Thanksgiving Day football is anchored in history and part of the nostalgia that is associated with the sport of football. It’s a long-standing tradition that the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys host Thanksgiving Day football games, mainly because they were willing to do so at a time when no other teams would. But when the NFL began to prioritize Thanksgiving Day football, they were only capitalizing on something that was already happening in America.
Fans will get three games on the holiday this year. Khalil Mack and the Chicago Bears visit the Detroit Lions on CBS. Then on Fox, the Dallas Cowboys hope to redeem a Week 7 loss when they host the Washington Redskins. Thanksgiving evening on NBC, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints host the Atlanta Falcons.
Getting back to history, in the early days of college football, conferences sometimes held their championship games on Thanksgiving Day, and high school leagues did the same. Prior to World War II, NFL clubs often played on Thanksgiving Day, including the New York Football Giants. NFL action in Detroit has taken place on the holiday since 1934 when owner G.A. Richards decided to hold a Thanksgiving Day game to promote his team in a city dominated by its baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. Eventually, the American Football League (AFL) began hosting a holiday game in 1960.
In 1966 the upstart Cowboys began hosting Thanksgiving football. As the NFL’s popularity grew, they likewise hosted traditional holiday games and some became classics. In 1974 rookie backup quarterback Clint Longley stepped in for an injured Roger Staubach and led the Cowboys to a come-from-behind victory over the Redskins. The Cowboys weren’t so lucky in 1993 when defensive lineman Leon Lett tried to pounce on a blocked field goal in the snow at Texas Stadium and handed the game to the Miami Dolphins. In Detroit, in 1998, a referee’s botched coin toss awarded the Lions the ball in overtime, helping them to an eventual victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2006 the NFL Network got on board adding a third game, an evening broadcast, to the holiday football lineup. This somewhat pleased other owners who sometimes complained that Detroit and Dallas got all the glory from hosting the games on a regular basis, and in some cases, a home-team advantage. With Thursday football a regularity, nearly every NFL team now plays on a Thursday at some point in the season.
Thanksgiving Day football games are special, nostalgic and reflect one of the oldest-celebrated holidays on the North American continent. So, enjoy some football with your turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving!