How the NFL and Thanksgiving dinner got its start

by Lee Warren |

(iStockphoto)

UPDATED: Nov. 23, 2016

PRINCETON, N.J. (CHRISTIAN EXAMINER) — As you sit down with your friends or family this Thanksgiving to enjoy a little feasting and football, you'll be taking part in a tradition that can be traced back 1934 — the first time a Thanksgiving game was broadcast on the radio.

Games were played on Thanksgiving long before then, going back to 1876 when Yale and Princeton began playing on that day. On the professional level, the Allegheny Athletic Association began playing Thanksgiving Day games in the 1890s.

The NFL, which started in 1920 as the American Professional Football Conference, had other teams that played on Thanksgiving Day as well — including the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Dayton Triangles, Chicago Cardinals, Chicago Bears and others.

The NFL television schedule for Thanksgiving Day 2016:

▶ Minnesota Vikings @ Detroit Lions (12:30 p.m. EST, CBS)

▶ Washington Redskins @ Dallas Cowboys (4:30 p.m. CST, FOX)

▶Pittsburgh Steelers @ Indianapolis Colts (8:30 p.m. EST, NBC)

In 1934, radio executive George Richards moved his NFL team, the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans (1930-33) to Detroit and he organized a Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears, hoping for a larger gate.

Previous Detroit teams had played sporadically on Thanksgiving, including the Detroit Heralds (1920), the Detroit Panthers (1925-26) and the Detroit Wolverines (1928).

Richards' radio connections game in handy and he made sure the game was broadcast across the country.

Chicago won that game 19-16, drawing 25,000 people to the University of Detroit Stadium — 11,000 more fans that usual, according to NFL.com. The Lions have played on Thanksgiving ever since, except for a brief reprieve during in the 1940s for WWII, going 35-38-2.

The DuMont Television Network televised the first Thanksgiving Day NFL game in 1953 between the Lions and Packers, but that particular network didn't have expansive coverage. In 1956, CBS picked up the game between the same two teams on Thanksgiving and broadcast it to a national audience, and a tradition was born. Green Bay won 24-20.

The Dallas Cowboys began playing on Thanksgiving Day in 1966 as television viewership increased. Dallas had struggled as a franchise before that game, but after beating the Browns 26-14 that day in the Cotton Bowl, they went on to have twenty straight winning seasons. The Cowboys have missed playing on Thanksgiving just twice since '66.

In recent seasons, the NFL has expanded to three televised games on Thanksgiving Day — giving football fans a chance to watch the game all day long. All three games typically draw between 22 and 30 million viewers.

A player like Green Bay wide receiver James Jones knows Thanksgiving is about more than football, though. The 31-year-old was homeless as a boy, and he often visited homeless shelters with his mother on Thanksgiving, but he was just happy to be with his mom.

"Thanksgiving was okay," he says in a video on NFL.com. "You were with your mom nine times out of ten and somebody would donate some food to the homeless shelter, and whatever they served, you ate."

In 2008, Jones opened the Love Jones 4 Kids Foundation — a non-profit community-based organization that focuses on the needs of children in San Jose, Calif. He also speaks to homeless children in shelters.

"When I go back and talk to kids in the homeless shelter, I try to provide hope," Jones continued. "I let them know that it doesn't matter what situation you are in, you can make it happen. You're looking at proof. I've been there.

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