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Who plays football on Thanksgiving? What college and NFL teams play?

Thanksgiving is known for the three F's - food, family, and football. Football has been part of the holiday since 1876 when Yale and Princeton played.

Thanksgiving is known for the three Fs - food, family, and football. Football has been part of the holiday since 1876 when Yale and Princeton played.
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In 1876, on a chilly November Thanksgiving day in Hoboken, New Jersey, Yale defeated Princeton 2-0. It was the first college football game to be played on Thanksgiving and it began a tradition that lasts today, though you might be more inclined to associate Thanksgiving with professional football rather than college football these days. It wasn’t until 1934 that the NFL really became part of the tradition, when the Detroit Lions hosted the Chicago Bears in a national broadcast.

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The Thanksgiving football beginnings

In 1876, it became a tradition for the best teams in the Intercollegiate Football Association league to play on Thanksgiving in New York. With the exception of two years (1883 and 1887 - Harvard), those teams were always Princeton and Yale. In the 1890s, Yale won 37 straight games. The crowds continued to grow, a new venue was opened, and college football became a big financial benefit for New York. Though the games would eventually move to the campuses of the schools, the tradition lived on as several colleges and high schools would go on to play football games on Thanksgiving day.

College football on Thanksgiving

In 1924, two college teams Alabama State and Tuskegee University began playing each other on Thanksgiving Day, starting a tradition known as the Turkey Day Classic. There were a few years in which each team played someone different, but traditionally, it's been those two and it will be those two again this year. These days, most college teams play on the weekend of Thanksgiving rather than Thanksgiving Day, partly to not interfere with the NFL games but also as it is the conclusion to NCAAF Rivalry Week. Unlike the NFL, the college football games do not feature the same teams every year.

This year on Thanksgiving, three college teams will be featured:

Tuskegee vs Alabama State - 3:00 p.m. ET

Fresno State vs San Jose State - 7:30 p.m. ET

Ole Miss Rebels vs Mississippi State Bulldogs - 7:30 p.m. ET

NFL on Thanksgiving

Since the beginning of the National Football League in 1920, there has been a game played on Thanksgiving. It was in 1934 that the tradition began of the Detroit Lions being an annual host. It was in 1974 that the Dallas Cowboys became the second team to annually host a Thanksgiving Day game (with the exception of 1975 and 1977). More recently, in 2016, a prime time game was added to the Thanksgiving schedule, but there is no fixed host for that one.

Why the Lions and why the Cowboys for the annual hosts?

The Lions tradition began with that big 1934 game against the Chicago Bears. At the time, the Lions were 10-1 and the Bears were 11-0 (so yeah, a bit more of an exciting game than the one we're likely to see in 2021). The Thanksgiving idea began as a way to boost ticket sales and make a name for the Lions, who were competing with the baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, for popularity. NBC Radio Network broadcasted the game nation-wide and the goal was exceptionally well-met. Ticket sales went up in the largest crowd to ever attend a football game at that time and the Bears defeated the Lions 19-16. The Lions were an annual host from then on, missing only the period between 1939 and 1944 during World War II. The first game to be nationally televised was in 1953 when the Lions played the Green Bay Packers.

It was November of 1966 when the Cowboys played their first Thanksgiving Day game against the Cleveland Browns and won it 26-14 with 80, 259 fans in the stadium. The team had the president and GM Tex Schramm to thank for the Thanksgiving spot. A savvy man who knew how get audience views, he also advocated for several technological changes we enjoy today, including instant replay, wind-direction stripes on goal points, and the referee’s microphones. We can also thank him for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. It wasn’t until 1974, however, that the Cowboys became an annual host. The NFL first tried to market the St. Louis Cardinals as hosts, but after they played the Cowboys three years in a row (1975-1977), two in St. Louis and one in Dallas, and lost all three to the Cowboys, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle asked Schramm if they wanted the spot back the next year in 1978. Schramm, being the wise marketing man he was, said “only if we get it permanently.” And so they did.

NFL games this year on Thanksgiving:

Lions vs Bears - 12:30 p.m. ET

Cowboys vs Raiders - 4:30 p.m. ET

Saints vs Bills - 8:20 p.m. ET

Whichever game is your favorite to watch on Thanksgiving, we wish you a warm and happy Thanksgiving from AS USA.