The History of Thanksgiving Football

The tradition of watching football on Thanksgiving has been around longer than you might think. (Dan Thornberg/Shutterstock)

The tradition of watching football on Thanksgiving has been around longer than you might think. (Dan Thornberg/Shutterstock)

We’ve already posted our 2015 Thanksgiving football schedule, so you should be more than prepared to watch six teams pound the stuffing out of each other as you enjoy your turkey and disturbingly can-shaped cranberry sauce. These were pretty loose predictions, so we’re excited to see how they turn out ourselves. But as we’re sitting here, delighting in the day’s festivities and gulping down slices of homemade pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato and rhubarb pie, we’d like to take a second to discuss how the Thanksgiving football tradition got started in the first place.

Even those who don’t particularly enjoy the NFL—or even sports in general, for that matter—are highly aware that Thanksgiving football is a long-standing custom in many households. This is the one day of the year when large families can share a TV without fighting over the remote, because the schedule is preordained. The day starts with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the National Dog Show, and then the rest of the day is spent on what’s really important. And it’s no wonder that the custom is so familiar to us, because it’s been around for almost 150 years.

Thanksgiving Football Origins

The history of Thanksgiving football harks back all the way to the early leather helmet days. (Brocreative/Shutterstock)

The history of Thanksgiving football harks back all the way to the early leather helmet days. (Brocreative/Shutterstock)

The first football game ever played on Thanksgiving was actually played in 1869, the year the sport was first invented. It was only the third game ever played, and was actually played between two cricket clubs since there weren’t exactly a whole lot of formal teams yet. However, this just happened to be a day for which the game could be scheduled. They had no idea at the time that they were about to establish a tradition.

This changed when Princeton and Yale decided to hold a rivalry game in 1876. The two schools immediately established their Thanksgiving football game as an annual tradition, continuing to play each other on Turkey Day every year through 1881. Four years later, the University of Michigan began an annual Thanksgiving football game which continued through 1905. Their games against the University of Chicago during the bulk of this period received enough recognition for many people to consider them the start of the Thanksgiving football tradition.

It wasn’t until 1902 that the pro leagues were started, and the history of Thanksgiving football began to meld with the history of the NFL itself. To be really technical about it, the history of pro football on Thanksgiving actually began at the very end of the nineteenth century in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association. But 1902 saw the establishment of the first pro league to operate on a national scale, when Thanksgiving was chosen as the championship date for the MLB’s National Football League. There were only three teams in that particular league, but other leagues were opening up all around the country. And it wasn’t unheard of for these leagues to hold their biggest games on Thanksgiving, such as the Ohio League beginning in 1905 and the New York Pro Football League in 1919.

The NFL as we know it today was founded in 1920, and this is when the Thanksgiving football tradition began to take real shape. Thanksgiving games became a regular occurrence, especially in the cities of Chicago (which held Thanksgiving games from 1922 to 1933) and New York (which hosted games from 1929 to 1938). True history buffs will notice that New York’s football tradition ended the year before the start of World War II, which is when most Thanksgiving football traditions screeched to a halt. There was only one to continue strongly after the war ended, and that was Detroit.

Detroit had actually been playing regular Thanksgiving games since 1917, three years before there was a proper NFL for them to join. It wasn’t until 1934, however, that Thanksgiving football as we know it today became a tradition in the home as opposed to simply on the field. This is because 1934 was the year of the NFL’s first national radio broadcast, a Thanksgiving game in Detroit between the Lions and the Chicago Bears. It was a major game because, while football was not new to Detroit, the five-year-old Lions were in Detroit for their first year.

Interestingly enough, the concept of an NFL national broadcast was more of a publicity stunt than anything. The game was essentially a ploy to draw more spectators to professional football, as baseball had been the predominant sport in Detroit up to that point. And it worked—approximately 11,000 more spectators than usual arrived at the stands.

The Lions lost that first Thanksgiving game, but they continued hosting the Bears until 1938. Like most teams, they took a brief hiatus from their Turkey Day tradition when the world was called to arms. But when the Allies returned victorious, Detroit resumed their traditional customs.

Believe it or not, Detroit continued to operate as the sole host of an annual Thanksgiving football game until 1966. By that point, games had been televised since 1939. And after 27 years of spending Thanksgiving in Motor City, networks were craving something more. While they were still nowhere near as common as they are today, household televisions were growing in popularity in the 1960s. So in 1966, when the networks realized that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders might be just the thing to increase their ratings, they asked America’s Team to begin hosting games in the late afternoon.

