An Annual Football Feast

"Charlie Brown & The Elusive Football" balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, in New York. AP

Thanksgiving = Football.

No clichés or metaphors are required. It's just a time-honored equation that has been sewn into the fabric of America.

But when did this simple formula become holiday law?

Its genesis can be traced to the college game.

Intercollegiate football was in its infancy in the mid-1870s when the Intercollegiate Football Association was formed in the northeast. This organization instituted a championship game to be played on Thanksgiving Day. Within a decade it was the premier athletic event in the nation.

Ivy League powers Princeton and Yale played each other in this game almost every year thanks to their football prowess. By the 1890s they were drawing crowds of 40,000. Thanksgiving Day church services were ended early to accommodate the fans, and the game became the event that kicked off the social season for New York's elite.

Not everyone was happy about this marriage of holiday and pigskin.

A New York Herald commentary published the day after Thanksgiving in 1893 railed " ... Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football."

This cry of moral indignation didn't drum up much support for reform. By the mid-1890s, about 5,000 Thanksgiving Day football games were being played by colleges, high school and club teams across the nation.

In a foreshadowing of the modern college football money-making machine, the Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving Day game of 1893 earned $13,000 for each school from gate receipts and immediately became the primary source of revenue for their athletic programs.

Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, a fledgling NFL owner followed the example of the colleges. In 1934, George Richards bought a franchise located in Ohio, moved them to Detroit, and renamed them the Lions. Richards decided to play the Lions' game against the Bears on Thanksgiving Day.

With no other professional competition and a radio station of his own, Richards was able to organize a 94-station radio network from coast-to-coast. A national radio audience and 25,000 spectators witnessed the Bears 19-16 victory in that first installment, and the Lions' traditional Thanksgiving Day game was born.

As technology advanced and more and more households were equipped with TV sets, professional football became the premier television sport, watching the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game became a popular American tradition.

"The longer it has continued, the more intrinsic the tradition has become, and now you have four generations of people who have made the Thanksgiving tradition a part of their lives," said Lions Vice Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr.

As the pro games increased in popularity the number of college and high school games on Thanksgiving declined, as they deferred to the pros.

So along came another crafty pro football executive who sensed that another Thanksgving Day game was needed to sate America's hunger for the sport. That second game, conceived by the Cowboys' Tex Schramm, has been played in Dallas since 1966.

And that's the way it's been for 35 years - a game in Detroit, a game in Dallas - done deal.

Even in its efforts to hold the tradition up to ridicule, that scathing New York Herald commentary of 1893 described, quite poetically, some of the reasons why Americans have come to love football on Thanksgiving Day.

"No longer is the day one of thanksgiving to the Giver of all good. The kicker is now the king and the people bow down to him." The article sniped.

"The gory nosed tackler, hero of a hundred scrimmages and half as many wrecked wedges, is the idol of the hour.

"With swollen face and bleeding head, daubed from crown to sole with the mud of Manhattan Field, he stands triumphant amid the shouts of thousands."

Amen.
Produced by John Esterbrook
  • John Esterbrook

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