The History of Thanksgiving Football
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Gathering together as a family or with friends and sitting down to eat a meal on the fourth Thursday of every November is a time-honored tradition in American households. Also commonplace? Watching football together.
Football on Thanksgiving became a tradition even before Congress finally established a consistent date in 1941.
The first professional football games to be played on Thanksgiving were in 1920, when there were six football games on the holiday. These games included teams such as the Columbus Panhandles, Dayton Triangles, Chicago Boosters, Decatur Staleys (who would go on to become the Chicago Bears), and the Detroit Heralds.
The first game between teams that would be recognized today was in 1934 between the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions. Because it was the Lions’ first year in Detroit, owner George A. Richards thought that playing a game on Thanksgiving would help draw attention to the newly established team. Richards’ hopeful publicity stunt drew a massive crowd. Around 26,000 people were in University of Detroit Stadium to watch the game, and an approximate 25,000 more would have attended had there been enough seats.
Based on that success, the Lions started to play on every Thanksgiving. Excluding 1939-1944 (because of World War II), the Lions have played on every Thanksgiving since.
The other team that traditionally plays on Thanksgiving is the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys only started playing consistently on Thanksgiving in 1966 as a result of another owner wanting to drum up publicity for his team. Cowboys owner Tex Schramm saw his struggling team and decided that the best way to get people to show up to a game was to play on Thanksgiving. Again, much like the Lions 32 years earlier, the Cowboys found great success by playing on Thanksgiving, when 80,259 descended upon the Cotton Bowl to watch the game.
The Cowboys have only missed playing on Thanksgiving two years since 1966, and they will host Washington at home this year.
A third, late-night game was added in 2006 to make sure that all broadcasters–CBS, NBC, and FOX–would carry a game on their channel on Thanksgiving.
This year, the Vikings will be the Lions’ Thanksgiving opponent. The Vikings have a historical record of 5-1 when playing on Thanksgiving, with their last game coming in 2000 against the Dallas Cowboys. A notable Thanksgiving game for the Vikings was in 1998, when rookie Randy Moss caught three passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Vikings to a 46-36 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Highlights of NFL games on Thanksgiving include Mark Sanchez’s “buttfumble,” Jerome Bettis’ infamous coin flip incident, and Leon Lett’s costly choice to try and become a hero for his team. These and even more are included in this Top Ten ranking video made by the NFL.
The football schedule for this Thanksgiving is as follows:
- Minnesota @ Detroit, 11:30 am (CBS)
- Washington @ Dallas, 3:30 pm (FOX)
- Pittsburgh @ Indianapolis, 7:30 pm (NBC)
So as you gather with family, eat, and watch football, you can be that one relative that knows random trivia facts like which football teams played on Thanksgiving in 1920. Actually, maybe don’t be that person.
Anyways, have a Happy Thanksgiving and enjoy the break, and get ready to come back to school for the thing that excites high schoolers the most: finals.