A brief history of Thanksgiving Day football

Graphic by James Howe

Elise Covert, Senior Writer

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For many Americans, it is hard to imagine Thanksgiving without football. The very first Thanksgiving Day game was played in Philadelphia in 1869. The landmark contest came six years after former President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a fixed national holiday, and only two weeks after the Rutgers-Princeton matchup that is largely considered the first-ever football game.

After that time, Thanksgiving Day football became a college athletics and high school sports tradition. Boston Latin School and English High School of Boston began facing off on Thanksgiving in 1887, and the legacy continues today. It is considered the longest-standing Thanksgiving Day rivalry in the country.

When most of us think of Thanksgiving football, though, we think of the NFL. The NFL tradition started in Detroit in 1934, the very first season after the team known as the Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit and renamed themselves the Lions. The team was owned at the time by radio executive George A. Richards, who made the risky decision to schedule a game on Thanksgiving in an effort to compete with the Detroit Tigers for the hearts of the fans in the Motor City. The contest was between the Lions and the defending NFL Champions, the Chicago Bears. The matchup sold out two weeks in advance and became an instant classic. Publicity also skyrocketed when Richards partnered with NPR to broadcast the showdown on 94 radio stations nationwide.

The League took a hiatus from Thanksgiving Day games during World War II. In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys hosted their first Thanksgiving matchup in an effort to build their brand and their fan base. Since then, games in Detroit and Dallas have become hallmarks of the holiday. In 2006, the NFL added a third game to the lineup, which is not pinned to a specific franchise. This year, as per tradition, the Lions host the Bears and the Cowboys host the Bills. The Atlanta Falcons will host the New Orleans Saints in the third game of the slate.

Beginning in 1989, another tasty Thanksgiving tradition took hold in the NFL: the Turkey Leg Award. That year, John Madden gave the award — a fully cooked, real-life turkey leg — to the Eagles’ Reggie White. Since then, the prize is granted to the MVP (or MVPs) of the Thanksgiving Day primetime matchup. It’s not uncommon to see the players chowing down during post-game interviews. If multiple players earn the Turkey Leg Award, the production team attaches multiple legs onto the bird; in 1992, the entire offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys received the honor. And in 1994, turkey legs were given to outstanding players from both teams. The Turkey Leg Award is an NFL tradition that puts aside the serious competition and embodies the festivity of the holiday season.

Having become a staple of an American Thanksgiving, NFL franchises’ early ploy to gain popularity by scheduling games on the holiday certainly seems to have paid off. Perhaps there’s nothing so American as a holiday that starts with gratitude, family, and turkey dinner, and ends with screaming football fans.

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