Football has been part of Thanksgiving Much Longer than Even the Most Avid Fans Would Suspect

Football team of the 1800's

Unknown early football team
Unknown early football team | Source

Football on Thanksgiving is almost as old as the official holiday

Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, during the Civil War. It had been debated for decades - long enough for Washington, Franklin and Jefferson to all weigh in on the matter. But it had never made the grade to official holiday until Sarah Joseph Hale started a letter writing campaign. She was the author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and was also a magazine editor. As a writer, she was indefatigable, waging a letter writing campaign for 17 years, requesting that the informal Thanksgiving holiday be made into a formal one.

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln had declared that the government offices in Washington, D.C. would be closed to follow the tradition of having a local Thanksgiving celebration. Thanksgiving had been celebrated throughout New England, but at different times as a local holiday. By designating a day, Lincoln was following the local tradition.

Then in 1863, responding to Editor Hale's request, he decided that Thanksgiving would become a national holiday, which would be celebrated the last Thursday of November. He directed his Secretary of State, William Seward, to construct a proclamation to that effect. Seward wrote the proclamation on October 3, 1863. A year later, the manuscript was sold to benefit the Union troops.

It was only 13 years later that football became a part of Thanksgiving. Long before people turned on their TV's to watch the Thanksgiving game, they were enjoying it in person. People left their homes for football on Thanksgiving for the first time when the American Intercollegiate Football Association held its first Thanksgiving game to decide the championship.

Everyone thought it was such a great idea that less than ten years later, more than 5,000 games were held on Thanksgiving by high schools, colleges and clubs around the country. Princeton and Yale were the most popular, drawing thousands of fans from home to the field.

However, that tradition of local games has not lasted. As professional football developed in the late 1800's, the high school and college Thanksgiving Day games slowly faded out. In 1920, the NFL began the Thanksgiving Classic, and it became the game to see. Thanks to TV, the NFL and the enthusiasm of fans in two cities, Detroit and Dallas, football on Thanksgiving has become firmly ensconced as part of today's Thanksgiving celebrations around the country.

The Detroit Lions at the 1934 NFL Thanksgiving Classic

Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears at the 1934 NFL Thanksgiving Classic
Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears at the 1934 NFL Thanksgiving Classic | Source

The Detroit Lions have been NFL Thanksgiving hosts since they've been Lions

The Detroit Lions became part of the Thanksgiving Day Classic in 1934, when a radio executive, George A. Richards, bought the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans. They were already a franchise in the NFL. They had a great team and a proven record. He moved them and renamed the team. They became the Detroit Lions.

Richards wanted them to get more sports coverage in the press. To do that, he scheduled a game with the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving day of 1934. While that was considered risky at the time, it proved to be a gold-plated idea. The 26,000 available tickets were sold out two weeks before the game, and it was estimated that about 25,000 more could have been sold if they had been available.

Chicago won that game, but it didn't dampen Detroit's enthusiasm for the Thanksgiving game. During the 1935 NFL Thanksgiving Classic, the Lions won the NFL championship by edging out the Bears 14-2.

The only time the Lions have not played on Thanksgiving since their first game in 1934 was when they were called to duty in WWII. (From 1941-45, the NFL did not schedule a Thanksgiving game.) Other than that, they have been on the field, entertaining thousands of turkey-stuffed fans, year after year.

The Dallas Cowboys became NFL Thanksgiving Classic hosts for the first time in 1966

Texas was by far the last state in the union to officially adopt the fourth Thursday in November as their Thanksgiving holiday. They didn't get around to it until 1961, a year after the Dallas Cowboys became a team. However, they haven't been slouches when it comes to participating in the NFL Thanksgiving Classic. Since 1966, the Cowboys have become the second team to officially host the Thanksgiving Classic on a regular basis. Since that time, they've only missed hosting the Thanksgiving game in 1975 and 1977. For those two years, the St. Louis Cardinals hosted the Classic.

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