For the next forty years, Thanksgiving football was held only in Dallas and Detroit, with one small hiccup. Originally, Dallas was only wanted for that one game in 1966. After that, the networks were going to decide the hosts of the afternoon game by rotation. But Dallas wouldn’t agree unless they were given exclusive rights. It would appear as if the networks really wanted those cheerleaders, because they agreed to give Dallas what they wanted. However, they decided in 1975 that they still wanted to mix things up a bit by alternating between Dallas and the St. Louis Cardinals (an early incarnation of what is now the Arizona Cardinals, not the St. Louis Cardinals of the MLB). The Cards got a second Thanksgiving football game in 1977, but that was where the experiment ended.

The third game wasn’t added until 2006. The NFL Network, which had been established just three years prior, decided that it was about time for them to get in on the Thanksgiving football tradition. Their plan to do so was pretty much the same as the original plan in 1966. They elected to have a rotating host team, often against a rival for the purposes of offering a marquee game that would draw in primetime viewers. When NBC took over this slot in 2012, they decided to keep the same format.

So if you’ve ever wondered why Thanksgiving football is such a dearly held American custom, the answer is essentially money. Radio broadcasters of the 1930s wanted to beat out competition, TV networks of the 1960s wanted to sell sex appeal through cheerleaders, and modern broadcasting corporations simply wanted a piece of the pie that everyone else had been eating for decades. But if you want a less cynical answer, the truth is that Thanksgiving football has almost always been a tradition, dating back to that third game in 1869. So if you love football, and love Thanksgiving, then you’ve been in good company for about 146 years.

We hope that the above information has done something to increase your love of the sport, even if just a little bit. Below, we’ll discuss some interesting Thanksgiving-related football trivia, as well as some of the most notable moments in Thanksgiving football history.

Thanksgiving Football Trivia

Keep reading to find out what this ugly fellow has over Adrian Peterson. (Timin/Shutterstock)

Keep reading to find out what this ugly fellow has over Adrian Peterson. (Timin/Shutterstock)

As noted in detail above, Thanksgiving football is a rather old tradition; however, the age of this tradition is far more interesting when we consider the timeline of other customs associated with the holiday. For instance, the food. Mental Floss notes that the dinner in 1621 which is often known as the First Thanksgiving is not technically the first Thanksgiving, but rather the one which spurred Sarah Josepha Hale—the woman who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—to push for Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the newly settled Americas. But as many of you may know, the issue of whether or not turkey was present there has been the subject of some debate.

Mental Floss notes that pumpkin pie hit the scene around 1623, while cranberry sauce came about some forty years later. As for turkey, its first appearance at the Thanksgiving table cannot be tracked down to any specific year. Alexander Hamilton had decreed the bird as an official staple of Thanksgiving at some point in the late eighteenth century, but it was still uncommon until New Englanders began to embrace the concept en masse around 1857. But the closest we have to a date for the start of turkey as a true Thanksgiving tradition is 1863, the year that Abraham Lincoln finally granted the wish of the long-deceased Hale when he declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. By this point, it was much less common to sit down at the dinner table on Thanksgiving without feasting on the bird that Benjamin Franklin once felt should be our national mascot.

In other words, the first Thanksgiving football game took place only six years after Thanksgiving became a national turkey-eating holiday. Of course, the true tradition is not just playing football on Thanksgiving, but rather watching Thanksgiving football on TV. So if we’re going to start comparing football to other Thanksgiving traditions, the two standouts would have to be the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the National Dog Show.

The dog show is definitely the younger of the two. The National Dog Show is put on by The Kennel Club of Philadelphia, a founding member of The American Kennel Club. They hosted the first National Dog Show in 1879, a full ten years after the first Thanksgiving football game. Furthermore, it was not broadcast on television until it was picked up by NBC in 2001, long after televised Thanksgiving football games had become an annual occurrence.

The first Macy’s Parade was organized in 1924, four years after the formation of the NFL. And while their first radio broadcast was in 1932—two years before the national NFL broadcast in 1934—the broadcast was limited to local stations. In fact, most people outside of New York knew little about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade until 1947, when the parade became a major plot point in Miracle on 34th Street. After achievement nationwide prominence, the Macy’s Day Parade began airing on the networks in 1948. By this point, Thanksgiving football had been on the networks for a solid nine years. There was actually a televised broadcast of the parade in 1939 as well, but it was only a local experiment.

