Football on Thanksgiving: A Brief But Comprehensive History

Sunday, when the Detroit Lions overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat the Carolina Panthers, American football fans gave thanks four days early.

The 7-3 Lions are relevant on the fourth Thursday of November.

When families across the country tomorrow turn their televisions to Fox at 11:30 a.m. (Central Time), they’ll get to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal while watching a Lions team that is very much in the playoff picture (complete schedule here). Many of my MSF colleagues aren’t old enough to remember the last time that happened.

For the first time in years family members won’t be asking each other, “Why are we stuck with the Lions on Thanksgiving?” as they pass the mashed potatoes.

Detroit’s First Thanksgiving Day Game

The Lions and the Bears on Thanksgiving, 1934. An extra serving of sweet potatoes goes to the person who can figure out what sort of offense they're running. (Pro Football Hall of Fame)

The Lions have played on Thanksgiving for as long as they’ve been the Lions.

The franchise began as the Portsmouth (OH) Spartans in 1930. In 1934, team owner G.A. Richards moved the team from the small steel town on the Ohio River to Detroit. Desperate to bring attention to the new team and its star quarterback Dutch Clark, Richards scheduled a Thanksgiving Day game against the reigning champion Chicago Bears. The Lions were 10–1 going into that game; the Bears were 11-0. All 26,000 tickets for the game, held at University of Detroit Stadium, were sold out weeks before Thanksgiving.

The game, which the Bears won 19-16 en route to an NFL Western Division title, was such a success that Thanksgiving Day football in Detroit became an annual affair. The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game every year since World War II.

But football on Thanksgiving predates the Lions, and even the NFL.

We don’t know when two football teams first decided to face off on Thanksgiving, or why, but by the end of the 19th century, the tradition was already established.

The Beginning of Thanksgiving Day Football

College

The Universities of Michigan and Chicago met annually on Thanksgiving beginning in 1893. (Even before then Michigan had played Thanksgiving games against the Chicago Athletic Association.) The Michigan-Chicago tradition ended in 1899 after Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg refused to split gate receipts equally with the Wolverines or to give Michigan the right to choose the location of the 1900 game.

Stagg did not consider Michigan or other regional schools Chicago’s equals. The Wolverines needed to play in Chicago; Stagg’s Maroons would do just fine never setting foot in Ann Arbor. So in 1899 the Wisconsin Badgers traveled to the Windy City for a Thanksgiving meeting with the Chicago Maroons. (Say what you want about Amos Alonzo Stagg. His name is still on the Big Ten championship trophy.)

Fans tailgate before the 1895 Michigan-Chicago game. (Chicago Tribune)

High School

High schools also have been playing Thanksgiving Day games since the 19th century.

In many states old rivals play each other on Thanksgiving, provided that one or both of the two schools haven’t advanced to the late rounds of the state tournament. Boston Latin and Boston English, two of the nation’s oldest secondary schools, have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1887.

The most storied Thanksgiving Day rivalry in the Midwest involves two schools just outside of St. Louis. Kirkwood and Webster Groves have played on Thanksgiving since the late 1890s. This year, with Kirkwood advancing to the Missouri Class 5 State Championship Game, the annual Turkey Day contest between Kirkwood and Webster Groves will involve the junior varsity squads.

Professional

Pro football teams have played on Thanksgiving since the first professional leagues arose in the first decade of the 20th century.

The New York Pro Football League, a predecessor of the modern-day NFL, settled its championship on Thanksgiving. The Ohio League, the NFL’s other ancestor, saved its most important games for the holiday. The first NFL season in 1920 featured 6 Thanksgiving Day games, 5 of which were shut-outs (including one scoreless tie) and 2 of which involved NFL teams playing non-league teams.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the number of Thanksgiving games and the teams involved varied from season to season.

In the first Thanksgiving football games, Turkeys played for their lives.

Thanksgiving Day Dispute

In 1939 a dispute arose about the actual date of Thanksgiving.

Prior to that year, the holiday had always been the final Thursday of November. In 1939 that would have put Thanksgiving on November 30. Back then shoppers and retailers were loath to buy or sell Christmas gifts before Thanksgiving. So a late Turkey Date meant a short Christmas shopping season.

President Franklin Roosevelt was afraid that a November 30 Thanksgiving would have a negative impact on an economy that was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression. Under pressure from business leaders, FDR moved the holiday back one week, to November 23. Several states refused to recognize the change. After all, the Thanksgiving high school football games were already scheduled.

That year there were two Thanksgivings.

The only NFL game played on either date was a November 23 clash between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 1941 Congress passed a law establishing Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.

"You can wait another week if you want. But there won't be any turkey left."—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The Growth of the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day Classic

For two decades after World War II (with the exception of a 1952 game between the Bears and the Dallas Texans), the NFL played only one game on Thanksgiving, hosted by the Detroit Lions.

In 1946 the upstart All-American Football Conference (AAFC) also played a Thanksgiving Day game. (The New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 21-7.) The following year the AAFC played two games on the holiday, a trend that the league continued until it folded after the 1949 season (at which point three AAFC teams—the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Colts—joined the NFL).

When the American Football League (AFL) launched in 1960 it also had an annual Thanksgiving Day game on its schedule. The first 3 AFL Thanksgiving games involved the New York Titans, who would later become the Jets.

In 1966 Dallas Cowboys owner Tex Schramm jumped at the opportunity to host a second Thanksgiving NFL game. He saw it as a marketing opportunity—a chance to bring publicity to his young franchise.

Not to be outdone, the AFL added a second Thanksgiving game in 1967. For the next 3 seasons, American football fans were treated to 4 pro football games on the fourth Thursday of November. When the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, it gave up its two Thanksgiving games. Instead, one team from the new American Football Conference would play either the Lions or Cowboys.

With the exceptions of 1975 and 1977, when the St. Louis Cardinals replaced the Cowboys as a Turkey Day host, the NFL played exactly two Thanksgiving games—one in Detroit, one in Dallas—from 1970 until 2005.

In 2006 the league added a third game. So those of you who get the NFL Network can enjoy Thanksgiving football long after the dishes have been done and the remains of your holiday meal are sitting in a dozen Tupperware® containers in the fridge.

"I didn't catch what he said. Let's just assume that he said 'heads.' "

Though Thanksgiving football is as American as a deep-fried Twinkie at the state fair, the tradition isn’t confined to the states.

The Canadian Football League (CFL) has held a Thanksgiving Day doubleheader each year since 1970. But don’t be shocked when you don’t see Argos-Als highlights tomorrow night on SportsCenter. The CFL plays its Thanksgiving Day Classic on Canadian Thanksgiving, which is the second Monday in October.

Football on Thanksgiving is as old as the sport itself. And it’s nice that, this year, we can kick off the day with a game that has playoff implications (even if we have to deal with Nickelback at halftime).

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.



About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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