Thanksgiving Day Football History

Football games on Thanksgiving Day have been part of our culture since the game itself evolved in the 19th century. Even before professional football teams locked horns on turkey day, we enjoyed watching everything from colleges to high schools, to local kids’ games match-up on this holiday.

It’s a type of sports tradition that silently transpired through the years until it has become synonymous with traditional professional games in cities such as Detroit and Dallas. Like turkey and dressing, we have come to expect pro football games on Thanksgiving Day!

Below there are multiple articles and episodes from partners of the network covering Thanksgiving Day football history.  Use the table of contents to jump to your favorite stories.

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    Chicago Thanksgiving Day Football

    An Early History (Pre-NFL)

    In this episode of “When Football Was Football” on the Sports History Network, we’ll discover how football grabbed a foothold on Thanksgiving Day in the Chicago area. Long before the National Football League debuted as the American Professional Football Association in 1920, football games were already on the holiday menu.

    For example, in the years before the NFL, there was once something called the Chicago Football League, which consisted of semi-pro teams from around the city. Two of those clubs, the Tornadoes, and the Thorns, were both based in the Pullman neighborhood on the city’s far south side. Each year, beginning in 1914, they generously scheduled a game against each other on Thanksgiving Day.

    The games were anticipated each November, but that was about as far as the enthusiasm reached. In each of the first five years of the rivalry, the results were less than appetizing. All five games concluded in scoreless ties!

     In 1917, the Hammond Times in Indiana marked the end of the football season by commenting: “Amateur football is gradually coming to its finis. A harbinger of this is the announcement of the various games that are booked for Turkey Day. This year is considered, by the majority of managers, to have lacked nothing in either the interest taken in the gridiron sport or the brand of football displayed.”

    Speaking of Hammond, IN if someone were to ask: “What was the most important early Thanksgiving Day game,” there would be one in particular that left an impact on professional football like no other. And there are some rather significant reasons for this statement…

    An Important Thanksgiving Day Game

    Let’s start with this game played on November 27, 1919, involving the Hammond Bobcats (who were also known as the Hammond All-Stars) and the visiting Canton Bulldogs. Hammond was a dream team of sorts with players like George Halas and Paddy Driscoll in the lineup, while the Canton club starred the immortal Jim Thorpe, still in his football prime.

    Manager Paul Parduhn of Hammond was an ambitious promoter who harbored a vision of what pro football could accomplish. Remember, this was still at a time when pro football players were tarnished with the misconception that they were mercenaries playing solely for the money and without the “spirit” of the college game (whatever that means!). Parduhn actively recruited former All-Americans and paid them a robust $100 per game.

    Big bucks at the time! In addition, he actively promoted his intention to battle the best teams in the country, and he specifically wanted Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs. Finally, Parduhn deserted Hammond for his home games and rented Cubs Park in Chicago (which is now Wrigley Field) which could accommodate larger crowds. 

    Two weeks earlier on November 9, Hammond and Canton met at Cubs Park in front of 10,000 fans and battled to a 3-3 deadlock. The Hammond Times called the battle the “greatest grid contest that middle western fandom has ever seen.” The owners of the combatants simply saw it as money in the bank and quickly scheduled a rematch for Thanksgiving Day.

    Despite cold and wet weather, the second game attracted 12,000 fans to Cubs Park, an enormous crowd for a pro football game, especially one where there really was no “home” team. Canton won this contest 7-0 after Hammond’s Paddy Driscoll fumbled the opening kickoff on his own 14-yard line. Three plays later, Jim Thorpe scored on a six-yard run for the only touchdown of the day.

    Once again, both sides were happy with the size of the crowd and the competitive nature of the game. The Hammond Times added that: “Had the weatherman kept the snow away, the Cubs Park would have been filled to capacity, but even with the cold and the flurries coming down the crowd showed lots of enthusiasm.”  

