The History Of Football Games Held On Thanksgiving [Guide]

This article may contain affiliate links. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. Privacy Policy.

Banner image: Ken Durden /

Thanksgiving, the American holiday full of family, feasting and FOOTBALL.

Football is a great American pastime. Whether you were a kid forced to play peewee, remember your dad yelling at the TV, or have been a true die-hard fan from a young age, most of us grew up watching football.

As you probably know, the Cowboys and the Lions play on Thanksgiving every year.

But why? Why do these two teams always host a game on Thanksgiving Day, a holiday dedicated to family, friends and food?

2019 Thanksgiving Football Schedule: 

  • 12:30 PM EST – Chicago Bears @ Detroit Lions (FOX)
  • 4:30 PM EST – Buffalo Bills @ Dallas Cowboys (CBS)
  • 8:20 PM. EST – New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons (NBC)

The Start of Thanksgiving Day Football

While most people identify the start of Thanksgiving football in 1934, it’s important to share that collegiate teams adopted this tradition almost 45 years before the professionals.

We can thank Yale and Princeton for starting the Thanksgiving game day matchup in 1876. This annual tradition began because almost everyone was off work on Thanksgiving day, which meant they were free to watch some good old fashioned football.

Although the ivy league football teams adopted the tradition first, it was The University of Michigan who eventually coined “The Beginning of Thanksgiving Day Football” in 1890.

In 1902, the original National Football League (which has no ties to the current NFL) started a Thanksgiving Day game and professional teams played each other regularly. So by 1920, when the modern-day NFL started scheduling games, football fans around the country were already used to football on Thanksgiving. And the rest was history.

Detroit Lions – The Original Thanksgiving Football Team

While other teams besides the Lions and Cowboys played on Thanksgiving between 1920 and 1934, it was the Lions who earned the title as the original Thanksgiving football team in 1934. In 1934 they celebrated their first year as a team in Detroit, moving from Portsmouth, OH. And what better way to get attention then to schedule a game on Thanksgiving Day against the Chicago Bears.

It also didn’t hurt that the owner of the team also owned a radio station where he could broadcast the game and reach an even wider net than the 26,000 people that attended the football game. He partnered with NBC and was able to broadcast the game out to 94 different radio stations. This was a HUGE marketing reach in 1934.

In case you were wondering, the game sold out well in advance of turkey day, and the Lions lost to the Bears. Despite their initial loss, the Detroit Lions have continued the Thanksgiving game tradition ever since.

Now, you might be thinking, what about those Cowboys?

Dallas Cowboys History (32 years later)

The Cowboys adopted the annual Thanksgiving football tradition in 1966 because they sucked! The team had a losing record for over 6 years, and their coach wanted to get them some press, and what better way to do that than play on Thanksgiving day.

The tactic worked for the Cowboys. Not only did they beat the Cleveland Browns, but this Thanksgiving day game was televised in color, which was still new to viewers. Color televised games only started one year earlier, in 1965.

The Cowboys continued their progressive nature with becoming the first team to use computers for scouting, broadcast in Spanish, and have the first-ever cheerleading squad. The Dallas Cowboys might have started their tradition for fame and recognition, but their innovative nature was what kept them in the spotlight.

The changes they made during the ‘60s shaped the way viewers and fans still enjoy the game today. And a second Thanksgiving day football tradition was born.

Memorable Moments

With over 80 years of Thanksgiving football games, there have definitely been some memorable moments. These are some of our favorites:

1962 – “Thanksgiving Massacre”

The Lions played the undefeated Green Bay Packers and shattered their winning streak. This game was coined the Massacre because the Packers quarterback Bart Starr was sacked 11 times and the Lions won 10-0.

1989 – Bounty Bowl

The Eagles played the Cowboys in the Thanksgiving Day battle in 1989. To make things more interesting, the Eagles placed a bounty on the Cowboys kicker. This might be the most intense football gamble ever played.

1998 – Overtime Fiasco

One of the 1998 Thanksgiving game matchups was Steelers against the Lions, and it was tied 16-16 at the end of the game. After a coin toss mix up, the Steelers were supposed to kick, but the head referee awarded the kick to the Lions. The Lions marched down the field and kicked a field goal, ending the game 19-16.

1998 – Randy Moss is a Boss

During the other annual Turkey Day game that year, the Vikings played the Cowboys. The Vikings won 46-36, but the real winner was the Vikings rookie, Randy Moss. He caught three outstanding touchdowns over 50 yards, resulting in the most badass stat line ever: 3 catches, 3 touchdowns, and 163 yards.

2012 – Butt Fumble

The Jets played the Patriots in the 2012 Thanksgiving showdown, and the infamous butt fumble was heard around the world. As you might notice, neither of these teams are the Lions or the Cowboys, but it is definitely memorable. You’ve probably seen this one on some replays over the years, and it’s quite embarrassing. The Jets quarterback ran into his own teammate, fell on his butt and fumbled the ball. And to make matters worse, the Patriots snagged it and scored a touchdown.

The Addition of a Third Game

In 2006, the NFL added a third football game on Thanksgiving (because 6 hours of football in one day didn’t seem like enough). While there is not a third team that hosts the game regularly, it has become a tradition nonetheless.

The Kansas City Chiefs hosted the first game of the Thanksgiving tripleheader against the Denver Broncos. Since 2006, the Colts, Packers, Eagles, Patriots and more have hosted a Turkey Day showdown.

Thanksgiving is a time to be with family, gorge on delicious food, and for most, watch football. Some people, like my father, would consider me a lucky child because I, in fact, got to go one of the infamous Thanksgiving Cowboy football games when I was younger.

I don’t know what year it was, I don’t remember what team they played, but I do remember watching football in a stadium with 80,000 fans (and my family). And honestly, that’s what Thanksgiving is all about; spending time with the ones you love.

Christine Devereaux Evangelista

view post

More from Lifestyle category