Thanksgiving football, an American tradition


Roger Staubach

Thanksgiving Day football is an American tradition that dates back long before the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys began regularly hosting annual holiday games. In fact, it has been going on for over a century and has a history all its own.

In the early days of college football, conferences sometimes held their championship games on Thanksgiving Day. High School leagues got in on the action, as well as private football clubs across the nation who also gathered for a spirited holiday game.

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 for his team. Back then, the sports world was dominated by baseball and the “Motor City” belonged to the Tigers. Depression-era fans who came to the game were treated to a battle between the Lions and Chicago Bears. It was the beginning of a divisional rivalry that continues to this day.

After World War II, the Lions got right back to hosting Thanksgiving football, often against division rivals that included the Bears and Green Bay Packers. Other professional football leagues also played on Thanksgiving in the post-WWII era, including the American Football League (AFL) which rotated holiday games around the league starting in 1960. In 1966 the NFL’s upstart Dallas Cowboys also began hosting Thanksgiving football.

As the league’s popularity grew, likewise did that of traditional holiday games. This carried on into the ’80s and ’​90s. Remember John Madden handing out turkey legs to players he had decided were MVPs of the games he covered?

Ultimately, it’s the games themselves that real fans remember. 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 Washington Redskins. The Cowboys weren’t so lucky in 1993, when 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.

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving and some exciting football.

Dan Ladd

Dan Ladd

Dan Ladd is a freelance sports writer who works out of Gracenote’s Queensbury, NY office.

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