Thanksgiving games have been around as long as the NFL itself.
In 1920, the NFL’s first season, there were six games played on Thanksgiving. On Nov. 25, 1920, teams like the Akron Pros, Dayton Triangles and All-Tonawanda (N.Y.) got wins. No word on which networks had the TV rights to those games or who performed the halftime concert.
The tradition carried on through the years and morphed into something we take for granted every year: The Detroit Lions will be on the early game, followed by the Dallas Cowboys. The NFL added a third rotating prime-time game on Thanksgiving in 2006.
How did the Lions and Cowboys become Thanksgiving staples? They arrived at it in different ways.
The Lions were first. The team is proud of the fact their Thanksgiving tradition is older than 24 of the 32 current NFL franchises. It dates back to 1934. The Lions’ first owner, G.A. Richards, came up with the idea according to the team. He bought the team in 1934 and moved it from Portsmouth to Detroit. Even though the Lions had a good first season in Detroit, attendance wasn’t great. So they scheduled a game against the defending champion Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving, convinced the NBC Radio Network to broadcast it, and they have been a part of Thanksgiving ever since.
Although there was some media discussion in 2008 and 2009 of the Lions perhaps having to give up their Thanksgiving game, since they were struggling badly on the field, the NFL assured the Lions that they would not lose their traditional game.
The Cowboys came late to the Thanksgiving party. Former Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm is credited with getting the team on Thanksgiving. According to the book “Cowboys Chronicles,” he saw the opportunity to play in front of a national audience every season, which would help the team get exposure. Although it seems odd today that the Cowboys would worry about exposure, considering the worldwide popularity of the team, in 1966 they were in just their seventh NFL season and hadn’t made the playoffs yet.
So in 1966, when the NFL sought a second Thanksgiving game, the Cowboys jumped at the chance. The St. Louis Cardinals were given games in 1975 and 1977, but it wasn’t a hit and the Cowboys have hosted the second Thanksgiving game continuously since 1978.
Even though the NFL has changed dramatically through the years, the tradition of Dallas and Detroit hosting Thanksgiving games has survived.
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