     That last sentence demonstrated why this Thanksgiving Day game was so very important to the world of pro football. Considering the weather conditions, a nice crowd still showed up to watch what might be considered two all-star teams composed of former collegiate stars.

    It signified that there was indeed a future for pro football and that football fans would pay to see this type of attraction. Within a year after this game, the American Professional Football Association was formed with Hammond and Canton becoming two of the founding members. 

    NFL Thanksgiving in Chicago

    In that first league year of 1920, six games involving APFA clubs were played on Thanksgiving Day, with the biggest game involving the short-lived Chicago Tigers and the Decatur Staleys. Dutch Sternaman was the hero for the Staleys as he booted two field goals after a scoreless first half for the 6-0 win. Once again, the field was a mess after wet weather turned the gridiron into a mud bath.

    However, Sternaman did something a bit unusual before his game-winning 22-yard dropkick. He simply put on a pair of dry shoes specifically for that kick. His strategy worked as the Decatur Herald reported: “The Tiger line braced, so Sternaman stepped back and aided by a change of shoes, scored the first field goal.” The game drew a nice crowd of 8,000 as the Staleys remained undefeated for the year while the Tigers stumbled to their fifth straight defeat.

    It would be, unfortunately, the first—and last—Thanksgiving Day game for the Tigers in their short NFL tenure which lasted just a single season.

     By 1922, the newly re-named Chicago Bears had shed their Decatur affiliation and initiated an annual Thanksgiving Day series with the Chicago Cardinals. This holiday rivalry extended non-stop into the 1933 season and provided some unusual thrills for Chicago area fans. Although brief, that short series left us with four of the most interesting games in NFL history!  

    The first-holiday encounter between the two city rivals occurred on November 30, 1922, and resulted in a full-scale riot with police intervention. History will tell us that the Cardinals escaped with a 6-0 win on a pair of field goals, but the real story evolved after the Bears’ George Halas and Joey Sternaman used a bit too much effort in bringing down Cardinal rusher Paddy Driscoll.

    In other words, they slammed Driscoll to the ground and Paddy popped up swinging. Eventually, all three were ejected as others entered the fray prompting police on horseback to break up the fisticuffs that waged all over the field, including some from fans who hopped from the bleachers to join the fun. This activity prompted the Chicago Tribune to summarize the game as follows: “The Chicago Cardinals carved the Chicago championship turkey yesterday, gobbled up all the white meat, stuffing, and left the Chicago Bears the neck, wing, gizzard and a bunch of black eyes.”

     After the Cardinals won round one, the Bears evened things up in 1923 by winning 3-0 with a 30-yard field goal by Dutch Sternaman. It was a game that the Tribune marked as a “battle which was the cleanest played of the postgraduate season here.” Clearly, the boys had cleaned up their act from the previous season! After the Bears duplicated that win with a 21-0 decision in 1924, the table was set for the biggest Thanksgiving Day game in NFL history on November 26, 1925.

    Why? This game marked the debut of the legendary Red Grange who joined the Bears immediately after he completed his collegiate career at Illinois

    The emergence of Grange helped move the NFL from small, local crowds into the mainstream of American sports recognition. Huge crowds topping 70,000 to see Grange in New York and California were on the horizon, but in his first NFL action, Grange faced the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. The game was a sellout, which was also most unusual for the NFL at the time!

    The thrill of seeing Grange on the field was offset by the Cardinals doing everything possible to keep the ball out of his hands. In a dreary ground-based game, the Bears managed just two first downs, while the Cardinals accounted for only one during the game. As such, there were punts galore and with Grange settling in as the Bears’ return man, Cardinal punter Paddy Driscoll did everything possible to boot the ball away from Grange, thus limiting his touches, and earning a chorus of boos from the crowd each time Driscoll punted.

    The game ended in a scoreless tie but afterward, Grange was impressed with his first taste of pro football: “I never played a more expert team of football players. I never saw a bit of intentional roughness and I enjoyed my first professional game immensely.” Soon thereafter, the Bears and Grange embarked on a pair of barnstorming tours, opening up the professional game to the nation.

     Another scoreless tie between the two windy city clubs followed in 1926 before the Cardinals upset the Bears 3-0 in 1927. That set up another intriguing contest in 1928 when the financially-strapped Cardinals signed the aging legend, Jim Thorpe, for the turkey day game against the Bears. By this time, Thorpe was no longer an effective ballplayer according to the Associated Press after the Cards were dropped 34-0: “Jim Thorpe, former Carlisle Indian star, played a few minutes for the Cardinals but was unable to get anywhere. Forty-four years old and muscle-bound, Thorpe was a mere shadow of his former self.” 

     But then, on Thanksgiving Day of 1929, fans were treated to the greatest individual performance in NFL history! It wasn’t often that the Cardinals were competitive after the team captured the 1925 championship, but in 1929, new owner Dr. David Jones added former Stanford All-American Ernie Nevers to his team. The sturdy fullback worked behind a talented front line that included future Pro Football Hall of Famer Duke Slater. In a truly dominating performance, Nevers scored all of his team’s points in a 40-6 romp over the Bears.

    He tallied six touchdowns and booted four extra points to accumulate those 40 points, and that total still stands as the NFL record for most points scored by one player in a single game. 

    The Bears won the final four games in the Thanksgiving Day series with the Cardinals which ended with a 22-6 win on November 30, 1933, and the two neighborhood rivals would never meet again on Thanksgiving Day. The Bears played the Lions from 1934 through 1938 while the Cardinals played a pair of Thanksgiving Day games with the Packers in 1934 and 1935. 

    Final Cardinals' Thanksgiving Day Game

    While in Chicago, the Cardinals scheduled their final Thanksgiving Day treat on November 23, 1950, when the Pittsburgh Steelers visited Comiskey Park. According to the media: “The Thanksgiving morn encounter started in a mild blizzard, winding up under a bright sun which failed to hike the sub-20-degree temperatures at Comiskey Park.” Only 11,622 showed up for the game, which ended with the Cardinals on the short end of a 28-17 score. 

     As mentioned, the Chicago Bears met the Detroit Lions from 1934 through 1938, and then in 1947 and 1949. The 1934 game with Detroit was also the first game broadcast on Thanksgiving Day. The only Thanksgiving Day game for the Bears in the 1950s occurred on November 27, 1952, when they opposed the Texans in Akron, OH.

    The game itself, and the opponent, were both unusual and only added to the luster of Chicago Thanksgiving Day game legends! The Texans came into the contest winless, homeless, and nameless. The team belonged to the league after its owners deserted the club a few weeks before. In addition, the team was not allowed to use the name of its previous city (Dallas), nor play any “home” games in that location.

    So, the game with the Bears was brought to Akron and played at the Rubber Bowl, with the Texans grabbing their first win of the campaign 27-23 in front of only 2,500. Coach Jimmy Phelan of the Texans explained the victory by stating that his boys were “mad and tired of being bounced around!” The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the biggest upsets in National Football League history.” 

    From a near riot in 1922 through a defeat by a homeless team in 1952, the tradition of Thanksgiving Day football games for Chicago teams brought its share of joy, despair, records, and legends. We hope you enjoyed this trip back to the days before turkey fryers, and please join us next time for a look at one of the most powerful high school football programs in the state of Illinois—but one that hasn’t won a game in 42 years.

    Philadelphia Eagles - 1968

    How The Eagles Ruined Their Own Thanksgiving

    Since a certain holiday is this Thursday, it seemed right to tell a story involving the National Football League on Thanksgiving, one of America’s great traditions. Today, we’re going to talk about a game that put the “turkey” in Turkey Day, but also left a big impact on the NFL: a 1968 clash between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions. This episode will focus more so on the Eagles, and how they sabotaged their own chances for a #1 draft pick.

