Football and Thanksgiving go together like, well, turkey and gravy.
The idea stretches all the way back to the very beginnings of football itself, and leads to an origin story about how Thanksgiving Day helped the NFL become an American institution.
But, to start with the most pressing question: Why does the NFL schedule games every Thanksgiving? Like almost all menu items on Thanksgiving, whether you like them or not, it’s simply based on tradition.
Why is football a Thanksgiving tradition?
It was only six years after Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday on October 3, 1863 that football began its path to becoming a longstanding tradition.
The first-ever recorded football game on Thanksgiving Day was on November 16, 1869. It was between the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club. According to the Evening Telegraph of Philadelphia a “foot-ball match between twenty-two players” would take place at “12 1/2 o’clock” at the Germantown Club.
On the college football front, Princeton and Yale began playing an annual Thanksgiving Day college football game in 1876. The University of Michigan and the Chicago Maroons (an intramural team from the University of Chicago) invited themselves to the table in 1885 and played for 19 consecutive years. Their games in the 1890s have come to be known as “The Beginning of Thanksgiving Day Football.” Of course, history has an unreliable memory, and the actual beginning was more than 20 years earlier with the “foot-ball” match that took place on Thanksgiving in 1869.
What is the longest Thanksgiving Day football rivalry?
The longest Thanksgiving Day football rivalry is a high school football rivalry.
In 1887, the Boston Latin School played the English High School of Boston in a game held at Harvard University. Since then, they’ve played every single year, even through the Spanish Flu and both World War I and World War II, until the football season was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.
On an interesting side note, the Boston Latin School is the oldest school in the United States. It was established in 1635 (one year before Harvard) by Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler.
The history of professional football on Thanksgiving
The first professional football games played on Thanksgiving can be traced back to the 1890s and the first professional football team, the Allegheny Athletic Association of Pittsburgh.
How did the Allegheny Athletic Association become the first pro football team?
The Allegheny Athletic Association of Pittsburgh (AAA) became the first professional football team on November 12, 1892, when they paid William “Pudge” Heffelfinger $500 to play in a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club (PAC). The accounting ledger Heffelfinger’s payment was recorded on is known as “pro football’s birth certificate.”
The investment paid off as Allegheny beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club 4-0 thanks to Heffelfinger’s 35-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.
That $500 in 1892 would have been worth just over $15,000 in 2020. Still, that doesn’t compare with the salaries of today’s NFL stars. Under the contract he signed in 2020, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes makes about $630,000 per game.
Who was the first professional football player?
William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was born on December 20, 1867. He played high school football and baseball in Minnesota before going to Yale in 1888. During his time at Yale, Heffelfinger was named to the Walter Camp All-American team three times. His college football career at Yale included two undefeated seasons in his freshman and senior year. His sophomore and junior years were one-loss seasons.
During his freshman season in 1888, the Yale football team outscored their opponents 698-0.
Heffelfinger is also credited with bringing the concept of a pulling guard to football and was hired as the head coach at UC Berkeley in 1893. He also coached college football at Lehigh and Minnesota.
Early professional football games on Thanksgiving
In 1902, the NFL decided to settle its championship game over Thanksgiving weekend. But this NFL wasn’t the NFL we know today.
It was a short-lived league backed by Major League Baseball and confined to the state of Pennsylvania. The game that Thanksgiving weekend ended in a tie. Three teams claimed to have won the title.
Other local professional leagues played on Thanksgiving Day, with the Ohio League saving their big games for the occasion. In 1905 and 1906, the Canton Bulldogs and Latrobe Athletic Club, two members of the Ohio League and two of the most successful teams in professional football at the time, scheduled their annual game for Thanksgiving.
The first scandal in professional football
The tradition of the Ohio League’s Thanksgiving Day game didn’t last long.
In 1906, another of the league’s more popular teams, the Massillon Tigers, got caught in a rigging scandal along with the Canton Bulldogs.
Through a newspaper article, word got out that the head coach of the Bulldogs, Charles “Blondy” Wallace, conspired with a player from the Tigers, Walter East, to fix a two-game series. The plan was for the Bulldogs to win the first game and the Tigers would win the second. This would force a legitimate third game that would be a huge haul at the gates.
Wallace and East also planned to gamble on the two fixed games. As both teams were competing for the league championship at the time, the Tiger scandal tarnished the entire league. The Tiger scandal went down in history as the first scandal in professional football.
A Thanksgiving tradition halted by scandal
After the Tiger scandal, attendance for games in the Ohio League dropped dramatically. By 1910, the Canton Bulldogs had suspended operations. However, they would resurface a few years later, signing Jim Thorpe to play for them for $250 a game in 1915. A gold medal-winning pentathlete in the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe was already one of the most famous athletes in America.
The same year that Canton suspended their operations in 1910, the Ohio League stopped holding Thanksgiving Day games.
