One of the great truly American traditions is the Thanksgiving holiday. It wasn’t a national holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln gave his Thanksgiving Proclamation. As our great nation was embroiled in civil war, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be set aside as a day of Thanksgiving. Union and Confederate soldiers would cease fighting and take time to celebrate. Every year since we have celebrated Thanksgiving Day in some form.
One of the other unique American traditions is football on Thanksgiving. When the settlers of the New World Colony of Plymouth got together with their Native American friends in 1621, there was no such thing as football nor was there any such thing as Thanksgiving Day. Football was still over 200 years away, but the seeds were sown for what has become one of our most cherished holidays.
The Birth of Football After Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, football still did not exist in the U.S. It would be another 11 years before Princeton and Rutgers would play in the first official college football game, one that looks nothing like it does today. That first game featured 25 players per team who knew nothing of the spread offense or RPOs.
By 1876, the Intercollegiate Football Association was holding its own championship game. The game just so happened to be played on Thanksgiving Day each year and slowly it became a very prominent event. By the end of the 1800s, the IFA championship game was drawing 40,000 fans at the old Polo Grounds in New York City. As football grew in popularity, more and more games around the country were being scheduled on Thanksgiving Day.
The Rise of Pro Football The National Football League was founded in 1920 and followed the lead of the college game. With the rise of television in the 1950s, the pro game also grew in popularity. George Richards owned the Portsmouth (OH) Spartans and wanted his team to share in that growth.
Spurred by an idea, Richards moved his team to Detroit and renamed the franchise the Lions. His first attempt at growing his team’s popularity was to schedule a Thanksgiving Day game. His first opponent had to be one that would put fans in the seats. He scheduled the Chicago Bears.
Richards also owned a radio station which helped the game’s broadcast get on 90 different stations around the U.S. The result was 25,000 fans on game day and a nationwide radio audience. Thanksgiving Day football in Detroit was born. The Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day every year since.
The Early Years For the entire decade of the 1950s and then some (from 1951 to 1963), Detroit played the Green Bay Packers every Thanksgiving Day. The Lions continue to play every Thanksgiving Day against an opponent scheduled by the NFL.
When the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, the league decided to add a second Thanksgiving Day game. With the rise of the Dallas Cowboys as “America’s Team,” the NFL decided that Dallas would host the second Thanksgiving Day game. Both games would be broadcast nationally on television but by different networks.
The NFL continued to increase in popularity so much so that it became the most watched spectator sport. Because of that popularity, the NFL decided to add a third game to the Thanksgiving Day football feast. In 2006, Kansas City hosted Denver in the first prime-time Thanksgiving game. While Detroit and Dallas always play on Thanksgiving, any of the remaining 30 teams are eligible to play in the third game.
This Thanksgiving, Detroit hosts NFC North rival Chicago. One of the NFL’s great rivalries continues in Dallas as the Cowboys host the Redskins. As Thanksgiving Day’s final game – Atlanta at New Orleans – ticks away into the night, give thanks for a tradition that started long ago and hopefully continues for many years to come.