The History of Thanksgiving in the NFL

Image Courtesy of Fanduel

By Zachary Lichter

Thanksgiving is a holiday with many traditions starting with family members sitting together at the dining room table with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc. While seeing family members, eating traditional Thanksgiving foods, and discussing what everyone is thankful for is important, there is also another Thanksgiving tradition: watching football. As families come together and crowd around the TV in the living room before and after Thanksgiving dinner, some kids and adults might ask themselves while watching the games: Why is watching football a big Thanksgiving tradition? Why do the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys play on Thanksgiving? Why is there a third game with two random teams that play on Thanksgiving night?

Freshman nursing major Christopher Mastoros commented on the tradition. 

“I love to watch football on Thanksgiving, it’s a great tradition that I am able to share with some of my family members,” Mastoros said. “It allows for a time to relax after eating so much food and enjoyment watching such an entertaining sport. Luckily, my three sisters and mom know a good amount about how football is played and who some of the players are, so that adds to the joy that I have being able to watch these games on Thanksgiving Day.”

The history of football on Thanksgiving started in 1934 when George A. Richards, a local radio executive, purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, a National Football League (NFL) team from 1930-1933, and moved the team to Detroit. Richards knew the Lions were a good team because they had running back Earl “Dutch” Clark and fullback Frank Christiansen. He also knew that scheduling a game on Thanksgiving Day may be risky. But he figured since the Detroit Tigers were attracting many fans to their baseball games, he decided to attract more fans to the Lions games by hosting a game against their division rival, the Chicago Bears, on November 29, 1934. The tradition would continue until 1939, when World War II broke out, up until 1944. Since then, the Lions have never canceled their tradition of playing a game on Thanksgiving.

The Cowboys would have a similar reason for why they play football on Thanksgiving, and it all goes back to when Earnest “Texas” Schramm signed up to play on Thanksgiving in 1966. Schramm had a similar idea to Richards by attracting more fans to the Cowboys games. The only difference is that he wanted to do it more nationally by bringing in football fans from all over the country. The Cowboys struggled during the 1966 season, and Schramm feared no one would go to the game. However, he thought wrong when 80,259 fans showed up to the game. The Cowboys would play every Thanksgiving except for 1975 and 1977, when the NFL let the St. Louis Cardinals play on Thanksgiving so they could also boost their franchise’s national exposure. During that time, the Cowboys were constant Super Bowl contenders, and the NFL wanted to give another team a chance to be broadcasted nationally. The Cowboys would reclaim their tradition in 1978 after the Cardinals lost on Thanksgiving in 1975 and 1977. From then on, it would become a tradition for the Lions to play at 12:30 pm ET and the Cowboys to play at 4:30 pm ET. In 2006, the NFL would add a third game with no specific host team to fill the primetime slot. Every team in the NFL has played on Thanksgiving except for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

While the Lions and Cowboys have the tradition of playing every Thanksgiving: should they? The Lions have not made the playoffs since they lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card during the 2016 season. The Lions are currently in third place in the NFC North with a record of 4-7. The Lions’s all-time record on Thanksgiving is 37-43-2. On the other hand, the Cowboys have made a few playoff appearances in the last ten years and are in second place in the NFC East with a record of 8-3. The Cowboys all-time record on Thanksgiving is 31-22-1. Even though the Cowboys are known as “America’s Team,” they still haven’t been to a Super Bowl since Super Bowl 30 in 1996

Sophomore political science major Matthew Bubb commented on the Lions and Cowboys’s tradition.

“I feel that the Lions and Cowboys should play every year, although the NFL should do their best to schedule good games for Thanksgiving,” Bubb said. “This means scheduling close matchups for these games so they are not blowouts, although they should still attempt to have good football teams playing. As for the late game that is not predetermined to either be the Cowboys or Lions, it should be a game with two very good football teams, so the game is worth staying up for.”

The Lions played the Buffalo Bills this year and lost to them 28-25. The Cowboys played the New York Giants and won 28-20. The New England Patriots played the Minnesota Vikings, and the Vikings won 33-26 against the Patriots. The NFL honored John Madden, who died from natural causes on December 28, 2021. John Madden spent Thanksgiving as an analyst for CBS, Fox, and NBC. The league created a new “NFL Thanksgiving” logo that will be displayed every year. The Lions and the Cowboys are here to stay on Thanksgiving, so let’s hope they can continue to bring entertaining games year after year.

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