated days of football of the year with Thanksgiving games being hosted in Detroit and Dallas every year since 1978.

Notable games down the years have included the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” of 1962 which saw The Lions inflict the only defeat of the season on the Green Bay Packers as quarterback Bart Starr was sacked no fewer than 11 times.

In 1986 Walter Stanley netted 207 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns including an 83-yard punt return as Green Bay beat Detroit 44–40 in one of the holiday fixture’s highest scoring encounters.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1994, the Detroit Lions unveiled throwback uniforms similar to those worn during their 1935 championship season – a “Honolulu blue” jersey with cloudy silver helmets  and solid blue socks, and such was its popularity that by 2001 the NFL requested that all-four teams playing wear retro outfits.

The prospect of spending time eating and enjoying quality time with friends and family, while settling down to watch hours of uninterrupted NFL action, proved to be be so popular among armchair viewers that an extra game was added.

Since 2006, a third NFL game on Thanksgiving has been played in primetime and originally aired on the NFL Network as part of its Thursday Night Football package until 2011; in 2012, the game was moved to NBC as part of its Sunday Night Football package.

The fact that this third helping had no conference tie-ins, meant the league could essentially place any game into the time slot, providing football hungry viewers with plenty of prime-time drama, and just like any festive feast it appears sports fans simply can’t get enough of what is now a staple during the third week of November.

 

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