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 pitting Mr. Luck against Big Ben as the Colts greet the Steelers. 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. In this year’s first game of the afternoon they take on a Vikings defense that posted 4 sacks and 2 touchdowns last week against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals.
For the Dallas Cowboys, the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving is equally entrenched, though about 30 years younger than that of the Lions. “America’s Team”, the Cowboys were founded in 1960, 10 years after the NFL’s merger with the All-America Football Conference and 6 years before its merger with the AFL. The story of their inception is long and contentious, especially the relationship between oilman and Cowboys founder Clint Murchison and the owner of the Redskins George Marshall who remained a staunch opponent of the new franchise (and any in the South really). A deal was struck involving the rights to “Hail to the Redskins” (Washington’s theme song) and at the end of the decade Dallas had their expansion team. Six years later, at the urging of the league, a deal was made for there to be a second game on Thanksgiving, hosted by the Cowboys. GM Tex Schramm is credited for the shrewd negotiations that not only secured a longterm deal for the holiday game but also guaranteed the team a portion of the gate revenue if the tickets went unsold. The second caveat would prove unnecessary as the game was wildly successful, nearly selling out the Cotton Bowl (80,259 of 92,100) in a 26-14 win over the Cleveland Browns.
As we enjoy our American celebration of the Autumn harvest, there is little that feels as autumnal as Thanksgiving football. It is a convention that reaches back to the sport’s earliest eras and draws from moments of opportunity that became tradition. It has persisted despite calls for change during Detroit’s period of persistent peril and when the Cowboys fell off after the Aikman years. When the second game was introduced, the television contract stipulated representation by an AFC team and until the third game was introduced the games were always one NFC-NFC matchup and one NFC-AFC. This year features two NFC divisional matchups in the first two games, followed by AFC North vs AFC South at night. So join me in continuing a hallowed tradition and celebrate the Great American Holiday the way our Pilgrim forefathers did (wait, what?), by indulging in three awesome back-to-back matches of the greatest sport known to man, professional American football. For these blessings, we give thanks.