The History of Thanksgiving Football

Have you ever wondered what went on during the first Thanksgiving?

It was reported in journals that the first celebration included athletic contests such as foot races and wrestling. Nearly 500 years since the first Thanksgiving, we still participate in athletic contests, though some do so professionally. Thanksgiving is a day to kick back, be thankful for your blessings, exercise a little gluttony, and watch football on television. But have you ever wondered why we watch football on Thanksgiving Day?

According to their Hall of Fame, the National Football League started to play in 1920; teams such as the Akron Pros, Decatur Staleys, and Dayton Triangles helped form the twelve-team league and every team played on Thanksgiving Day. But in 1934, the league entered its fifteenth season and was managing to stay afloat during the Great Depression.

The league was contending with Major League Baseball as America’s sporting pastime. Radio executive George Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans of Ohio and relocated them to Detroit, renaming them the Lions.  The Lions were starting to emerge as a contender in the fledgling league, but the team struggled to attract fans during their inaugural season in the Motor City.

Richards took an enormous risk and he decided that he was going to schedule a game to be played on Thanksgiving Day.

On November 29, 1934, 26,000 fans filled the University of Detroit stadium to watch the Lions face George Halas’ mighty Chicago Bears. Those in attendance witnessed the Lions take a surprising 16-7 lead at halftime, but Bronco Nagurski’s touchdown pass in the fourth quarter put the Bears up for good as they kept their perfect record by a score of 19-16.

With the exception of a six-season gap, the Lions have played a home game on Thanksgiving Day since.

The Dallas Cowboys became the second franchise to play on Thanksgiving Day on an annual basis starting in 1966 as over 80,000 fans at the Cotton Bowl witnessed the Cowboys defeat the Cleveland Browns, 26-14.

In 2006, the NFL added a third Thanksgiving Day game to be played in the evening as Kansas City defeated the Denver Broncos, 19-10. The game was televised on NFL Network until 2012 when it was moved to NBC. Traditionally, the Lions play the early (12:30pm) game while the Cowboys play the afternoon (4:25pm) game.

In addition to professional football games, many families and friends play football on Thanksgiving Day. My church had a tradition where men – both young and old – gather at a local field in Clifton Park, NY to play pickup games on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. It is a fun time of physical activity and preemptively burning off calories before feasting on turkey and mashed potatoes.

So, if you are looking for something to do between being thankful for your blessings and stuffing your face with food, get outside and sling “the rock” around for a while!