Football has become an integral part of Thanksgiving tradition as much as turkey and pumpkin pie.
The first football game played on Thanksgiving was the Intercollegiate Football Association championship in 1876. The game and the holiday became so connected that by 1893, the New York Herald called Thanksgiving the official holiday for watching football.
The NFL played its first game on Thanksgiving in 1920. The Akron Pros defeated the Canton Bulldogs by a score of 7-0. Except for the years during World War II, the Detroit Lions have hosted a game every year since 1934. The Dallas Cowboys have hosted a game most years since 1966.
So let's take a look at this part of American culture. We'll look at some high school rivalries, one traditional college game, and some of the more memorable NFL games.
Maybe the place where family, tradition, football and Thanksgiving all come together is at the local level where neighboring high schools play each year.
The entire family day revolves around the local game. If a family member plays on the football team or is in the marching band or cheerleading squad, relatives come to see the game. Recent graduates home from college come back to see the game as well.
In New Jersey, matchups include:
1) Middletown North versus Middletown South, who will face each other for the 36th time this year.
2) Red Bank Catholic versus Rumson Fair Haven, which started back in 1921.
3) Salem versus Woodstown, which began in 1911.
In Pennsylvania, matchups include:
1) Chichester versus Sun Valley, who have played each other 84 times.
2) Northeast versus Central in Philadelphia, which dates back to 1892.
3) Catasauqua vs. Northampton, which dates back to 1925.
In Massachusetts, this includes three rivalries involving teams that have played each other over 100 times:
1) Abington versus Whitman-Hanson.
2) Salem versus Beverly.
3) Fitchburg versus Leominster.
One of the unique games played on Thanksgiving Day matches Phillipsburg High in New Jersey and Easton High in Pennsylvania. They first played each other on Thanksgiving in 1916.
The game is usually played at the neutral site on the campus of Lafayette College. The winner receives the "Forks of Delaware" trophy, as the schools are on opposite sides of the Delaware River.
The 2006 game, the 100th meeting of the two teams, was televised nationally.
The San Francisco city high school championship is played each year on Thanksgiving Day at Kezar Stadium. This game dates back to 1924 and has matched the top two public high schools in the city for 85 consecutive years.
In 2010, Washington High beat Balboa High.
Tuskegee and Alabama State play in the Thanksgiving Day Classic at the Crampton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. Tuskegee leads the series 48-31-3.
The tradition here is so strong that each team gives up the chance to play in their respective division championship playoffs, as the first round is on Thanksgiving Day weekend.
This is homecoming weekend for Alabama State, which holds a parade on game day. The game has been broadcast nationally on ESPNU.
The Detroit Lions' tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day started in 1934, their first year in Detroit. The Lions had won their first seven games of the year via shutouts. They brought their 10-1 record into the game against the 11-0 Chicago Bears.
The game was to be played at the University of Detroit stadium. All 25,000 tickets were sold out two weeks before the game. It was estimated that twice that many could have been sold if there were seats available.
Sensing the fan appeal of the game, Lions' owner G.A. Richards worked with NBC radio to set up a network of 94 stations to broadcast the game.
The Bears defeated the Lions in a tightly contested 19-16 game.
Except for the years during World War II, the Lions have played a home game on Thanksgiving Day ever since.
The Lions' biggest rival on Thanksgiving Day has been the Green Bay Packers. The teams have played 19 Thanksgiving matchups, including 13 consecutive years from 1951 through 1963. The Lions lead the series 11-7-1.
One of the highlights of the series, from the Lions' perspective, occurred in 1962. The Packers brought a 10-0 record into the Thanksgiving Day game. The Lions' defense played great and sacked Bart Starr 10 times for a total loss of 93 yards. They also intercepted Starr twice. That game was the only loss that year for the Packers, who went on to defeat the New York Giants in the championship game.
This year the Packers will again bring a 10-0 record into the game. What will the Lion's defense have in store for Aaron Rodgers?
One of the worst years in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles was 1968. Just say Joe Kuharich or Norm Snead, and a senior Eagles fan will start to moan. The team gave up 149 more points than they scored that year.
However, they had positioned themselves well to win a big prize: the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and the rights to O.J. Simpson. Headed into the last three games of the season, the Eagles were 0-11. The Buffalo Bills had already won one game and tied another. If the Eagles could just lose two of the last three games, they were home free.
