Thanksgiving football. It’s a tradition as old as time.
Well, almost as old as time – the pilgrims weren’t throwing any pigskins, as far as we know. The tradition does go back to the 19th century, though, starting just a few years after Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Ever since, Turkey Bowls have been an institution for football lovers of every level – from amateur leagues all the way up to the NFL. It’s also become the time for rivalry games (the best kind), with matchups like Clean Old Fashioned Hate
, Sunshine Showdown, Palmetto Bowl, The Game, and Paul Bunyan’s Axe
all taking place on Thanksgiving weekend.
Although the first Thanksgiving college game was in 1869, the ritual of playing football on a Turkey Day stage really took off with the NFL. In 1930s Detroit, when the NFL was still finding its feet, local radio exec George A. Richards brought the Ohio Spartans to the Motor City to become the Lions. But the city was dominated by Tigers fans. In a savvy marketing move, Richards decided to broadcast a Thanksgiving Day game live on the radio. With no small credit to the Detroit Lions
and Chicago Bears
- whose matchup that day turned out to be an all-time classic – his plan was wildly successful.
The Dallas Cowboys
were the next to jump on the Turkey Day bandwagon in 1966. Before they were known as America’s Team, Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm was looking for ways to drum up national attention for the team. He decided that the Cowboys would host their own Thanksgiving game live on television. Attention was definitely drummed – attendance at the game broke records, with more than 80,000 fans filling the stadium.
Having to play football on Thanksgiving doesn’t mean that the players don’t have their own traditions, though! Actually, according to Wesley Woodyard, it sounds like some of them they might get more Turkey Day time than those of us with the day off: “it [isn’t] just that Thursday night, at least for me, I went on an eating binge Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I would put on weight over the holiday because a brother would throw down because you didn’t have no more responsibility after that game until next week. So, it was almost like another little open week and that’s the way we kind of looked at it, too.”