MOON TOWNSHIP — As we sit stuffed with turkey, minds full of gravy and mashed potatoes, the thought of moving from one spot seems to be the nemesis of the Thanksgiving spirit. With the tryptophan levels high and everyone feeling sleepy, people are making plans to go shopping in the morning to find the best deals all year. For many, however, full stomachs and family mean one thing: football.
The link between football and Thanksgiving ranges from family to family, but most Americans spend the holiday either watching or participating in the sport. With local and major teams all competing, sitting down to watch the game has become a part of the holiday just as much as pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. The question is: How did the sport become so intertwined with Thanksgiving?
The tradition of watching football on Thanksgiving started as far back as the 1800s with college football. Following Abraham Lincoln’s creation of the national holiday in 1863, colleges began to hold yearly games between rivals on Thanksgiving. Yale and Princeton started their annual face off in 1876, offering a fierce competition for fans of the sport. More colleges would soon follow their example, making the sport an iconic part of the holiday on campuses across the country.
To this day, the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving is reserved for the top rivalry match-ups in FBS football. Games like the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn) and The Game (Michigan vs. Ohio State) always take place on this day. For Western PA locals, the University of Pittsburgh used to have this time reserved for Penn State and West Virginia until those rivalries took a hiatus.
The Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA), which was formed in 1873, would soon make Thanksgiving the official date for their annual tournaments. Scheduling playoffs on the federal holiday, crowds gathered to watch the best players go head to head in the most organized form of the sport. While there weren’t as many colleges as there are today, the number of colleges participating in games made the event a big part of the season each year.
High schools followed the college tradition as rivalry games started being scheduled on Thanksgiving day for a “Turkey Bowl.” While this doesn’t typically happen in the WPIAL, as WPIAL playoffs are around Thanksgiving, this tradition is very significant in the Northeast.
After the success for local teams and colleges, the professional players wanted a piece of the action. While many organizations would schedule games on Thanksgiving, the inception of the NFL in 1920 marked the peak number of games on the holiday. With up to six games per day, viewers could watch multiple teams as they cooked their feast for the night.
Those trying to make a name for their team had not only had a platform to do so, but the whole family as an audience to watch. The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have made a tradition out of playing games on Thanksgiving each year. While the Lions pioneered the games in 1934 under the leadership of George A. Richards, who was trying to make a name for the team, the tradition of having a big game on the holiday stuck for years after. While the Cowboys wouldn’t take up the tradition until 1966, the impact football had on the day became deeply ingrained in the United States.
Today, there is an average of three NFL games per Thanksgiving. The rivalries that defined the early days of football still remain an important part of the games, with big teams like the Redskins and Cowboys having massive face-offs for families to enjoy. With the cultural identity that football teams provide to cities, and the party atmosphere commonly associated with football, the day of turkey and pigskin still goes strong in 2018.
American holidays having a strong connection to sports is nothing new. The Fourth of July has always been a big day for baseball, and Christmas sees big games for basketball as well. While they may try to imitate the king of sports holidays, there’s no topping the king of American sports on the all American holiday.
When celebrating this Thanksgiving, find a way to put a unique football spin on the events. While the turkey and stuffing settles, pull up a chair and watch the fiercest games of the year. If you want to be more active, host your own “Turkey Bowl” in the yard and bond with the rest of the family. Thanksgiving is for family, so why not make your family a team.