Thanksgiving is a day of traditions. Turkey, family gatherings, parades, and afternoon naps among them. But one of the biggest Thanksgiving traditions is NFL football. Below is a look at the history of the NFL Thanksgiving game, including how it all started, why the Lions and Cowboys always play on the holiday, and much more.
How It All Began
The earliest trace of organized football being played on Thanksgiving is in 1869 when the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club squared off in Philadelphia. Princeton and Yale began an annual tradition of playing each other on the holiday in 1876 and other collegiate teams soon followed suit. By the time the sport had become professional, football had established itself as a Thanksgiving tradition. Early professional games were played on Thanksgiving around the turn of the century and continued on a fairly regular basis until 1920 when today’s NFL began to take shape.
The American Professional Football Association (APFA) played six games on Thanksgiving in 1920 during its inaugural season. The league played two more Thanksgiving games the following year and then became the National Football League in 1922.
Now operating as the NFL, the league continued the Thanksgiving tradition and staged multiple games on the holiday every year until 1939, when only a single Thanksgiving game was played. At least one NFL game has been played on Thanksgiving every year since 1922, with the exception of 1941 to 1944 when World War II interrupted the NFL and no Thanksgiving games were played.
Thanksgiving and the Detroit Lions
By the early 1930s, the NFL had been playing Thanksgiving games for more than a decade. But while a handful of teams like the Chicago Bears, Chicago Cardinals, New York Giants, and Green Bay Packers were appearing regularly on Thanksgiving, it was the Detroit Lions that eventually stamped their name on the holiday.
In 1934, George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans, moved them to Detroit, and renamed them the Lions. Looking for a way to draw attention to his new team, Richards scheduled a Thanksgiving game and negotiated a deal with a radio station to have the game broadcast across the country. Satisfied with the turnout for that first Thanksgiving game, Richards lobbied the NFL for a Thanksgiving game every year, and a tradition was born.
The Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1945, and 2022 marks the team’s 83rd Thanksgiving game. The Lions have never played a road game on Thanksgiving.
A New Thanksgiving Tradition: The Dallas Cowboys
In 1966, a new Thanksgiving tradition was born. Just six years prior, the Dallas Cowboys had become the NFL’s first expansion team following the NFL-AFL merger, and general manager Tex Schramm was eager to get more eyeballs on his young franchise. Schramm volunteered to have his team play on Thanksgiving in an effort to drum up more publicity for the Cowboys, and the team set a franchise record for attendance that day when 80,259 fans showed up to watch the Cowboys defeat the Cleveland Browns.
The Cowboys continued to offer their services to the NFL for the holiday game, and the NFL continued to oblige. Aside from two absences in 1975 and 1977, the Cowboys have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1966. Only the Lions have played more Thanksgiving games than the Cowboys, who are 31-22-1 all-time on that day. The Cowboys traditionally play on Thanksgiving afternoon following the Lions game, which is always the first game of the day. Like the Lions, the Cowboys have never played an away game on Thanksgiving.
Rival Leagues on Thanksgiving: The AAFC and AFL
The NFL hasn’t always been alone at the table on Thanksgiving. Post-World War II ushered in a rival league, the All-America Football Conference, or AAFC. The upstart league lasted only from 1946 to 1949 but played Thanksgiving day games in each of those years alongside the NFL’s games.
The American Football League (AFL) operated in fits and starts beginning in 1926 until the 1940s and staged a handful of Thanksgiving Day games that were played simultaneously with the NFL’s games. The war put an end to the league’s efforts before the AFL reemerged for the 1960 season, this time posing a real threat to the NFL.
The AFL played 10 seasons throughout the 1960s and had one Thanksgiving Day game every year from 1960 through 1969. During that time, football fans were treated to at least one NFL game and one AFL game every Thanksgiving. Following the 1969 season, the AFL merged with the NFL.
The Primetime Era
After the AAFC ceased operations following the 1949 season, the NFL staged no more than two Thanksgiving games per year from 1950 through 2005. And once the Cowboys became a NFL Thanksgiving game regular in 1966, the schedule was always the same. The Lions play the first game of the day, kicking off at 12:30 p.m., while the Cowboys host the second game of the day at 4:30 p.m.
But in 2006, the NFL introduced a third Thanksgiving game to be played in prime time. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs met for the first Thanksgiving prime-time game, marking the first time that more than two games have been played on the holiday since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. There is currently no team that is designated for the prime-time Thanksgiving game, and many teams have rotated through the slot, with a lot of games featuring matchups of division rivals.
See which teams play this year for the 2022 Thanksgiving Day NFL Games
Team History on Thanksgiving
Below are some notable team accomplishments for Thanksgiving Day games.
- Most games played: 82 (Detroit Lions)
- Fewest games played: 0 (Jacksonville Jaguars)
- Wins: 37 (Detroit Lions)
- Losses: 43 (Detroit Lions)
- Ties: 3 (New York Giants)
Thanksgiving is a day that commands a lot of prep work, and that goes double if your favorite NFL team is playing that day. Luckily, Fanatics has you covered. Whether you’re looking for cookware, serving dishes, tailgating items, or anything else needed for a Thanksgiving Day football game, you’re sure to find it at Fanatics — the NFL fan’s choice for officially licensed sports apparel, memorabilia, and sports collectibles across all leagues and sports. Shop for your NFL team gear today.