    A Little Backstory

    The Eagles’ head coach during this era was Joe Kuharich, who had formerly led the Chicago Cardinals, the Washington Redskins, and Notre Dame. After two mediocre seasons, Kuharich’s Eagles broke through in 1966 by going 9-5, their first winning season in five years.

    They tied the Cleveland Browns for second place in the NFL’s Eastern division, a game and a half behind the Dallas Cowboys. That offseason, sensing that his team was headed for greatness, Philadelphia owner Jerry Wolman signed Kuharich to a 15-year contract extension.

    While Eagles fans were certainly optimistic about the future, they were equally skeptical as to whether or not Kuharich deserved such an outrageous extension. Their skepticism was validated beginning in 1967 when Philadelphia turned in an unimpressive 6-7-1 season. The worst, however, was still yet to come.

    "Joe Must Go!"

    The 1968 Eagles are regarded by many historians as one of the worst teams in NFL history. Their season began with a 30-13 loss at Green Bay and only went downhill from there. As the losses began to pile up, a plane would routinely hover around Eagles games on Sunday afternoons with a simple, yet effective banner – “Joe Must Go!” – while the cries for Kuharich’s head echoed around Franklin Field.

    The fans’ angst, however, soon turned into what could be described as cynical optimism. Knowing that the Eagles were the worst team in football, Philadelphia realized that there was a very good chance of obtaining the first pick in the 1969 draft. This almost certainly meant drafting USC running back O.J. Simpson. For those of you born after 1994, you may be surprised to learn that Simpson was once a football player. In 1968, “The Juice” racked up 2,091 all-purpose yards with 23 touchdowns, earning him one of the easiest Heisman Trophy selections ever.

    As Eagles fans began to imagine #32 running roughshod over the rest of the NFL, their team kept losing, and losing, and losing. They dropped to 0-11 with a 47-13 blowout loss at Cleveland on November 24th. Four days later, Philadelphia was set to play in Detroit, the Eagles’ first Thanksgiving Day game since 1940.

    Sloppy Weather, Sloppier Game

    Back when the Lions were really the Lions, they played outside at Tiger Stadium. You’re forgiven if you don’t remember this era, as Detroit has played their home games indoors since 1975. The weather in the Motor City on November 28th, 1968 was suitable for one event, and one event only: football.

    The temperature was 42 degrees. Rain fell steadily throughout the day. The field at Tiger Stadium was resorted to mud. And it was beautiful. The game itself, however, was far from beautiful, even on paper. The Lions entered with three wins, seven losses, and two ties, having not won a game since October 13th.

    As you know, the Eagles came in at 0-11. It’s not often that fans hope for their team to lose, but desperate times in Philadelphia called for desperate measures. Even if it meant going 0-14, drafting O.J. Simpson was worth it. Instead, the aforementioned dreams of #32 in green and white were washed away in the Detroit downpour. Neither team could get a single thing going offensively.

    Eagles quarterback Norm Snead went 6-for-15 with 55 passing yards. His counterpart, Greg Landry, went 7-of-15 for 66 yards and three interceptions. The only skill player that had a productive day was Philadelphia running back Tom Woodeshick, who ran for 79 yards on 27 carries. Good field positioning as a result of Woodeshick’s running and the Lions’ four turnovers put Eagles kicker Sam Baker in field-goal range four times, and he split the uprights on each occasion.

    Thanks in large part to the weather, Philadelphia’s defense, routinely one of the worst in football, pitched their first shutout since 1955, beating Detroit, 12-0, and entering the win column for the first time in 1968.

    "No, Don't Win! Stop Playing Well!"

    The slim chance the Eagles had at the #1 draft pick was gone by the next week, when they won yet again, beating the New Orleans Saints, 29-17, and infuriating the fans. Just when you want them to lose, they win. Their final game of the season has gone down in history not just in Philadelphia, but in all of sports.

