The History of the NFL on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a holiday that has many associated traditions, with turkey, parades, and traveling easily coming to mind. And for most families, you can add one more, very important, tradition on this day: football. Indeed, there are few better ways to relax after a nice meal with your loved ones than relaxing and watching the game. While we can count on a few games of pigskin to get us through the post-meal relaxation time, you might be surprised to learn that football on Thanksgiving is actually an old and storied tradition.

Football on Thanksgiving Before the NFL

To trace the history of football on Thanksgiving, you have to go back, way back, before there was even a National Football Association at all. In fact, Thanksgiving football dates back as far to the invention of football itself. It was during the late 1800s when football began making an appearance on college campuses, with universities like Princeton and Yale hosting games on the holiday, knowing a lot of fans could attend because they had the day off work. Notably, the University of Michigan was one of these schools that picked up the tradition, paving the way for the Detroit Lions to later pick up the tradition.

Thanksgiving and the NFL

The NFL got its start in 1920 and starting holding Thanksgiving games almost immediately. In the first handful of years after the league was founded, multiple teams played on Thanksgiving, many of which no longer exist – The Pottsville Maroons, the Canton Bulldogs, and the Chicago Cardinals are some of the teams that have since disbanded or changed locations. However, this tradition of Turkey Day football fell out of vogue for a few reasons. First, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving a week early, which only some states recognized, causing big scheduling problems for the NFL. Also, America’s involvement in World War II caused the league to shorten the game seasons, meaning there just wasn’t time for a game on Thanksgiving.

The Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys Pick Up the Mantle

After four years without a Thanksgiving game, the NFL finally reintroduced the practice in 1945 with a game between the Cleveland Rams and the Detroit Lions, and it’s a tradition that’s stuck ever since. While the Lions are the team most associated with Thanksgiving football (they’ve played the most Thanksgiving games), it’s interesting to note that the Green Bay Packers were their opponent for 13 straight years, from 1951 to 1963. While the Packers no longer practice regular Thanksgiving football, the Dallas Cowboys picked up the tradition in 1966, joining the Lions in playing every year. Now, three games usually take place on Thanksgiving: a Lions game, a Cowboys game, and a game between another pair of teams that changes each year.

Notable Thanksgiving Games

Because the Thanksgiving tradition runs back so many years, there have been a lot of notable games to take place on the holiday. The highest-scoring Thanksgiving game took place in 1951, when the Lions won against the Packers 52-35. The Lions don’t have too much to brag about though, as the biggest Thanksgiving upset occurred in 2008, when the Titans beat the Lions 47-10. Outside of big wins and controversial final scores, 2001 is also notable for being the first year the teams donned throwback jerseys, which has become a bit of a tradition itself.

Would you have believed that Thanksgiving football is more than a century old? Or that it’s one of the NFL’s most tried-and-true traditions? In a way, it’s comforting to know that, as players and teams come and go, this is one practice that seems to be staying put. That’s something to be thankful for as you watch the games this year and for Thanksgivings to come.

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