Have you ever wondered how Thanksgiving Day football became a “thing” in the U.S.? Ever wonder why only 2 teams always play ever year (The Detroit Lions and The Dallas Cowboys). Well, the history goes back further than any of us reading this were born (mostly anyway). The tradition pre-dates World War II. SBNation helps us understand the hows and whys of the tradition that is Thanksgiving Day football.
Thanksgiving Day football goes back much longer than just Dallas and Detroit
The first Turkey Day game was played in 1869. Thanksgiving football it has been part of the NFL since 1920.
Despite what you might hear when the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings kick off Thursday’s traditional tripleheader, Thanksgiving Day football had actually been going on for 65 years before the Lions took on the Chicago Bears at University of Detroit Stadium in 1934.
So how did we get to the point where we have three games every season on Thanksgiving? The Lions host the early game followed by a Dallas Cowboys game — this year against the Los Angeles Chargers — and the marathon is finished off by a rotating night game, with the New York Giants and Washington on tap this season.
To figure all that out, we need to fire up the Wayback Machine for 1869.
The Early Days
On Nov. 6, 1869, the first American football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton. The second was a rematch between the two schools a week later. The third, though, was the birth of a tradition that is nearly 150 years old. On Thanksgiving of that same year, a football game took place at noon between the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia.
The first Thanksgiving rivalry game was Princeton vs. Yale, which was played on the holiday from 1876 to 1881, when the game was changed to become a “national” championship game. Considering the 1879, 1880 and 1881 Princeton-Yale games had all been for the same national championship — and all ended in scoreless ties — there really wasn’t much change.
Other colleges had picked up the idea before the end of the 19th century. Michigan started playing on Thanksgiving in 1885, usually against the University of Chicago, and Kansas-Missouri was a holiday tradition beginning in 1892.
The Pro Game
The game’s Thanksgiving tradition carried over into the first pro leagues in the early part of the 20th century, and was part of the NFL from the time it was founded in 1920. The Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals played every year from 1922 to 1933, and the New York Giants usually played another New York team between 1929-1938.
In 1934, instead of the annual game in Chicago, the Bears came to Detroit to face the first-year Lions franchise while the Cardinals went to Green Bay. Detroit, which had a tradition of pro football on Thanksgiving dating back to 1917, hosted the Bears each year until 1938. Thanksgiving games stopped during World War II, and after the war ended, Detroit was the only team to keep the tradition alive.
Dallas and the NFL get in on the action
The Lions kept their monopoly on Thanksgiving Day until 1966, when the television networks started asking for a late-afternoon game. The Dallas Cowboys were offered to host the first game, which was originally designed to rotate around the league, but only agreed to accept if they too were allowed to make it an annual tradition. The NFL agreed, although the St. Louis Cardinals hosted the late game in 1975 and 1977 in a failed plan to alternate between the two cities.
Other than that blip, the Lions and Cowboys hosted the only two Thanksgiving games every year until 2006, when the NFL Network decided to it wanted a game of its own for the holiday. That primetime game was taken over by NBC in 2012. 2016 will mark the 11th straight year in which the NFL has scheduled three consecutive Thanksgiving games.
With no restrictions on hosts or conference matchups, the NFL can schedule a marquee game for the Thanksgiving finale. That worked well in the last two years, when the 2014 matchup pitted archrivals San Francisco and Seattle together for what turned into a hard-hitting 19-3 Seahawks victory, and last year when the Bears earned a 17-13 win on the road in Green Bay on the night the Packers retired Brett Favre’s jersey. This year, the AFC North-leading Steelerswill head to Indianapolis, but the Colts may be without QB Andrew Luck, who is currently in concussion protocol.
The Lions’ ineptitude in the early 21st century led to some owners mumbling about taking away their permanent hosting rights to the early game, but that talk stopped with the institution of the night game. Unless a morning game is added from London, the current situation seems to be set for the long term.
Provided the tryptophan doesn’t set in too early, NFL fans should have an exciting and fun-to-watch slate of games to look forward to on Thursday. Even if not all of the teams playing are doing great this season. Yes, we’re looking at you, Giants.