Thanksgiving Football: An American Tradition
American football has been a Thanksgiving tradition since the 1800s. Traditionally reserved for high school and collegiate rivalry showdowns, Turkey Day is now widely associated with the NFL schedule. Familiar teams like the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys face off during the day, and a third game featuring new matchups now takes the night game slot. Even though football is a Thanksgiving tradition, it looks a lot different now than it did long ago. If you're wondering why the Lions and Cowboys always get to play on Thanksgiving, or want to learn a few facts to impress the family when the game is on, check out this brief history of Thanksgiving football.
The NFL schedule eats up most of the Thanksgiving primetime schedule, but there are plenty of college games playing earlier in the day and all throughout Thanksgiving weekend. Rightfully so, given that the tradition began before professional football leagues started popping up. Amateur athletes competed as early as 1869, only six years after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official national holiday. Colleges with the earliest football traditions, such as Yale and Princeton, squared off regularly on Thanksgiving. In fact, early on, Thanksgiving operated as a championship matchup between the two best teams in these early intercollegiate leagues.
Motor City Mastermind
The popularity of American football expanded rapidly during its earliest years. It wasn't long until professional leagues started to form. A couple of the earliest leagues to precede the NFL, the New York Pro Football League and the Ohio League, carried on the Thanksgiving tradition, eventually bringing it to the NFL in the 1920s. However, it was Detroit Lions owner George A. Richards who is often credited for helping the NFL make its mark on Thanksgiving. Attempting to gain recognition for his new franchise in a city where the Detroit Tigers dominated the MLB, Richards scheduled a game on Thanksgiving against the Chicago Bears. Fatefully, the Lions and the Bears had two of the best records in the league, and the game would decide the winner of the division. The circumstances of the matchup drew a record crowd, and the Lions have played on almost every Thanksgiving Day since their 1934 showdown in The Motor City.
There's no official law stating that the Lions have to play on Thanksgiving, but because it's so rooted in the NFL tradition, it's more likely people will stop putting up Santa Claus decorations before the Lions stop hosting an NFL game on Turkey Day. On the other hand, the Dallas Cowboys took advantage of a league not yet convinced that playing games on a Thanksgiving weekday would draw crowds. The Cowboys' owner agreed to host the additional Thanksgiving game as long as they could host it every year. The NFL complied, so like the Lions, the Cowboys have always and will always play on Thanksgiving. Luckily, for fans around the league, the NFL expanded the schedule in 2006 so everyone can see their favorite team play on Thanksgiving from time to time.
The Night Game
The Lions play the early game. The Cowboys follow up with the afternoon game. And starting in 2006, the league added a night game to the NFL Thanksgiving schedule. The rotating schedule doesn't guarantee a slot to any particular franchise, allowing the NFL to use the game to schedule a big matchup like a division rivalry game or a playoff rematch from the previous postseason. With four of the six slots having the potential to go to different teams every year, football fans are more likely than ever to be able to enjoy one of their favorite family holidays watching their home team battle it out on the gridiron.