Timeline: How football became a Thanksgiving tradition

Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr is tackled by Detroit Lions defenders during a 26-14 Lions victory on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 1962. The Detroit Lions have hosted an annual NFL game on Thanksgiving Day since 1934 only taking a break from 1939-1945 during World War II. (AP file)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr is tackled by Detroit Lions defenders during a 26-14 Lions victory on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 1962. The Detroit Lions have hosted an annual NFL game on Thanksgiving Day since 1934 only taking a break from 1939-1945 during World War II. (AP file)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — For most American households, Thanksgiving is all about the three Fs – family, food and football.

Most TVs are tuned into the NFL’s games on Thursday afternoon, but the tradition of football on Thanksgiving extends beyond the National Football League. It actually stretches back to the birth of the sport.

The birth of football

Although there is some disagreement, Princeton and Rutgers played in what is considered the first-ever football game on Nov. 6, 1869. A few weeks later, members of the Young American Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club played a football match on Thanksgiving Day in Philadelphia, according to the Evening Telegraph.

The sport was in a primitive state, playing with teams of 25 men and following rules that more resemble soccer and rugby than modern-day football, but it was beginning to grow in popularity. Throughout the northeast, universities and athletic clubs quickly adapted to the sport and did their best to establish standard rules.

Princeton and Yale played on Thanksgiving from 1876-81 and high schools in Massachusetts also began to play annual football games on turkey day. Boston Latin School and English High School in Boston began an annual rivalry game on Thanksgiving Day in 1887 that continues today. It is considered the longest-running Thanksgiving Day game in the country.

The rise of the NFL

In the early 20th century, several small professional football leagues sprouted up throughout the country. In 1920, a group of teams united to form the American Professional Football Association which later became the National Football League. In the years following its formation, the NFL struggled to separate its product from other football leagues and often struggled to establish a fan base.

Several NFL teams were quick to adopt the Thanksgiving Day game as a way to draw in new fans. Before the 1934 season, when G.A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans and moved the team to Detroit (and changed the mascot to a Lion), he quickly scheduled a home game on Thanksgiving Day to boost fan attendance. Richards, a former radio station owner, worked with NBC to have the game broadcast nationwide. The game against the Chicago Bears was carried by 94 radio stations across the country and immediately tied the NFL with Thanksgiving.

Several NFL teams hosted games on Thanksgiving Day in the years to come before the games were called off from 1941-1945 during World War II. After the war, the NFL brought back Thanksgiving Day games. In 1953, the NFL decided to hold just one game on the holiday and named the Lions the permanent host.

Let’s play two

Lynn Bural, left, and his son, Keven, right, pull a fried turkey out of the fryer and onto a platter during a family tailgate prior to the Dallas Cowboys game against the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 2002. (AP file)
Lynn Bural, left, and his son, Keven, right, pull a fried turkey out of the fryer and onto a platter during a family tailgate prior to the Dallas Cowboys game against the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 2002. (AP file)

Heading into the 1960s, the NFL wanted to add a second Thanksgiving Day game. The Dallas Cowboys, headed by marketing guru Tex Schramm, quickly capitalized on the opportunity and signed up his new franchise to host the second game on Thanksgiving Day 1966. Schramm agreed to host the 1966 game with one stipulation – the Cowboys could also host a Thanksgiving game in 1967. Despite fears that fans wouldn’t turn out for a midweek game, the Cowboys drew more than 80,000 fans to the Cotton Bowl for their game against the Cleveland Browns. Due to the strong results, the NFL agreed to allow the Cowboys to continue hosting an annual Thanksgiving Day game.

Other owners quickly noticed the extra exposure the Lions and Cowboys received for the holiday games and started to file complaints with the league. Their main complaint: the permanent hosts have a built-in advantage over road teams that have to travel on a short week. In 1975 and 1977, the St. Louis Cardinals hosted the second Thanksgiving Day game instead of the Cowboys. Dallas has hosted a game every year since.

Let’s play three

NFL games quickly became a national staple of Thanksgiving Day, and the league and its broadcast partners reaped the benefits of its popular product. In 2006, the NFL decided to add a third Thanksgiving Day game to play at night. The game has no permanent host but is instead decided by the schedulers in the offseason. The game usually is scheduled with predicted ratings in mind – either a strong rivalry or a matchup between two competitive teams from big markets.

Winningest teams on turkey day

Of the two perennial hosts, the Cowboys have had a better run on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys are 29-18-1 on Thanksgiving Day, while the Detroit Lions are 36-38-2. However, the Lions have won their past three turkey day games, while the Cowboys have dropped their last two.

Four teams are undefeated in Thanksgiving Day showdowns – the Baltimore Ravens are 2-0, and the Carolina Panthers, Houston Texas and New Orleans Saints are 1-0.

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