Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Thursday, a time to gather around a turkey-laden table for family, frivolity, parades and whatever traditions the Great American Holiday holds for you and yours. The NFL has its own Thanksgiving tradition of the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys each always playing a home game on the Thursday holiday. The third night game was added in 2006 featuring various opponents, this year showcasing a Left Coast arch-rivalry as the Seahawks head to San Francisco to take on the Niners. As a lifelong football fan I’ve often wondered, especially during Detroit’s bout of terribleness (2001-2010), how the Lions and Cowboys became as synonymous with Thanksgiving as Snoopy rolling down Seventh Avenue, and I’m sure you have too. So let’s dig in.
When professional football began in the early 20th century, Thanksgiving games were actually commonplace for most teams. It’s a big game for high school and college teams, often a rivalry matchup and it was a natural holdover once the game went pro. For the Lions, the tradition dates to a very particular game in 1934. Having previously been the Spartans of Portsmouth, Ohio, the team was moved in 1934 to the Michigan capital by new owner and radio station mogul, owner of WJR, G.A. Richards. Detroit already hosted a baseball team comprised of perennial all-stars and selling tickets for the new football franchise proved no easy task. As a means of drumming up sales, Richards put on his best Jerry Jones suit and made it a bigger and better show. Still in its infancy, there was no game schedule set by the league, owners booked their own and for his first Turkey Day game Richards made sure to get the biggest opponent possible, the league champion Chicago Bears. With a blockbuster match scheduled, Richards put his radio contacts to work, convincing NBC to broadcast the game nationally across 94 stations. The game was a huge success, selling out the University of Detroit’s 26,000-person stadium and famously turning away many more at the gate. From there the tradition was too strong to ignore, with the Lions playing the Bears on Thanksgiving for the next four seasons. They would miss the 1938 and 1939 holidays due to FDR’s “Franksgiving controversy”, wherein the President attempted to change the date of holiday, disrupting football schedules across the country. Beginning in 1941 and through the years of WWII, with season schedules shortened there were no games played on Thanksgiving and when they resumed in 1945 only one game was played on the holiday, hosted by Detroit. The tradition has continued uninterrupted since then, with a 13-year run from ’51-’63 as a rivalry match against the Green Bay Packers. This year they return to where it all began, taking on Jay Cutler’s 5-6 Chicago Bears in the first game of the afternoon.