How the Lions’ Thanksgiving Game Became One of the NFL’s Longest-Standing Traditions

The Lions played their first Turkey Day game 85 years ago, and they haven't missed a beat since

Why the NFL's Long-Standing Thanksgiving Tradition Began 85 Years Ago in Detroit
Detroit Lions fans dress for Thanksgiving at Ford Field in 2017. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
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By Evan Bleier / November 27, 2019 10:41 am

When Americans tuck into their turkey on Thanksgiving, the side dish the majority of us agree on isn’t mashed potatoes, stuffing or cranberry sauce — it’s football.

During the NFL’s three-game slate last year, nearly 100 million viewers tuned in to watch at least a portion of the Bears-Lions on CBS, Redskins-Cowboys on Fox or Falcons-Saints on NBC in primetime, a figure which about doubles the 46 million turkeys that are consumed each year on the last Thursday in November.

So how exactly did football and Thanksgiving become bedfellows to green beans, cream of mushroom soup and French fried onions? As it turns out, the NFL traces its Thanksgiving tradition back to 1876, when Yale and Princeton, who were still playing a version of football that looks closer to rugby than today’s modern game, faced off in Hoboken in the intercollegiate championship game. The game was such a hit that the schools inspired other colleges and some high schools to begin playing Thanksgiving games against rivals and, by the late 1890s, the practice was fairly widespread.

The creators of the NFL were no dummies, so when the league was founded in 1920, Thanksgiving games were a part of it, with as many as six taking place each on the holiday each year. The two teams we all associate with Thanksgiving nowadays — the Lions and Cowboys — did not take the field that year … mostly because they didn’t exist yet.

That changed 85 years ago, when the Lions, who had been the Portsmouth Spartans from 1930 to 1933 and called Ohio home, were moved to Detroit by owner George A. Richards and given the name they still have today.

Why the NFL's Thanksgiving Tradition Began 85 Years Ago
Fans of the Dallas Cowboys send a message home at Thanksgiving in 2008. (Wesley Hitt/Getty)
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Not wanting to play second fiddle to the Tigers, Richards, a radio executive by trade, scheduled a Thanksgiving game for his Lions during their first year in town. On November 29, 1934, the Lions hosted that game: a showdown with the reigning world champion Chicago Bears at the University of Detroit Stadium. The matchup sold out two weeks before kickoff; around 26,000 fans attended the game, and it was estimated at the time that an additional 25,000 spectators would have attended had seats been available.

Luckily for those 25,000 fans, Richards worked with NBC to set up a 94-station radio network to broadcast the Lions-Bears showdown across the nation, with the announcing duo of Graham McNamee and Don Wilson calling all the action. The game turned out to be a classic, with 11-0 Bears edging out the 10-1 Lions 19-16.

Despite the outcome, Richards regarded the game as a success, and the Lions hosted a Thanksgiving game against the Bears again the following year, this time winning 14-2. Since then, Detroit has hosted a Thanksgiving game every year, with the exception of a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944 due to World War II.

Hosting hasn’t always translated to wins: the Lions are 37-40-2 overall on Thanksgiving, with their last win coming in 2016, when Detroit knocked off the Minnesota Vikings 16-13 at Ford Field. This year, the Lions will host the Bears in a rematch of their inaugural game 85 years ago, while the Cowboys — who began hosting their Thanksgiving game in 1966 — welcome the Buffalo Bills to Dallas and the Atlanta Falcons take on the New Orleans Saints in the NFL’s newest Turkey Day tradition: the always forgettable night game that everyone watches through a tryptophan-induced haze.