Thanksgiving football dates to at least 1876, when Yale defeated Princeton, 2-0, on a cold, bleak afternoon in Hoboken, New Jersey. By the 1890s, many college and high school teams played on the holiday. But the tradition didn't become a bonafide institution in professional football until 1934, when the Detroit Lions hosted the powerhouse Chicago Bears in a Thanksgiving game broadcast nationally.
The Lions and Bears Thanksgiving Day Game Is Born
In March 1934, Lions owner George A. Richards, a Detroit radio executive, headed a group that purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved the team to the Motor City. Eager to boost ticket sales and improve his team's profile in a city dominated by the Tigers, Richards persuaded Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas to play on Thanksgiving morning. He also persuaded the 94-station NBC Radio Network to broadcast the game nationally.
Ticket sales spiked for the game between the 10-1 Lions and 11-0 Bears, who were led by future Hall of Famers Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski. A sellout crowd of roughly 26,000 fans attended the game at the University of Detroit Stadium—the largest crowd at the time to watch professional football in Detroit. Many more tickets could have been sold, and the national radio broadcast—an NFL first—was wildly popular.
"It was a masterful exhibition of offensive football," the Detroit Free Press noted in a Page 1 story on the defending NFL champion Bears' 19-16 win. "Two of the greatest lines in the game waged a fierce struggle to make way for dozen and more versatile backs who could plunge, pass, run and place-kick; dropkick, block and tackle."
Pro Football Hall of Fame historian Jon Kendle says the dramatic, well-played game was a major boost for the league. On their way to an NFL title the next season, the Lions defeated the Bears, 14-2, on Thanksgiving to clinch the Western Division title.
“[T]he fact that you had really good teams playing one another early on in this series helped bring the excitement to playing NFL games on that day," Kendle says. "I don’t know if the reach would have been as good or had the amount of staying power that it has had throughout the years had there been these really bad, really struggling teams playing each other on Thanksgiving."
Except from 1939-44 during World War II, the Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game every year since 1934. The first nationally televised Thanksgiving game was the 1953 Green Bay Packers-Lions game, broadcast by the Dumont Television Network, one of the first commercial TV networks in the United States.
The Lions weren't the first professional football team to play on Thanksgiving. In 1920, a scoreless tie between the Elyria (Ohio) Athletics and Columbus Panhandles was among the six professional games played, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website. From 1922-33, the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears played each other on Thanksgiving.
Grange’s NFL debut with the Bears, a major event in NFL history, occurred on Thanksgiving Day 1925 before a standing-room-only crowd of 36,000 at Wrigley Field in Chicago—the largest crowd to see a league game at the time.
Kendle calls the debut of Grange, one of the greatest players in college football history, a “wow moment" for the league. In the 1920s, the NFL lagged well behind college football in popularity.
The Dallas Cowboys Become a Thanksgiving Day Staple
In April 1966, the NFL added a second Thanksgiving game at the behest of television networks. On November 24, 1966, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Cleveland Browns at the Cotton Bowl, 26-14, before 80,259 fans.
“It was a festive day for Dallas, make no mistake," wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the start of Dallas' Thanksgiving tradition. "As the bicarbonate began to take tension off throbbing waistbands in the audience, the Cowboys twice came from behind.”
Dallas got the game thanks to its savvy president and general manager Tex Schramm, considered one of the greatest innovators in NFL history. He later championed instant replay, wind-direction stripes on the goal post uprights and a referee's microphone, among other innovations.
“The league is trying something new by moving this game into prime television time, and we’re happy they picked Dallas," Schramm told the Associated Press about a holiday game for the Cowboys. "Normally, a Thanksgiving Day NFL game brings one of the biggest ratings of the year.”
Schramm said Texas’ appetite for Thanksgiving football motivated the franchise to secure a game on the holiday. "People in this area, because of the Texas-Texas A&M game, are used to having football with their turkey," he said. "We’re hopeful of adding to this tradition.”
The Cowboys hosted a Thanksgiving game annually through 1974. But Dallas didn't cement itself as host until after the NFL's failed attempt to market the St. Louis Cardinals and head coach Don Coryell’s high-flying offense. On Thanksgiving Day 1975 and 1977, the Cardinals hosted games. On Thanksgiving 1976, they played at Dallas. St. Louis lost all three games.
After the 1977 game, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle asked Schramm if he wanted to take back the game in 1978. "I said only if we got it permanently," Schramm told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. "It’s something you have to build as tradition. He said, ‘It’s yours forever.’”
Schramm, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991, was convinced the nationally televised Thanksgiving game played a major role in raising the Cowboys' profile.
In 2006, the NFL added a third game to its Thanksgiving lineup.