Thanksgiving Day Football: A Short History of a Great American Tradition


On Thanksgiving, there are three traditional “F’s”: family, food, and of course, Thanksgiving Day football.

Thanksgiving Day football is every bit as traditional as sitting around the table with family, eating turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie on the fourth Thursday of November. The tradition of playing football on the holiday is as old as the game itself, and nearly as old as the holiday.

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In 1863, president Abraham Lincoln set a fixed date for the holiday of Thanksgiving for the first time, which beforehand was a sporadic holiday without a set date. Six years later in 1869, Rutgers and Princeton competed in what is considered the first organized game of American football. Two weeks later, the first Thanksgiving Day football game was played between the “Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The tradition has been alive to this day.

Before the NFL became involved, it was common for high school and and college teams to partake in it, and it still is. On the California high school circuit, there are two highly notable games that take place on Thanksgiving: the San Jose Big Bone Game, and the San Francisco Turkey Bowl.

In the professional ranks, the NFL played its inaugural season in 1920, and begin its Thanksgiving day game tradition that same year. Turkey Day games have been played every year since, except for a four-year hiatus between 1941 and 1944, because of World War II. It started with a rotating slate of teams playing on the holiday, and stayed that way until 1934. That year, the Detroit Lions, led by their new co-owner George Richards, took on duties as the team competing yearly on the holiday.

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At the time, the Lions were in competition for prominence with the MLB’s Detroit Tigers, who had won 101 games and the American League pennant in 1934. As a way of marketing the team to more of the country, Richards, a radio executive with a lot of pull, got his team a slot on Thanksgiving. Ever since, the Lions have been a staple of the holiday events.

The Lions have hosted a game on Thanksgiving in 75 of the last 81 years, with the only exceptions being in 1939 and 1940, when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles squared off, and from 1941 to 1944, due to the aforementioned War.

In their first five seasons on the holiday, the Lions faced the Chicago Bears, with Detroit winning three times. When play returned following the end of the war in 1945, the Lions faced three different opponents in the next five years. After that, a new tradition began in 1951, when a run of 13 straight games against the Green Bay Packers began. Detroit went 9-3 with a tie during that span.

Since then, it has become a random draw of sorts. There haven’t been set opponents since the Packers’ series ended in 1963, but it’s a guarantee that the Lions will be playing on Ford Field every Thanksgiving. The Lions are 35-38 on Thanksgiving, and have two ties as well.

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys joined the Lions in playing on Thanksgiving. At that point, the Cowboys were only in their sixth season in existence, but general manager Tex Schramm signed the team up for the second Thanksgiving Day game when no other team wanted it. In their inaugural holiday game, the Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14.

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  • Since then, the Cowboys have hosted a game on the holiday every season, save for 1975 and 1977. The national exposure of these games, as well as their success on Thanksgiving, is part of the reason that NFL Films editor-in-chief Bob Ryan gave the Cowboys the nickname “America’s Team”. Dallas is 29-17, with a tie, on Thanksgiving.

    In 2006, a third game was added as a night cap, creating a true full day of football, with no fixed teams for the night game. In the first night game in 2006, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos 19-10.

    The Bay Area teams have played on Thanksgiving Day a few times in their respective histories. The San Francisco 49ers have been Thanksgiving participants five times, with the first occurrence coming in 1966. That year, they beat the Lions 41-14. In 1969, the 49ers tied with the Cowboys at 24. In 1972, they beat the Cowboys 31-10 for their most recent holiday win. In the 2011 night game, the 49ers lost to the Baltimore Ravens 16-6. Last season, the 49ers dropped the night game to their rivals, the Seattle Seahawks 19-3. After the game, Seahawks’ players infamously dined on a traditional Thanksgiving meal at midfield of Levi’s Stadium.

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    The Oakland Raiders have been participants in seven Thanksgiving games, with four coming in the 1960’s as part of the American Football League. The Raiders beat the Denver Broncos in 1963, lost to the Buffalo Bills in 1966, beat the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, and beat the Bills in 1968.

    Since joining the NFL, they’ve played in three holiday games, but haven’t had much luck. In 1970, they lost to the Lions 28-14. In 2009, the Cowboys beat them 24-7, and then again in 2013, 31-24.

    This year, the Lions host the Eagles in the early game. In the afternoon game, the Cowboys host the undefeated Carolina Panthers. In the night game, the Bears and the Packers continue their age-old rivalry, but for the first time on Thanksgiving.