The first NFL game played on Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving Day football game featuring two NFL teams took place on November 25, 1920, between the resurrected Canton Bulldogs and the Akron Pros. This was also the inaugural year of the National Football League. Jim Thorpe was named the first league president and was a coach and player for the Canton Bulldogs. In that first Thanksgiving Day game, the Akron Pros won 7-0 and would finish the season 8-0-3 to claim the league title.
The following season, Jim Thorpe, a Native American, left the Canton Bulldogs to play for an all-Native American team in LaRue, Ohio.
From the American Professional Football Association to the NFL
Although 1920 is still considered the first season of the NFL, the league was actually called the American Professional Football Association (APFA) at that time. However, two years later it would be renamed the National Football League.
The NFL as we know it today was founded in Canton, Ohio in 1922 and originally included 11 teams, including the Canton Bulldogs, Akron Pros and Massillon Tigers. The Tigers never actually made it to the first season and withdrew before ever playing a game in the NFL.
Out of the original 11 teams, only two are still around today. The Decatur Staleys became the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals now play as the Arizona Cardinals.
NFL Thanksgiving football in the 1920s
During the 1921 season, the Thanksgiving Day game was between the Buffalo All-Americans and the Chicago Staleys. Chicago lost the game in what ended up being their only loss of the season. However, the game is more famous for setting the stage for the “Staley Swindle.”
What was the Staley Swindle?
The Buffalo All-Americans finished the 1921 season with the best record in the league (9-0-2). Just behind them were the Chicago Staleys, with only the one loss they had suffered at the hands of the All-Americans on Thanksgiving. At the end of the season, George Halas, the Stayley’s coach, challenged the All-Americans to a rematch. They agreed to the game, but with the caveat that it would be considered an exhibition game.
Halas had other ideas though.
After a 10-7 victory, with both teams now having one loss and the Staleys holding the tiebreaker advantage, Halas decided to declare his team the league champions.
He then began a campaign to convince league owners that it wasn’t really an exhibition game and a rematch held more weight than an initial matchup.
It worked, and the Staleys were officially named the champions for the 1921 season. This tiebreaker logic remained in the NFL until 1933.
Who played on Thanksgiving Day before the Detroit Lions?
In 1922, an early Thanksgiving Day rivalry emerged between the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears. They would play each other every year from 1922-1933. The following year would introduce the Detroit Lions as a Thanksgiving staple.
Why do the Detroit Lions play every Thanksgiving?
It all started in 1934.
The Lions’ owner, George A. Richards, who had just purchased the Portsmouth Spartans (OH) and moved them to Detroit, was struggling to attract fans to his games. At this time, the NFL hadn’t gained the popularity it has today and Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers, having made it to the World Series that year, dominated the city’s sports landscape.
In an attempt to gain more attention for his team, Richards saw Thanksgiving Day as a way to be the city’s only sports attraction on a day that everyone had off work.
His plan was a huge success.
The stadium was packed, and a Thanksgiving tradition was born. Another tradition was also born that day as the Lions lost 16-19 to the Chicago Bears.
The official attendance for the game was 25,000. Since then, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1934, with the only exception being from 1939 to 1944 when the United States was fighting in World War II.
Why are the Detroit Lions on TV every Thanksgiving?
Well, it all comes down to connections.
Team owner George A. Richards was also a pioneer in early radio broadcasting in the 1920s. His Detroit radio station, WJR, was a major affiliate of the NBC Blue Network.
Along with the NBC Red Network, the NBC Blue Network was one of the first national commercial radio broadcasting stations. Because of this, Richards was able to get his Lions game on 94 radio stations across the country. It was a ratings success. This cemented the Lions as a Thanksgiving Day tradition and is what separated their 1934 Thanksgiving Day game from the others that had come before.
Because of Richards’ connection, it has helped the Lions become a staple on TV every Thanksgiving. While many have clamored to get a different team to host the first Thanksgiving NFL game of the day, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed in 2009 that the game would remain in Detroit.
Why do the Dallas Cowboys play on Thanksgiving?
The Dallas Cowboys’ tradition of playing every Thanksgiving started in 1966.
That year, Tex Schramm, the team’s general manager, took up an offer by the NFL to have his team play on Thanksgiving Day.
At the time, the National Football League was looking to expand its Thanksgiving schedule and Schramm, a savvy marketer and promoter, saw it as an opportunity to give his team a national spotlight. He was right. A crowd of 82,259 showed up for the game, setting a new attendance record for the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys defeated the Cleveland Browns 26-14.
When did the Dallas Cowboys become America’s team?
Due to their long-run of success that began in 1966, along with their annual national spotlight Thanksgiving game, the Cowboys gained the title of “America’s Team” by the late 1970s.
When did the Cowboys not host Thanksgiving Day games?
As Thanksgiving Day games featuring the Cowboys continued to be a ratings, attendance and publicity success, other NFL owners around the league began to grumble. They complained about an unfair advantage and wanted a chance to host their own Turkey Day games. League Commissioner Pete Rozell obliged and pushed for games to be played in St. Louis.
