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How Thanksgiving and football got together

Thanksgiving and football seem to go together like cranberry sauce and turkey, or gravy and mashed potatoes. Each is so essentially American that it seems impossible to have one without the other.

In 2015, almost 27.3 million Americans tuned in to watch the Chicago Bears take on the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving night. Did you know, however, that football on Thanksgiving wouldn’t have become the tradition it is today if it weren’t for the bold actions of one radio executive in 1934?

That man was George Richards, the owner of the brand-new Detroit Lions football team, which was formed from the defunct Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans. Worried about competition in the sports section of the local paper from the area’s baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, Richards made the gutsy decision to play a Thanksgiving Day football game against the Chicago Bears.

Up until that point, college football had been played on Thanksgiving in an attempt to draw crowds, since most people were off of work and thus able to attend football games. Records are sketchy, but many historians agree that the first recorded Thanksgiving football game was a college bout between Yale and Purdue. The University of Michigan also began a Thanksgiving series versus the Chicago Maroons that ran until 1905, which some cite as the "beginning of Thanksgiving Day football."

Professional football on Thanksgiving would have to wait until the 1890s. Again, exact dates and team records are murky, due to the number of small leagues that dotted the country (this was before the NFL controlled our televisions), but it is known that several small leagues held regular games and even championship games on Thanksgiving.

By the early 1920s, the National Football League, as we know it, had formed, and teams such as the Buffalo All-Americans and Chicago Staleys played several games on Thanksgiving. But the games still hadn’t become the great Turkey Day tradition that modern Americans love. In fact, professional football itself hadn’t yet become as entrenched in society as it is today.

That is why George Richards became so important to the Thanksgiving tradition. He knew he needed his new team to get notoriety, so he used his connections as a radio executive to broadcast the game on 94 different radio networks.

The idea was a success – on Thanksgiving Day 1934, Richards’ Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears put on one of the great classic football games, with the Bears winning 19-16.

The game was so good that it was repeated one year later, and Detroit became a permanent host of Thanksgiving football. The Turkey Day tradition was finally entrenched in American culture.

To this day, Detroit hosts a Thanksgiving Day game every year. The Dallas Cowboys joined this tradition in 1966, in almost the exact same way that Detroit did. To get notoriety for the relatively new football team, Cowboys’ general manager Tex Schramm booked the Thanksgiving Day game for his team. The result was a success – almost 86,000 people packed the Cotton Bowl to watch the Cowboys defeat the Cleveland Browns.

The tradition stuck there too, and Dallas joined Detroit as a permanent host of Thanksgiving Day games, only missing the honor two times, in the 1970s.

Over the years, football on Thanksgiving has seen different changes in its play. Host television broadcasters have changed over the years, from NBC in the 1970s for AFC teams to CBS in 1997, and from CBS for the NFC teams to Fox in 1994. In 2006, the NFL added a third game, to be played at night, between any two teams.

Regardless of the changes, Thanksgiving football remains a classic American tradition. The next time you sit down with friends and family on Turkey Day to give thanks, perhaps consider adding George Richards to your list.

Michael Pesarchick is a senior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate institute.


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