The NFL & Thanksgiving – A brief history

by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro @NFLFANINENGLAND) 

You will have noticed that however hard you try it’s impossible to avoid watching the Detroit Lions or the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. The day is seen as a North American event, where families get together and consume vast amounts of turkey, candied yam and cranberry sauce whilst fighting for the best spot in front of the tv to watch some gridiron. 

What you may not know is that these festivities would not have been possible without the intervention of none other than King Henry VIII. As part of the 1536 English Reformation, which saw the Church of England break away from traditional Catholic rule, Henry VIII drastically reduced the number of national English church holidays from 147 to 27. 

Some people, called Puritans, wanted to further purify the church by eliminating more holidays, including Christmas and Easter, and replace them with Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving. One of the earliest English ‘Days of Thanksgiving’ was in fact called in 1588 after victory over the Spanish Armada.

Image result for puritans
Image Credit: New York Post

By 1607 these Puritans, who were being persecuted for their beliefs, moved to a more free Holland, but just 13 years later, fearing their children were becoming too Dutch, decided to emigrate to America, after obtaining a land grant north of Virginia, to be called New England. 

399 years ago the famous Mayflower voyage of 1620 set off from Southampton in September, with 102 passengers, including  William Mullins from my home town of Dorking in Surrey, and it arrived at Cape Cod in November. 

The passengers, known as the Pilgrim Fathers, are described in history as a symbol of early European colonisation of what would become the USA. Just one year before, in 1619, a smaller group of Pilgrims who made it alive to Charles City County, declared they would forever celebrate the arrival as a day of thanksgiving. Two years later this day was celebrated by Pilgrims together with Native Americans, especially as it was a terrific harvest.  

Fast forward to 1863 and it was the 16th President Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving an official holiday, thanks in part to a 40 year campaign led by author Sarah Josepha Hale, the lady who penned ‘Mary had a little lamb’. Lincoln made it law that Thanksgiving was the last Thursday in November.

In 1939 President Franklin D.Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the second-last Thursday, and in 1941 he signed a joint resolution to change Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday. 
Playing American football on Thanksgiving goes back to the late 19th Century, with the likes of college teams Yale and Princeton playing a recorded game in 1876.

The first official NFL Thanksgiving Day games were played in 1920, with the majority of teams now dead and buried, including the Detroit Heralds, who lost 0-28 to the Dayton Triangles.

Image result for Lions Bears 1934 thanksgiving
Image Credit: Nathan Bierma

The tradition of the Detroit Lions playing Thanksgiving games began in 1934, a 16-19 loss to the Chicago Bears, the legendary Bears back Bronco Nagurski throwing the winning score to Bill Hewitt, one of the last NFL players to refuse to wear any form of headgear. 

Back in the 1930s NFL teams had autonomy on when they would play on a game week. Lions owner George A.Richards, who owned a local radio Station called WJR, negotiated a deal with NBC to carry the game live across the radio network nationally. The decision to move the game was huge success, both at the University of Detroit Stadium, with a then record crowd of 26,000 in attendance, and on the national airwaves. 


Image result for dallas cowboys first thanksgiving game
Image Credit: Dallas Morning News

The second traditional Thanksgiving Day team, the Dallas Cowboys, began their Turkey Thursday streak in 1966, just six seasons after joining the NFL as an expansion franchise. The Cowboys agreed with the NFL that they would only host a Thanksgiving game if they were guaranteed future games on the same day. This tradition only lasted nine years, as then commissioner Pete Rozelle swapped out the Cowboys for the St Louis Cardinals in 1975 and then in 1977. 

The Cardinals lost the two games by a combined 59 points so the Cowboys came rushing back to fill the slot, and from 1978 the Lions have hosted an early Thanksgiving game and the Cowboys have hosted a later Thanksgiving game.
Ever eager to make the NFL bigger and better this two-game tradition expanded to three in 2006, to include a juicy game, often a marquee divisional rivalry game. 
It doesn’t take a genius to work out the Lions have played the most Thanksgiving Day games (79), and also have the most wins (37) and losses (40). The Cowboys are inevitably second with 51 games, 31 wins and 19 losses. 


Image result for thanksgiving nfl 2019
Image Credit: NFL on Twitter

The 2019 Thanksgiving Day games feature the Mitch Trubisky and Khalil Mack led Chicago Bears travelling to the Motor City, the playoff bound Buffalo Bills flying to Dallas to play the Super Bowl 37 and 38 matchup, and the New Orleans Saints line up in Atlanta against a red-hot Falcons team (for two of the last three weeks!). The Saints are one of a small handful of NFL teams who are undefeated on Thanksgiving, and in case the game feels familiar it was the Falcons who hosted the Saints in the 2018 primetime Turkey twizzler.

It’s always a bonus to get extra NFL coverage, so make sure you leave work early on Thursday and grab a Turkey sub on the way home. It may start off with a bit of a burnt offering, but it should end with a sweet treat in the late game. Just such a shame that Fox decommissioned the rather handsome Galloping Gobbler award in 2016 (incidentally a joint win by the Cowboys Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott).


Image result for galloping gobbler 2018
Image Credit: Fox Sports

As a little bonus here are ten things you didn’t know about Thanksgiving NFL history:

  • The first NFL Thanksgiving Day game were played on November 25 1920. Six games were played, half the teams failed to score a single point, and one contest between the Columbus Panhandles and the Elyria Athletics ended in a 0-0 tie. 
  • The Chicago Bears hold the NFL record as the only team to have played in the first and to play in the next Thanksgiving Day contests. That’s a 99 year history as they first played in 1920 as the Decatur Staleys. 
  • Only one NFL team has never played a regular season NFL game on Thanksgiving Day. The snub belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who joined the league as an expansion team in 1995.
  • Four current NFL teams, and ten defunct teams, are undefeated on Thanksgiving Day. The Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints are 2-0 and the Panthers and Texans are 1-0. 
  • The most points scored by a team on Thanksgiving Day was by the Miami Dolphins – 55 – in a crushing win over the St Louis Cardinals. on November 24 1977. Dolphins QB Bob Griese tossed 6 TDS on just 15 completions, with three scores caught by WR Nat Moore. 
  • The highest scoring professional Thanksgiving Day game was held in 1962, between two AFL teams, the Denver Broncos and the New York Titans (who became the Jets two years later). The final score was 46-45 and the winner was caught by the Titans WR Art ‘King Pin’ Powell. 
  • Thanksgiving Day 2012 was the date the infamous ‘butt fumble’ took place. The New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez, in fight or flight mode, ran directly into the rear end of one of his offensive linemen and coughed up the ball to the Patriots, who ended up scoring 49. 
  • In the 21st century every NFL team to have played a game has scored points. The last team to fail to score on Turkey Day was the 1999 Miami Dolphins, who lost 0-20 to the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Just five Thanksgiving Day games have gone into overtime, since the fifth quarter was introduced to regular season games in 1974. The most recent O/T contest, in 2011, was won by the Houston Texans 34-31 over the Detroit Lions. Matt Schaub led Houston on the winning drive. 
  • The triple-header Thanksgiving NFL format only began in 2006, with a non-Lions/Cowboys prime time evening matchup. The first of these juicy games was won by the Kansas City Chiefs 19-10 against the Denver Broncos. K.C. kicker Lawrence Tynes scored 13 points.

So there is a look back at one some history in the the NFL, we’ll start to be doing more here at the Full10Yards in our Retro branch which will launch in the new year. Head over to Twitter and follow @F10YRetro and @NFLFanInEngland for updates when it kicks off!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.