The History of the NFL on Thanksgiving


The Lions play on Thanksgiving in 2013 Photo from Texas A&M University Commerce Marketing Communications Photography under Creative Commons license

Thanksgiving has always been a heartwarming holiday. There’s family, friends, and food. But it would never be as satisfying without the presence of football.

The tradition has been around for over a century, as the first Thanksgiving Day football game took place on November 17, 1869 in Philadelphia. This just so happened to be the first American football game. In this game, Rutgers defeated Pittsburg, and it became a significant event in history. Although the result of this game was not important, it was the beginning of a tradition, the beginning of Thanksgiving Football.

When we watch NFL Thanksgiving football today, we always see two of the same teams play: the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions. These teams have been carrying the torch for quite some time. Thanksgiving football is a way of life to these two cities.

The Dallas Cowboys have been part of the tradition since 1966. The Cowboys general manager at the time, Tex Schramm, saw the Thanksgiving Day game as the perfect opportunity to get his team national publicity. The NFL was hesitant to allow this to happen because it was worried that fans might not show up. They even guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But this was certainly not a problem, as enough fans showed up to break its attendance record. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only once.

Ever since 1934, the Lions have been part of the tradition. A local radio executive, G.A. Richards, purchased the team and had them play on November 26 every year, so they could move in front of the Detroit Tigers baseball team on the sports pages. Richards was part of a big radio station in the country, and with his large network he was able to convince NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide. This was a great move, as the Lions sold out their 26,000-seat stadium that game and even had fans turned away at the gate. Every year since, the tradition would continue to be firmly established in Detroit, as they have played on every Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving schedule system is fairly simple. The Lions and the Cowboys each play another team. Although these two games were very popular, the NFL wanted to take advantage of the success that Thanksgiving was having, and in 2006, they added a third game to the lineup.

This year we have 3 great NFL games to watch. At 12:00 PM (ET,) Matt Stafford and the Lions will defend their territory against the Jay Cutler-led Chicago Bears. At 4:30 PM (ET,) Mark Sanchez (in for starter Nick Foles) will try to lead Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles into Dallas to defeat their division rival, the Dallas Cowboys. To finish off the night, there will be a rematch of the 2013 NFC Championship. We will see the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks head to Levi Stadium to defeat the San Francisco 49ers.

However you plan to spend your Thanksgiving break, be sure to watch a football game. It is a key part of the holiday, and it would be a mistake to go without it. Cherish the experience of a true American pastime. After all, there’s nothing better than turkey and football.