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The History of Thanksgiving Football

by Adam Roy Nov 28, 2013

HOLIDAY SEASON IS football season in the US, and few holidays have the kind of link to America’s favorite game that Thanksgiving does.


Football has been a regular part of Thanksgiving since 1934, the year that the Detroit Lions played their first turkey day game against the Chicago Bears. The Lions had just relocated from Ohio, and their new owner George A. Richards was looking for a way to help the team steal some attention away from MLB’s wildly popular Detroit Tigers.

The gamble worked: the 26,000-seat University of Detroit stadium sold out two weeks before the event, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame estimates that another 25,000 fans would have attended, had tickets been available. The Lions lost, but the successful game turned into an annual tradition.

In 1966, with TV becoming a more influential medium than ever, the NFL approached several teams about starting a second Thanksgiving Day Classic. After being turned down by several teams, the NFL finally struck a deal with the Dallas Cowboys, who agreed to play host. Again, the game was a runaway success, and marked the beginning of a winning streak for the Cowboys.

The NFL Network and the Classic today

The third game in the Thanksgiving trifecta has a less romantic history. NFL Network added a rotating Thanksgiving Day game in 2006 to appease fans who wanted to see the Thanksgiving matches rotated between cities. The Kansas City Chiefs won the first match-up, beating the Broncos at home 19-10.

As another Thanksgiving rolls around, the future of the Classic is anything but certain. Some fans are clamoring to take away the traditional game from Detroit, which has a record of poor performances (the Lions have only won one Classic in the past decade) while others want Thanksgiving football to stay the way it’s been for the past 76 years.

Whatever happens, it doesn’t seem likely that the Thanksgiving Classic will be going anywhere. Football’s become something we expect from the holidays now, like cranberry sauce and poultry comas. This post was originally published on November 24, 2010.

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