Watching football on Thanksgiving might seem like a modern tradition, but Americans have been taking to the gridiron on Turkey Day since the 19th century. President Abraham Lincoln first declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and the earliest Thanksgiving Day football games began only a few years later. Yale and Princeton first played on Thanksgiving in 1876, during a time when football was still evolving from a rugby hybrid into the sport we know today, and the holiday later became the traditional date for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game. The Universities of Michigan and Chicago also built a famous holiday rivalry, and by the late 1890s thousands of football games were taking place each Thanksgiving. Some of these traditional matchups still continue to this day. For example, the Massachusetts high schools Boston Latin and the English High School of Boston have faced off on Turkey Day every year since 1887.
When professional football leagues first caught on around the turn of the century, they immediately adopted the Thanksgiving Day tradition. Many saved the holiday for their title games or other big matchups, but when the National Football League was founded in 1920, it began hosting as many as six Thanksgiving contests each year.
Today, the NFL holds three Thanksgiving games each November, two of which always feature the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions have been a fixture of Turkey Day since 1934, when owner George A. Richards set up a holiday game as a way of drawing attention to his fledging franchise, which was often overshadowed by the Detroit Tigers. Richards was also a radio station owner, and he used his industry contacts to ensure the first game was broadcast on 94 stations nationwide. The Lions lost the matchup to the Chicago Bears, but the Thanksgiving tradition stuck. Dallas general manager Tex Schramm followed a similar script in 1966, when he secured an annual holiday game for the Cowboys. The move once again proved a huge success, and the Lions and Cowboys have since become as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as pumpkin pie and stuffing.
Find out more about the first televised Thanksgiving game, pitting the Detroit Lions against the Chicago Bears.