America's Glorious Tradition of Thanksgiving Pro Football Lives On

Sure, there are other sports with games on Thursday—but NFL matchups are all that matters

hampton_tgivingturkey_post.jpg

Reuters

Thanksgiving and football are inseparable. Ever since we Americans began to gather each year and give thanks with our families, we've looked for ways to avoid having to talk to anybody at the feast. Nothing has helped distract us from our relatives more than watching 22 young men bash skulls for several hours.

No, the Pilgrims didn't play football at their first dinner. There was no two-hand touch, "five-Mississippi" game in 1620. The Pilgrims didn't go much for sports. They hunted, but it was less for recreation's sake than to avoid dying.

But the Pilgrims also didn't hold the first Thanksgiving. Not really, really anyway. Like so much of the lore around the Plymouth colonists, the meaning and iconography of the modern holiday was sort of retroactively layered on by national myth-makers starting in the mid 1800s.  President Lincoln, casting about for symbols to unite the nation during the Civil War—there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that he was secretly working for Hallmark—formally proclaimed the last Thursday of November a holiday in 1863. The first game of intercollegiate football—which probably looked more like rugby—was November of 1869, and the newly formed American Intercollegiate Football Association staged their first championship game on Thanksgiving in 1876.

By the 1890s, it was a craze. Thousands of high school, college, and semi-pro teams held their championship match on the holiday. These games often became known as "Turkey Bowls," but they should not be confused with "Turkey Bowling"—a sport developed much later that isn't as popular as football, mostly because the birds tend to get stuck in the automatic ball-return machine.

Difficult as it is to believe, there are other sports that  have the gall to stage games on this, our most football-centric of holidays. The NHL will take the day off, but won't be totally invisible with a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Indiana State and Texas Tech will play basketball, as will the Seminoles and UMass, and Dayton at Wake Forest. And, surely somewhere, there will be locked-out NBA players staging some rip-roaring backyard pickup games. Too bad we can't watch.

For those who like the college game, ESPNU airs the Tuskegee Golden Tigers and Hornets of Alabama State in the 88th Turkey Day Football Classic at 3:00 pm. The Big 12 still exists, kind of.  Texas and Texas A&M definitely still play football. They will meet for the 118th  time on Thanksgiving night, and for the final time before the Aggies' jump to a new conference next season. ESPN Classic is airing the 1998 and 2010 editions of the game to get you prepped for the live one.

Everything else, though, is just the trimmings. Basketball is like the cranberry sauce. College football is like mashed potatoes and gravy. The main course Thursday is the pros. The Guys Who Play on Sunday have held Thanksgiving Day games since the league's first year, 1920, when the match-ups included the Elyria Athletics against the Columbus Panhandles.  Don't ask the final score. Offenses back then were Tebow-rific.

Figure on a bit more scoring when the Packers at Lions meet this year, on FOX at 12:30 p.m. It's a game with more tradition than a green-bean-and-fried-onion casserole, and a recent AP story notes what they call a long list of "eerie similarities " between this game and the Thanksgiving battle between the Lions and Packers in 1962. That year, the Packs also were league champs and 10-0 when they visited Motown.

Gee, that is long and eerie.

The late game, the Dolphins at Cowboys, evokes truly fabulous memories of Thanksgivings past. In 1993, the Cowboys led the Dolphins 14-13 in a snowy Texas Stadium. With just seconds left Miami's Pete Stoyanovich attempted a game-winning field goal. It was blocked, but Cowboys' lineman Leon Lett inexplicably chased the ball, and touched it, giving possession back to Miami who kicked the game-winner forthwith—one of the most famous blunders in all of sports history.

The third pro game of the day should be a doozy—assuming you are still awake, and assuming you have access to the NFL Network. This year's shockingly tough San Francisco 49ers will end a long Thanksgiving game absence, having last appeared in 1972, and visiting Baltimore will mark their first-ever appearance on the holiday. The game, nicknamed the Harbaugh Bowl, features two brothers and head coaches—John Harbaugh coaching against his little brother, Jim. In other words, it's siblings fighting, and it doesn't get any more Thanksgiving than that. 

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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