In 1975 and 1977, the St. Louis Cardinals got a marquee Thanksgiving Day home game instead of the Dallas Cowboys. The Cardinals lost both games and failed to achieve the ratings or attendance success of the Cowboys.
Why do the Cowboys play on TV every Thanksgiving?
Following the relative failure of moving the 1975 and 1977 NFL Thanksgiving Day games to St. Louis, Commissioner Rozell wanted the game moved back to Dallas. The Cowboys, now owned by Clint Murchison Jr., would only agree to do so on the condition they were guaranteed a Thanksgiving home game every year thereafter.
What channel is the Thanksgiving NFL game on?
The answer to this question has changed over the years based on contractual agreements between the NFL and broadcasters.
Since both teams that host games every Thanksgiving are in the NFC, one game featured two NFC opponents and one game featured an NFC-AFC matchup. From 1965 to 1997, the AFC-NFC matchup appeared on NBC since it had a contractual agreement to show AFC games. CBS hosted the NFC matchup from 1956 to 1993.
Later, this changed when FOX obtained the rights to NFC games in 1994 and CBS took over AFC games from NBC in 1997.
When did the NFL add a third Thanksgiving game?
The NFL added a third Thanksgiving Day game in 2006, the same year NBC got the rights to Sunday Night Football. This additional game airs during primetime.
Notable NFL games played on Thanksgiving Day
- 1929 – Acting as both fullback and kicker, Hall-of-Famer Ernie Nevers scored a still-standing record of 40 points for the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) by scoring 6 touchdowns and kicking 4 extra points.
- 1962 – The Detroit Lions handed the Green Bay Packers their only loss of the season, sacking Bart Starr 11 times in the process.
- 1976 – Buffalo Bills running back, O.J. Simpson, set a then-record of 273 rushing yards in a single game.
- 1993 – The Dallas Cowboys lost to the Miami Dolphins when Leon Lett tried and failed to recover a blocked field goal that was then recovered by Miami on the two-yard line, giving the Dolphins a second chance to kick a game-winning field goal.
- 1997 – The Detroit Lions beat the Chicago Bears 55-20 with Barry Sanders scoring three rushing touchdowns.
- 1998 – The controversial coin flip occurred when, heading into overtime, Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed to have called “tails.” The coined landed tails-up, but referee Phil Luckett claimed Bettis had called heads. The Lions went on to win in overtime on a first possession field goal.
- 2004 – Peyton Manning throws six touchdowns in a 41-9 rout of the Detroit Lions. Manning would go on to throw 49 touchdowns that season.
- 2010 – The New Orleans Saints jumped out to a big 17-0 lead in the first quarter. The Dallas Cowboys turned the game around and took a 27-24 lead late in the fourth quarter. However, Drew Brees led an 89-yard touchdown drive with 1:55 left to secure a win for the Saints.
- 2012 – Known for the infamous butt fumble, this game itself wasn’t very competitive as the New England Patriots beat the New York Jets 49-14. It is remembered, though, for a play in the second quarter when Mark Sanchez turned to hand the ball off, found nobody there to give it to, and then turned back around only to run in the backside of an offensive lineman and fumble the ball.
The NFL’s Thanksgiving Day Turkey Leg Award tradition
What’s Thanksgiving without turkey?
Back in 1989, the legendary John Madden declared Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles as the MVP of the annual Thanksgiving game in Dallas.
“The Minister of Defense” led the Eagles to a 27-0 victory. According to an interview by John Madden to the Chicago Tribune, he decided to give Reggie White a turkey leg “just for fun.” Since then, the Turkey Leg Award has been another annual Thanksgiving tradition.
The birth of the John Madden’s six-legged turkey
At the time, Madden was a broadcaster with Pat Summerall on CBS. He took the Turkey Leg Award with him when he moved to FOX in 1994. In 1999, he awarded the Turkey Leg to Cowboy’s running back Emmitt Smith but felt the offensive lineman deserved their own turkey legs as well.
Hearing his comments on air, a BBQ restaurant owner in Texas decided to create a six-legged turkey. As a result, Joe Pat Fieseler, owner of Harvey’s Barbecue Pit in Texas, has his own part in the NFL’s long history of Thanksgiving Day traditions.
Do they still give out the Turkey Leg Award?
John Madden joined NBC in 2006 to announce Sunday Night Football with Al Michaels. He also provided color commentary on NBC’s coverage of the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day primetime game and continued to bestow the Turkey Leg Award to the most deserving players.
Even after Madden’s retirement in 2009, the Turkey Leg Award is still given out and has become an established part of Thanksgiving Day NFL tradition.
Football is an All-American Thanksgiving Day tradition
From college and pro games under the bright lights to touch football in the family backyard, football has been part of America’s Thanksgiving traditions since 1869. We seem to have such a love affair with football that it only took three years after Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday for football to become an integral part of Turkey Day.
With winning streaks, losing streaks, scandals, heroes, villains, opportunities and huge economic growth, football on Thanksgiving seems intertwined with much of the American story. No wonder it’s become such an important part of our yearly family gatherings.