NFL On Thanksgiving: How Did It All Begin?

Promoted Post

Since the founding of the NFL in 1920, and even before that, Thanksgiving football games have become a tradition across America.

These games are generally more lighthearted than the typical season games and sometimes have gimmicks that fit the theme of the holiday.

The Thanksgiving games are popular for NFL lines since it is games that have little stakes in the playoffs.

In this article, we cover the inception of the Thanksgiving games in the NFL and what makes them so unique and fun.


Since the late 1890s, playing football on Thanksgiving was popular as it was one of the few days that people had off work.

Before professional football took up the tradition, the college football teams were playing games every Thanksgiving. This apparently started with the teams from Yale and Princeton going against each other.

The start of the tradition in the NFL can be dated to the Detroit Lions. While many other teams did play on Thanksgiving, the Lions’ owner also owned a radio station that was an affiliate of NBC, so was able to strike a deal for NBC to broadcast the game. This ‘creation’ of the tradition has led the Detroit Lions to be the host of one of the Thanksgiving games every year since 1934.

A second game would be added in 1966 when the Dallas Cowboys started their own Thanksgiving tradition. They would host a game every year since then apart from 1975 and 1977. In 1975 the then commissioner Pete Rozelle had the St. Louis Cardinals replaced as the home team. After 3 seasons (the Cowboys hosted the Cardinals in 1976), the Cardinals were no longer the host as they didn’t have as much popularity as the Cowboys, had weak consistency, and were on a losing streak. The Cowboys took over hosting on the premise that they would permanently get to host a Thanksgiving game.

A third Thanksgiving game was added in 2006. This was a prime-time match with no fixed teams.

Throwback Uniforms

Since 2001, teams have been seen wearing throwback uniforms that resemble their previous jerseys. This is especially the case for the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions. As the only 2 teams to always have a game on Thanksgiving, they like to show off numerous throwback uniforms.

Memorable Games

Throughout the history of NFL Thanksgiving games, there have been many memorable ones for a variety of reasons. Here are but a few of them.

  • 1929 – In this game, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals got all their points in the game with 40. This continues to be an NFL record to this day.
  • 1993 – This match is known for the fumble done by Leon Lett of the Dallas Cowboys. He tried to get possession of a ball that if left alone would’ve given Dallas possession of it. He fumbled the ball and possession went to the Miami Dolphins who ended up winning the game 16-14.
  • 1998 – This game is interesting as it changed the rules of the game forever. Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers had to call the coin flip which he did so in mid-air. The referee ended up awarding it to the Detroit Lions as Bettis attempted to call heads and tails. The Lions then won on the first possession by 19-16. Now any coin flips must be called before the toss and teams cannot win on the first possession.
  • 2012 – This game is more commonly known as the infamous ‘butt fumble’. This is when Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets ran into the butt of his own teammate Brandon Moore. He fumbled the ball which was recovered by the New England Patriots who returned it for a touchdown.


There have been many awards given out during the Thanksgiving game throughout the years. Due to the ‘unofficial’ nature of the Thanksgiving games, most of the MVP awards are relatively light-hearted and loose in nature usually issued by the broadcast networks immediately after the game.

A popular Thanksgiving award that started in 1989 was called the Turkey Leg Award. The MVP of the game (sometimes there were multiple MVPs) would get a turkey leg from John Madden to eat. The award would be revived for the 2019 season by CBS with Josh Allen winning it.

In 1998, they also gave the All-Iron award. The award had a small silver iron on it, in reference to Phil Simms All-Iron Team for Toughness. As well as the award, the winner would also receive a blackberry cobbler made by Simms’ mother.

NBC’s MVP awards in 2012 were a stylish ceremonial ball, and in honor of John Madden, the player would also receive a turkey leg. The 2021 version of the award featured a turkey leg statuette and the actual turkey legs were prepared by chef Emeril Lagasse.

Final Thoughts

Sitting down to watch a football match has become as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as the turkey. This is because they are great to watch after a large meal and can bring the whole family together to cheer for their favorite team.