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For many families, watching football is just as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and pumpkin pie. When did they start playing football on Thanksgiving? How has it become such a traditional part of the holiday?
Thanksgiving Day football games are almost as old as the sport itself. Over the years, almost every level of football from high school to professional has played on Thanksgiving Day.
In the earlier part of the 20th Century, it was traditional for high schools to schedule a game on Thanksgiving Day. This was especially true in the northeastern part of the United States, where high schools have been playing on Thanksgiving Day for more than 100 years.
The first college football game to take place on Thanksgiving Day was a game between Yale and Princeton in 1876. From that year forward, many colleges have endeavored to schedule a game on this holiday. Typically, the games were played against a major rival. However, currently, most colleges don’t play on Thanksgiving Day, but instead schedule games on the Friday following Thanksgiving.
Professional football leagues have been playing football on Thanksgiving Day since the 1890s. In the modern era, it was the Detroit Lions who started the tradition in 1934. That year, the Lions’ first owner, G.A. Richards, scheduled a game on Thanksgiving Day.
Over the next few years, several different professional teams also played on Thanksgiving Day. However, in between 1941-1944, no games were played at Thanksgiving because of the ongoing efforts to fight World War II.
In 1966, a professional franchise known as the Dallas Cowboys decided that they too wanted to play on Thanksgiving Day. Every year since then, the Cowboys have been featured in one of these traditional games.
Today, there are three professional games broadcast on Thanksgiving Day. The Detroit Lions are always featured in one of these three games, while the Dallas Cowboys play in another. The contestants in the third game vary with each year.
It is estimated that over 85 million people watch part of or all of these games each Thanksgiving. It is safe to say that American football has earned its rightful place amongst the nation’s most treasured Thanksgiving traditions.