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The Detroit Lions (above) and Dallas Cowboys are two Thanksgiving Day staples in the NFL. | © Flickr/Dave Hogg
The Detroit Lions (above) and Dallas Cowboys are two Thanksgiving Day staples in the NFL. | © Flickr/Dave Hogg
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A History Of Football On Thanksgiving

Picture of Michael LoRé
Sports Editor
Updated: 22 February 2017
Football is almost as synonymous with Thanksgiving as turkey, stuffing and pie. It might be even more so.

How did this yearly tradition come about on the last Thursday in November?

The first Thanksgiving Day football game was played in Philadelphia in 1869. According to the Evening Telegraph newspaper, “a foot-ball match between twenty-two players of the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club will take place on Thanksgiving Day at 12 1/2 o’clock, on the grounds of the Germantown Club.”

This game was played two weeks after Rutgers University defeated Princeton University on Nov. 6 in New Brunswick, N.J., in what is considered to be the first-ever football game. The Young America-Germantown game also occurred six years after President Abraham Lincoln declared the first fixed national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863.

Princeton University and Yale University played on Thanksgiving from 1876-81.

The tradition grew as many high schools began playing on Thanksgiving each year as well. Boston Latin School, the oldest school in the United States (established April 23, 1635), began playing English High School of Boston on Thanksgiving in 1887 at Harvard University. It is the longest continuous Thanksgiving Day rivalry in the country. Boston Latin won 28-6 in the teams’ 129th meeting in 2015; a game played at Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox (MLB).

Easton Area High School (PA) plays Phillipsburg High School (NJ) each year on Thanksgiving. | © Michael LoRe

Easton Area High School (PA) plays Phillipsburg High School (NJ) each year on Thanksgiving. | © Michael LoRe

The first Thanksgiving professional football games were played November 25, 1920. No games were played on the holiday from 1941-44 because of World War II.

The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have been Thanksgiving staples. The Lions began playing on the day as a result of owner G.A. Richards trying to get more fans in the stands. Detroit played the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day 1934 and the Lions have played on the day every year since. The Cowboys jumped on the Turkey Day bandwagon in 1966 (defeating the Cleveland Browns) in an effort to build their brand and fan base as well.

The NFL has since expanded what used to be “Detroit vs.” and “Dallas vs.” to a three-game slate nowadays. Kickoffs are 12:30 p.m. EST, 4:30 p.m. EST and 8:30 p.m. EST because like all the food, no one can ever get enough on Thanksgiving.

2015 NFL Thanksgiving Games

 

Kickoff (EST) Game Attendance TV channel Viewers (age 2+)
12:36 p.m. Philadelphia at Detroit 64,445 FOX 25,430,664
4:31 p.m. Carolina at Dallas 90,909 CBS 32,487,069
8:31 p.m. Chicago at Green Bay 78,488 NBC 27,750,591

*Stats courtesy of NFL