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How football became as big a part of Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Advertiser. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Thanksgiving football started long before there was an NFL.

The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys may be the teams most associated with the tradition, but the first Thanksgiving football game was played in 1869, when college and high school football ruled. Teams from the Germantown Cricket Club and the Young American Cricket Club faced off that day in Philadelphia. Colleges soon followed suit and began a tradition, scheduling games for a day off, when fans wouldn’t be at work and able to watch. The first Thanksgiving football rivalry started in 1876, between Princeton and Yale. The pros didn’t start playing on Thanksgiving till 1920.

The first nationally broadcast Thanksgiving game on NBC came in 1934.

Ohio was the cradle of the NFL — the Hall of Fame is still in Canton, after all — and the Lions had just left Portsmouth, Ohio, for Detroit. The newly arrived team had a 10-1 record, but fans weren’t showing up. Lions owner George A. Wilson, a radio executive, figured that a Thanksgiving game against the undefeated Chicago Bears would garner some attention. It did, and 26,000 fans crowded stands, plus the game was broadcast on 94 NBC radio stations coast to coast. The Lions lost, but the Bears remained undefeated, and a tradition was born.

The Lions hosted the Bears on Thanksgiving each year until 1938, when the games were temporarily suspended for World War II. (It's the only period when the Lions have not hosted a Thanksgiving Day game.) Starting in 1951, the Lions instead hosted the Green Bay Packers and kicked off an annual match that lasted for 12 years (though the rivalry lasts). The first television broadcast came in 1953 on the Dumont Television Network, when the Lions beat the Packers 31-15.

Left: The Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers in 1971; right: the 2011 Thanksgiving game between the same two rivals.

the Dallas Cowboys joined the fun IN 1966.

The Cowboys were only a six-year-old team when they eagerly signed on to the NFL’s plan to host a second, late-afternoon game on Thanksgiving Day. General manager Tex Schramm knew the franchise badly needed a shakeup, as it was a young and struggling team under coach Tom Landry. Plus, the Texas-Texas A&M annual game on Thanksgiving was huge. "People in this area are used to having football with their turkey," Schramm said. The first Thanksgiving game in Dallas drew big numbers (a crowd of more than 80,000), and it was the first nationally televised game in color. The St. Louis Cardinals also hosted Thanksgiving games in 1975 and 1977, but attendance was low and the ratings stunk. Thus the Lions and Cowboys remained the kings of Thanksgiving football.

Left: The 1974 Thanksgiving game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins; right: the 2012 Thanksgiving game between the same two teams.

In 2006, the NFL added a third Thanksgiving game, with hosting duties shifting each year. In that first year, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos 16-10, but tune-in was low with only 4 million viewers. The Chiefs had lobbied hard to host the first "Thanksgiving Tripleheader." In 2008, the media lobbied for the Lions to stop hosting Thanksgiving games because of the team’s 0-11 season record. The Lions lost 47-10 to the Tennessee Titans, but the game was seen by more than 18 million viewers. In 2012, NBC began to air the third Thanksgiving game.

Today, NFL football is a key part of America’s Thanksgiving Day.

This Thanksgiving will mark the 77th Thanksgiving game hosted by the Detroit Lions, and the 49th hosted by the Dallas Cowboys. Each of the three games played that day will draw at least 20 million viewers at home. Among the three games, every current NFL team has played on Thanksgiving, except the Jacksonville Jaguars and the new Cleveland Browns. Since the very first game, Thanksgiving games have given football fans some memorable lineups and controversies, like the "Bounty Bowl" in 1989 that gave way to a fierce rivalry between the Eagles and the Cowboys, or the controversial coin toss in 1998 between the Lions and the Steelers. Thanksgiving football has also given us the tradition of Thanksgiving-themed awards, like the Pudding Pie Award, for the MVPs, and the Madden Thanksgiving Player of the Game.

In addition to the traditional matchups hosted by the Lions and Cowboys, NBC will air Thanksgiving’s primetime game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Advertiser. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.