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Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Thanksgiving Day football. A tradition that began with high schools and colleges throughout America and has given way to the professionals playing the sport.
The National Football League has been playing games on Thanksgiving Day since its inaugural season in 1920. The big rivalry early on was the Akron Pros verses the Canton Bulldogs.
Today, two NFL franchise cities, Detroit and Dallas, are where Thanksgiving Day football has become an expected way of life. Beginning in 1966, Dallas has missed playing on the holiday just twice, in 1975 and 1977.
The Lions’ tradition goes much farther back, starting in 1934. It was the franchise’s first year in Detroit after a local radio executive, George A. Richards, had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and relocated the team.
The Spartans were members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933. Richards not only was bringing a proven, quality team to Detroit, but he also was bringing at least one superstar, future Hall of Famer Earl "Dutch" Clark, one of the most versatile backs to play the game.
Clark joined Portsmouth in 1931 and enjoyed two All-Pro seasons with the team. He retired from the pro game following the 1932 season to become head coach at the Colorado School of Mines.
He rejoined his former team in 1934, and for the next five years, from his tailback position, was the general in Detroit's famed infantry attack.
Richards recognized during that first season in Detroit that his Lions were taking a back seat to the baseball Tigers on the sports pages. So, he opted to grab some headlines by playing the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day.
The 26,000 tickets for the Turkey Day clash in the University of Detroit Stadium were sold out two weeks in advance of the game. It was estimated that another 25,000 would have attended had there been seats available.
The contest also garnered national attention when Richards used his radio connection to create a network of 94 NBC Radio stations to broadcast the game across the country. Graham McNamee was the announcer, and it became the first NFL game broadcast nationally.
The matchup between the Lions and the World Champion Bears proved to be an all-time classic. The 1934 Lions, at 10-1, had not allowed a touchdown until their eighth game of the season. With 11 consecutive wins, however, Chicago occupied first place in the Western Division.
The Bears edged out the Lions, 19-16, in the holiday struggle, then prevailed 10-7 when the two played only three days later to clinch the NFL Western Division crown.
Richards reasoned his team had done well in its first year in Detroit. He was rewarded the next year when the Lions won the 1935 NFL Championship. The key game in the title drive came on Thanksgiving Day, when the Lions defeated the Bears 14-2 to clinch the West.
Thus, the football-on-Thanksgiving tradition became firmly established in Detroit. And except for a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944, the Thanksgiving Day classic has been played without interruptions.