A History of Football on Thanksgiving

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
Photo of Michael LoRé
Sports Editor21 November 2018

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 fourth Thursday of each November?

The first Thanksgiving Day football game was played in Philadelphia in 1869. According to that year’s November 17 edition of 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 November 6 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, 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.

At the collegiate level, Princeton University and Yale University played on Thanksgiving from 1876 to 1881.

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.

Easton Area High School, Pennsylvania, plays New Jersey’s Phillipsburg High School each year on Thanksgiving | © Michael LoRe

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

In the NFL, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have been Thanksgiving staples. The Lions began playing on the day because owner GA Richards wanted to get more fans in the stands. Detroit played the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day 1934, and the Lions have played on the holiday nearly 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. The game times each Thanksgiving are 12.30pm EST, 4.30pm EST and 8.20pm EST – because as with the food, no one can ever get enough football on Thanksgiving.

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