(MEDIA GENERAL) — For most American households, Thanksgiving is all about the three Fs – family, food and football.
Most TVs are tuned into the NFL’s games on Thursday afternoon, but the tradition of football on Thanksgiving extends beyond the National Football League. It actually stretches back to the birth of the sport.
The birth of football
Although there is some disagreement, Princeton and Rutgers played in what is considered the first-ever football game on Nov. 6, 1869. A few weeks later, members of the Young American Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club played a football match on Thanksgiving Day in Philadelphia, according to the Evening Telegraph.
The sport was in a primitive state, playing with teams of 25 men and following rules that more resemble soccer and rugby than modern-day football, but it was beginning to grow in popularity. Throughout the northeast, universities and athletic clubs quickly adapted to the sport and did their best to establish standard rules.
Princeton and Yale played on Thanksgiving from 1876-81 and high schools in Massachusetts also began to play annual football games on turkey day. Boston Latin School and English High School in Boston began an annual rivalry game on Thanksgiving Day in 1887 that continues today. It is considered the longest-running Thanksgiving Day game in the country.
The rise of the NFL
In the early 20th century, several small professional football leagues sprouted up throughout the country. In 1920, a group of teams united to form the American Professional Football Association which later became the National Football League. In the years following its formation, the NFL struggled to separate its product from other football leagues and often struggled to establish a fan base.
Several NFL teams were quick to adopt the Thanksgiving Day game as a way to draw in new fans. Before the 1934 season, when G.A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans and moved the team to Detroit (and changed the mascot to a Lion), he quickly scheduled a home game on Thanksgiving Day to boost fan attendance. Richards, a former radio station owner, worked with NBC to have the game broadcast nationwide. The game against the Chicago Bears was carried by 94 radio stations across the country and immediately tied the NFL with Thanksgiving.
Several NFL teams hosted games on Thanksgiving Day in the years to come before the games were called off from 1941-1945 during World War II. After the war, the NFL brought back Thanksgiving Day games. In 1953, the NFL decided to hold just one game on the holiday and named the Lions the permanent host.