They played the 3-6-2 Detroit Lions in one of the ugliest Thanksgiving games in history. Between the two teams, there were 73 running plays for a total of only 234 yards. The Eagles managed only 161 yards of offense but won the game 12-0 on four field goals. They were helped by Lions quarterback Gregg Landry throwing three interceptions. They still had a chance to get the first draft pick if they lost the final two games.
Unfortunately, the following week the Eagles defeated the New Orleans Saints and ended up with the third draft pick. They selected Leroy Keyes in one of the most unpopular picks they ever made. Of course, everyone knows who the next pick after Keyes was—Mean Joe Greene. Two Hall of Fame players had slipped through the Eagles' grasp.
Even worse than the 28-41-1 record that Kuharich had with the Eagles was that he will always be remembered for winning that Thanksgiving game that Eagles' fans wish he had lost.
By 1980 the Lions were playing in the Silverdome. Their game that year was against the Chicago Bears and their great rusher, Walter Payton.
The Lions got off to an early lead and were ahead 17-3 as the fourth quarter started. But Vince Evans led the Bears back to tie it up. He threw for one touchdown and ran for another.
The game went into overtime. The Bears' Dave Williams received the kickoff at his own five-yard line and ran it back down the left sideline for a touchdown.
There is no more sudden death than the Lions fans suffered that Thanksgiving Day.
In 1989, the Bounty Bowl was held in Dallas. The Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys 27-0.
Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson was so irate with the score that he alleged that Eagles' coach Buddy Ryan had taken out a $200 bounty on his kicker, Luis Zendejas, and quarterback, Troy Aikman. Zendejas left the game after a hard hit by Eagles linebacker Jessie Small.
Another historical aspect of the 1989 Thanksgiving game was that Reggie White was the initial recipient of John Madden's yearly Turkey Leg Award. White and the Eagles' defense contained Aikman for the entire game. Aikman threw three interceptions and completed only seven passes for 54 total yards.
Philly fans were so incensed by Johnson's comments that they returned the love two weeks later in Bounty Bowl II in Philadelphia. As Johnson left the field he was pelted with snow balls, chunks of ice, beer and anything else the fans could throw.
"America's Team," as the Cowboys were called back then, was no match for the Eagles in 1989.
Snow is unusual in Dallas, but the field was covered in snow as the 1993 game between the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins winded down.
The Cowboys clung to a 14-13 lead when Pete Stoyanovich lined up to attempt the winning field goal for the Dolphins. When the kick was blocked, the Cowboys had apparently won the game.
However, the Cowboys' Leon Lett attempted to pick up the ball and fumbled it back to the Dolphins. Stoyanovich succeeded with the second chance, and the Dolphins won the game 16-14.
The Cowboys did not let that loss get them down. From that point, they ran the table during the regular season and playoffs and won Super Bowl XXVIII.
You would think that a coin flip would be the last item that would cause controversy in a football game. However, there was controversial coin flip in the Thanksgiving game of 1998.
The game went into overtime, and the captain of the visiting team, Jerome Bettis of the Pittsbugh Steelers, got to make the call. Phil Luckett, the referee, thought that Bettis had said "heads," so when the coin landed tails the Lions got the ball. They quickly drove to kick a winning field goal.
There are two sides to the story. Luckett asserted that Bettis said "hea-tails," because he changed his mind before the coin landed. According to the rules, Luckett took the first call he heard, heads, and went with that. Bettis, of course, contended that he called tails before the coin landed, so the Steelers should have won the toss.
John Madden was Mr. Thanksgiving Day Game for a long time. He was the color commentator for CBS and then Fox broadcasts of the games. If you never watched a Thanksgiving Day game with Madden in the booth, you missed a large part of the tradition.
He introduced us to turducken, which is a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck stuffed into a turkey. Between the layers of meat, the chef puts layers of stuffing. So when you take a slice, you get a little of everything.
Madden also introduced the Turkey Leg Award, which he gave to the MVP of the Thanksgiving Day game he attended. The first such honor was given to Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1989. But sometimes Madden would want to give the award to more than one player, maybe even an entire offensive line, so he started making turkeys with three, four, and more legs.
Each new team of announcers adds to the tradition in their own way, but we really miss John Madden on Thanksgiving Day.