So Thanksgiving football is truly one of the oldest Turkey Day traditions. But here are some other fun facts you might not have known, culled from an NFL.com infographic video:

  • You might not expect such a goofy-looking, lopsided Butterball like the turkey to run very fast. But they’ve actually been clocked at a top speed of about 25mph, which is 4mph faster than RB Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
  • The heaviest turkey ever weighed was about 86 pounds, so it would only take four (or slightly more) really fat turkeys to outweigh most linebackers.
  • The Detroit Lions have both won and lost the most Thanksgiving football games in NFL history. They’ve lost 38, and this morning’s win brings their total victory count to 36.
  • The average person eats about 4500 calories at Thanksgiving dinner, as opposed to an average of 2250 calories on other days of the year. But DE J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans has everyone beat, eating an average of 9000 calories every day. We can only wonder how much he eats for Thanksgiving.
  • The amount of turkeys raised annually in the United States could fill 2,181 Cowboys Stadiums (or AT&T Stadiums, if you want to be technical about it). To put this in perspective, the highest attendance for a Thanksgiving game was recorded during the 2010 game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints, a game which drew 93,985 spectators to the stands.

Finally, we’d like to end by breaking down some of our favorite Thanksgiving football moments. For a fuller list, check out yet another video posted by NFL.com:

  • In 1976, a record 273 rushing yards was racked up in a losing game against Detroit by none other than Buffalo Bills RB O.J. Simpson. The record has since been beaten, and Simpson is now famous for entirely different reasons.
  • In 1977, QB Bob Griese of the Miami Dolphins set a Thanksgiving scoring record when he threw six touchdown passes and Miami went home with a total of 55 points.
  • In 1993, the Cowboys found themselves somewhat unprepared when Dallas was treated to a new coat of sleet and snow. The Cowboys were winning 14-13 in the last two seconds, and had all but clinched it when they blocked a last-minute field goal by the Dolphins. Unfortunately, DT Leon Lett muffed the ball when he slipped during an attempted recovery, allowing the Dolphins to regain possession. They scored a field goal, and Dallas suffered an unnecessary and crushing defeat.
  • In 1998, it was decided that coin tosses would be called before the flip from that point forward. Why? Well, if you ask most people, it’s because referee Phil Luckett awarded the toss to the wrong team. But to those who listened to enhancements of the tape, it was ruled discovered that Pittsburgh Steelers RB Jerome Bettis changes his mind in the middle of the flip. The new method prevents indecision from resulting in another controversial coin toss.
  • Not all was bad in 1998. That was also the year that WR Randy Moss of the Minnesota Vikings caught three touchdown passes for 163 yards. And in his rookie year, no less. But the really amazing thing? Those were the only three passes he caught.
  • In 2004, Peyton Manning (then quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts) proved that Griese wasn’t the only guy who could throw six touchdown passes in a Thanksgiving football game when he made the same achievement himself. The 2004 Colts, however, did not tie the Thanksgiving scoring record set by the 1977 Dolphins.
  • In 2012, the New York Jets fumbled three times and the New England Patriots scored three times, all in the course of 52 seconds of field time. One of those fumbles was particularly notable, as it only occurred after QB Mark Sanchez ran straight into the rear end of one of his own teammates. He bounced off, dropping the ball and allowing the Pats a quick recovery.
  • It’s also worth noting that 2012 was also the year during which then-rookie QB Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins threw four touchdown passes against the Cowboys in their Thanksgiving match-up.
  • In 2013, Coach Mike Tomlin of the Steelers blocked Baltimore Ravens return specialist Jacoby Jones from making a touchdown on a kick return when he suddenly began walking along the side of the field, completely oblivious to the action. Jones is now one of his active receivers, so the two clearly bear no ill will.
  • In 2015, former QB Brett Favre retired his number with the Green Bay Packers. In attendance was another famous Packers legend, former 1956-1971 quarterback and 1977 Hall of Famer Bart Starr.

That’s all we’ve got for you for now. We hope you had a great Thanksgiving, full of family fun for which you may be truly grateful. Travel safely, and remember what matters this holiday season: family, fun, feasting, and football.