Thanksgiving football dates back to at least 1876, when Yale beat Princeton, 2-0, on a cold, gloomy afternoon in Hoboken, New Jersey. In the 1890s, many middle and high school teams played during the holidays. But the tradition didn’t become a real institution in professional football until 1934, when the Detroit Lions hosted the mighty Chicago Bears in a nationally broadcast Thanksgiving game.
The Lions and Bears Thanksgiving game is born
In March 1934, Lions owner George A. Richards, a Detroit radio executive, led a group that bought the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans and moved the team to Motor City. Eager to increase ticket sales and improve his team’s profile in a Tigers-dominated city, Richards persuaded Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas to play on Thanksgiving morning. He also persuaded the NBC radio network of 94 stations to broadcast the game nationwide.
Ticket sales skyrocketed for the game between the Lions 10-1 and the Bears 11-0, led by future Hall of Fame members Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski. A sold-out crowd of around 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 show – an NFL first – was very popular.
“It was a masterful display of attacking football,” Detroit Free Press noted in a page 1 article about the 19-16 victory for reigning NFL champion the Bears. “Two of the best lines in the game fought an uphill battle to make way for a dozen more versatile and versatile full-backs who could dive, pass, run and place a kick; kick, block and tackle.”
Professional Football Hall of Fame historian Jon Kendle said the dramatic and well-played game was a major boost for the league. On their way to an NFL title the following season, the Lions beat the Bears, 14-2, at Thanksgiving to claim the West Division title.
“[T]he fact that you had some really good teams competing against each other early in this series contributed to the excitement of playing NFL games that day, ”says Kendle. “I don’t know if the reach would have been as good or have the amount of stamina it’s had over the years if there had been these really bad, really struggling teams going head-to-head at Thanksgiving. “
With the exception of 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, which aired by the Dumont Television Network, one of the first television networks in the United States.
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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 six professional games played, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website. From 1922 to 1933, the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears met at Thanksgiving.
Grange’s NFL debut with the Bears, a major event in NFL history, took place on Thanksgiving Day 1925 in front of a crowd of 36,000 standing at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the largest crowd to see a championship game at the time.
Kendle calls the debut of Grange, one of the greatest players in college football history, an “impressive moment” for the league. In the 1920s, the NFL was far behind college football in popularity.
Dallas Cowboys become a Thanksgiving Day staple
In April 1966, the NFL added a second Thanksgiving game at the request of the television networks. On November 24, 1966, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Cleveland Browns at the Cotton Bowl, 26-14, in front of 80,259 fans.
“It was a day of celebration for Dallas, make no mistake about it,” wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on the start of the Dallas Thanksgiving tradition. “As the baking started to loosen the tension of the throbbing belts in the audience, the Cowboys came twice from behind.”
Dallas got the game thanks to its astute chairman and general manager Tex Schramm, considered one of the greatest innovators in NFL history. He later championed instant replay, wind direction bands on goal post uprights and a referee’s microphone, among other innovations.
“The league is trying something new by moving this game to prime time, and we’re glad they picked Dallas,” Schramm told The Associated Press of a vacation game for the Cowboys. Normally, an NFL Thanksgiving Day game brings one of the highest ratings of the year.
Schramm said Texas’ appetite for Thanksgiving football motivated the franchise to secure a game over the holidays. “People in this area, because of the Texas-Texas A&M game, are used to playing football with their turkeys,” he said. “We hope to add to this tradition. “
The Cowboys hosted a Thanksgiving game every year until 1974. But Dallas didn’t establish itself as the host until after the NFL’s attempt to market the head coach’s top-flight offense failed. Don Coryell. On Thanksgiving Day 1975 and 1977, the Cardinals hosted games. On Thanksgiving Day 1976, they played in Dallas. St. Louis lost all three games.
After the 1977 game, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle asked Schramm if he wanted to resume the game in 1978. “I said only if we got it permanently,” Schramm told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. “It’s something that you have to build as a tradition. He said, “It’s yours forever. “
Schramm, who was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1991, believed the nationally televised Thanksgiving game had played a major role in raising the profile of the Cowboys.
In 2006, the NFL added a third game to its Thanksgiving roster.
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