    It was a day that supposedly solidified Philly fans’ reputation as being harsh and unrelenting. At halftime of their otherwise meaningless season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, the fans did indeed boo Santa Claus and throw snowballs at him. This wasn’t the whole story, however. The man who was originally scheduled to play Santa in the halftime Christmas pageant at Franklin Field never made it to the stadium because of inclement weather in the Philadelphia area.

    Needing a quick replacement, Eagles personnel noticed a fan in the stands wearing a Santa suit. The rest of the crowd, recognizing that the festivities were hastily assembled, and still stewing over a bitter end to the season, took their anger out on the poor guy by pelting him with snowballs. The Eagles lost to the Vikings, 24-17, in what turned out to be Joe Kuharich’s final game as head coach.

    Their 2-12 record was only good for the third pick in the 1969 draft. After the Buffalo Bills obviously took O.J. Simpson with the #1 pick, and the Atlanta Falcons selected Notre Dame offensive lineman George Kunz, Philadelphia used their choice on Purdue running back Leroy Keyes. In fairness, Keyes totaled over 1,400 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns for the Boilermakers in 1968 and finished second in the Heisman voting behind Simpson. His college success never did translate to the pros, however. In his rookie season, Keyes ran for only 361 yards and three touchdowns.

    After missing most of the 1970 season due to injury, the Eagles switched him to defense. He was decent as a strong safety, but never noteworthy. Keyes’ last season in the NFL was 1973, the same year that O.J. Simpson became the first running back ever to run for 2,000 yards. All in all, a bad time to be an Eagles fan, and it all started on that dreary Thanksgiving Day in Detroit.

    Football Is Family (Thanksgiving Day)

    I believe that this year (2020) should have taught us a lot of things that will aid us from here on out. Maybe it has taught us to be more patient and understanding. Maybe it has taught us to value the little things in life more.

    Maybe it has taught us to look back and see how truly blessed we have been.
    But I think that one of the things this year should have taught us is to value the people who are in our lives more than we did before. Hopefully, you take this moment to be thankful for your family and to let them know how you truly feel about them. Remember, we are not promised tomorrow- make sure you are using today to show your love for your family.

    I know this is a podcast about football. But it is also a podcast about family. Today’s guest is very special to me- my dad, Mark McFarlin. Growing up, he took me to football games, and even took me to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even though he wasn’t a football fan himself. When I asked him to be a guest on this podcast, he wondered what we are going to talk about since football really isn’t talked about much. I hope you enjoy the interview, and maybe take a chance to think about what makes Thanksgiving special to you.

    The Football History Dude (Bill Keenist)

    The Football History Dude interviews Bill Keenist in this special Thanksgiving football history episode.  Bill is the team historian for the Detroit Lions, the team the host has been a fan of ever since he was born way back in 1985.  This also happens to be the year Bill started with the Detroit Lions as assistant public relations director.  The interview touches on Bill’s career, memorable moments of Barry Sanders (off the field are the best ones,) and some great memories from Thanksgiving  football.

    Below is a little about his career with the Lions:

    • 1987 : promoted to director of public relations
    • 1991 : promoted to director of marketing, broadcasting, and communications
    • 1994 : promoted to vice president of administration and communications
    • 1996 to 2001 : team vice president – supervised areas of communication, broadcasting, and marketing
    • 2002 – honored by Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association with the “Best of the Best award
    • 2003 – Lion’s club seat ticket commercial won an Emmy (produced by Bill)
    • 2004 – inducted to Elizabeth Forward High School Hall of Fame
    • 2006 – awarded a medal of merit by Ohio’s Alumni Association
    • Bill is on the Board of Directors of The Charlie Sanders Foundation
    • Member of Detroit’s Super Bowl XL Communications Task Force Committee
    • Public relations co-captain for Super Bowls XXIV through XXVIII
    • Worked a total of 22 Super Bowls

    This is just a brief overview of Bill’s career.  To learn more about him, you can visit his bio page on the Detroit Lion’s site.

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