Thanksgiving and Football: A Classic American Tradition

By Michael LeCompte

It’s that special time of year once again when we express our gratitude for our way of life by gorging on the visual buffet of NFL games set before us, giving thanks yet again that John Madden is retired and can’t manhandle a meaty specimen called a turducken on live TV.

Thanksgiving and football just go together. The last Thursday in November and what has become our national sport/obsession combine two of America’s favorite pastimes, overeating and mindlessly staring at electronic screens. The result is a hybrid sport where participants try to avoid conversing with certain family members at all costs by a) stuffing their mouths so full they can’t talk or b) not taking their eyes off the TV, thus dissuading others from speaking to them. Clear-cut winners are few in this sport, but making it through the day without having to listen to uncle Gary’s latest money making scheme is a championship effort to be applauded.

The Lions and Cowboys both host Thanksgiving day games, however, the tradition predates the NFL marketing machine. While there is no direct evidence that a pigskin was tossed around on Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving games do stretch back to the infancy of organized football.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century college football was king. The pros were still decades away. Beginning as far back as 1876 Yale and Princeton played on Thanksgiving and the University of Michigan hosted a Thanksgiving game until 1905.

The college Thanksgiving game tradition has largely gone by the wayside. With students going home for the holiday there is probably not enough money to be made. However, the tradition of rivalry games being played over Thanksgiving weekend has endured.

In 1934 radio executive G.A. Richards brought the Lions to Detroit. At the time the Tigers baseball team was the biggest sports draw in town and although they played in different seasons fans didn’t immediately pledge their winter allegiance to the Lions.

Richards wanted to attract more fans to Lions games so he came up with the novelty of a Thanksgiving game. Surprisingly the game sold out all 26,000 tickets and thousands more had to be turned away at the gate. With his radio connections Richards got NBC to broadcast the game over 94 station across the country.

Although Chicago beat Detroit 19-16 on that Thanksgiving day in 1934 a tradition was born. Like so many holiday traditions the Lions’ game is sometimes painful (the 0-16 season), sometimes promising (they’re in the hunt this year), but always welcomed.

Dallas started hosting a Thanksgiving game in 1966 for much the same reasons the Lions had in 1934, to attract fans. Unsure if fans would come the NFL had to ensure a gate receipt before Dallas agreed to the game. The game was a popular success and Dallas has hosted a game on Thanksgiving in all but two years since.

What started out as a gimmick to attract fans is now a highly-coveted TV spot offering national exposure for the participating teams.

All across America this Thursday family and friends will hold their own turkey bowl games. Backyards will become proving grounds where childhood angst is resolved, sibling rivalries are renewed, and family legends are born.

At the very least these games will be a chance to work off that second slice of pie and will give us something to do with awkward cousin Phil until the next NFL game kicks off.

Football, a uniquely American spectacle to be thankful for.

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