Thanksgiving Day is a day focused on gratitude, but for many people, it’s also largely about the three big “f’s”: Family, food, and football. The latter is a tradition that is almost as old as the sport itself. The idea of football games being played on Thanksgiving Day dates all the way back to 1876 when Princeton played Yale. From 1885 from 1905 the University of Michigan Wolverines would play against the Chicago Maroons on Thanksgiving Day, and this is said to be the beginning of Thanksgiving Day football.
When it comes to professional football, the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day came a little later. Radio entrepreneur G.A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans in 1934 and promptly moved them from Ohio to Detroit, Michigan. From the start, Richards had trouble getting attention for his new team as the best show in town was Detroit’s baseball club, the Tigers. At the time, they were a dominant team who had won the World Series in 1935 and ruled the sports headlines. Meanwhile, the newly relocated and renamed Detroit Lions had minimal talent, and were merely a side dish in the Motor City.
Richards knew he needed to draw attention to the Lions and decided to play a game on Thanksgiving Day with plans to make the spectacle of the game bigger and better than anything seen before. He made a deal with NBC to broadcast the game nationwide, and managed to arrange a matchup with the best opponent possible at the time. The Chicago Bears, under legendary coach George Halas, were defending champions, guaranteeing the game would draw a crowd. As gameday approached, Richards had to move the game to the University of Detroit stadium due to the overwhelming response — over 26,000 fans attended the game. Richards’ marketing gimmicks even carried over to the post-game meal: He had a real bear shot, prepared, and served to the Lions players after the game. Though the Bears defeated the Lions 19-16 in that inaugural game, Richards still considered the event a success, and the Lions emerged victorious the next year, beating the Bears 14-2, and clinching the West Championship. Aside from a six year gap (including the war years) from 1939-1945, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since Richards bought the team in 1934.
The Detroit Lions’ Thanksgiving game has become mealtime background noise to many people, and the team’s lack of success in past years has made for a some less-than-exciting matchups, leading to an outcry by NFL fans to revoke Detroit’s rights to the Thanksgiving Day game. The NFL, however, has no plans to move the game or take it away from the Lions. To this day, Richards’ bold gimmick remains a long-standing tradition celebrated by millions of turkey-stuffed football fans year after year.
Similarly, the Dallas Cowboys started playing on Thanksgiving Day as a way to boost their popularity. In 1966, General Manager Tex Schramm pushed for the game to promote young coach Tom Landry as well as the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Over 80,000 fans filled the Cotton Bowl in Dallas to watch the Cowboys defeat the Cleveland Browns 26-14.
With that game in the books, the NFL had their second Thanksgiving gameday host. To this day, Detroit plays the early game, with the Dallas matchup taking place in the afternoon. When the teams hit the field on Thanksgiving Day 2013, it will be the 73rd turkey day game for the Lions, and the 44th for the Cowboys.
In 2006, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup, with the host for that game rotating each year. So while there may be even more games to watch now, the fans of Detroit and Dallas can rest assured that their traditional home game will follow the morning parades, accompany family festivities, and set up their Black Friday shopping for many years to come.