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Thanksgiving & Football – American Traditions

November 23, 2021
Thanksgiving Day football games

It was 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln gave his Thanksgiving Proclamation. With a nation embroiled in a Civil War, Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November be set aside as a day of Thanksgiving. Soldiers on both sides, Union and Confederate, would cease fighting and take time to give thanks and celebrate. We have been doing the same in some form ever since.

One of the other unique American traditions is the game of football. It is a sport that is truly American. Nothing is more American than football played on Thanksgiving Day. When the original settlers came to America and celebrated with their Native American friends in 1621, there was no such thing as Thanksgiving Day nor was there football. Both were nearly 200 years away, but the seeds were planted for what has become one of our most beloved holidays.


The Rise of Football

When Lincoln gave his Thanksgiving Proclamation, football still did not exist in the U.S. It would take another six years before the day that Princeton would play Rutgers in the first “official” college football game. The thing is, it looked nothing like what it does today. That game featured teams of 25 players on each side in something that looked nothing like today’s spread offenses.

By 1876, a championship game was being played by the Intercollegiate Football Association, which consisted of schools that we recognize as Ivy League today. The championship game just happened to be played on Thanksgiving Day each year. It became a pretty big event. Near the end of the 1800s, the IFA championship game would draw approximately 40,000 fans to the Polo Grounds in New York City. As football became more popular, more teams scheduled games on Thanksgiving Day.


Pro Football Takes Off

The college game was the only game in town for quite a while. In 1920, the National Football League was founded. It paled in comparison to college football, but its popularity began to rise with the introduction of television in the 1950s. 

As many of our greatest innovations and technology usually begin with an idea, so did professional football on Thanksgiving Day. George Richards was the owner of the Portsmouth Spartans, an NFL franchise in Ohio. He had grand visions for his team. Richards had an idea and he put his plan to action.

Richards moved his franchise to Detroit and renamed it the Lions. He also happened to own a radio station. Richards’ idea was to play a game on Thanksgiving Day and broadcast it around the country. With his radio connections, the game was featured on over 90 different stations across the U.S. It was 1934 and Thanksgiving Day football in Detroit was born. With the exception of World War II, the Lions have played every Thanksgiving Day since. 


The NFL on Thanksgiving

Detroit continued to play on Thanksgiving Day every year. During the 1950s and into the ‘60s, the Lions played Green Bay on Thanksgiving. The two teams met every year from 1951 to 1963. The Lions, of course, continued playing on Thanksgiving Day after 1963 but against various opponents. 

Thanksgiving Day bettingWhen the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, the new NFL decided to add a second Thanksgiving Day game. In Dallas, the Cowboys had become known as America’s Team. The NFL decided to capitalize on the popularity of both the league and the Cowboys franchise. The league decided to broadcast both games on Thanksgiving but on different television networks.

The NFL has become the most-watched spectator sport in the U.S. Again capitalizing on that popularity, the NFL decided to add a third game to the Thanksgiving Day schedule. In 2006, Kansas City hosted Denver in the first primetime game on Thanksgiving. Detroit and Dallas always play on Thanksgiving Day and the remaining 30 teams are all eligible to play in the primetime game.

This year, the Lions will host their NFC North rival Chicago. It’s the same Bears team Detroit played on the very first NFL Thanksgiving Day game. Dallas will host the Las Vegas Raiders and Buffalo is at New Orleans in the nightcap. As that final game nears its end late into the night, stop and give thanks for one of our great traditions – football on Thanksgiving.