clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Rocky’s World: The history of Thanksgiving Day football and the Chiefs

We all know it: turkey is the second-best part of Thanksgiving.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Thanksgiving Day football is part of the fabric of American tradition.

It began on November 30, 1876, in Hoboken, New Jersey; it was cold and wet.

The temperature was in the low 30s and rain fell from the sky, but the turf was frozen so hard that it battered the players' bodies as they were driven to the ground. This was the stage for the very first Thanksgiving Day football game, as Yale faced off against Princeton before a lively crowd that sported a mixture of Princeton orange and black and Yale white and blue.

“The friends of both colleges mustered in good force. Several carriages containing ladies were on the ground, and a goodly number of Alumni were there to cheer the contestants.”

Football Game Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images

Yale prevailed over Princeton 2-0 in a literal slugfest that resembled something closer to Greco-Roman wrestling and rugby than modern football. If you're wondering how this game ended with only two points being scored, it's because, until 1883, a touchdown was only worth two points, but the point after attempt was worth four. Field goals at the time were worth five points, and safeties were worth one.

The first NFL Thanksgiving Day games

The first slate of Thanksgiving Day matchups came during the NFL's inaugural season and featured six games.

Thanksgiving Day– November 25th, 1920

Team Final score
Team Final score
Decatur Staleys 6
Chicago Tigers 0
Hammond Pros 0
Chicago Boosters 27
Canton Bulldogs 0
Akron Pros 7
All Tonawanda 14
Rochester Jeffersons 3
Columbus Panhandles 0
Elyria Athletics 0
Detroit Heralds 0
Dayton Triangles 28

The first-ever NFL champion, the Akron Pros, won their Thanksgiving matchup 7-0 over the Canton Bulldogs, who were led by head coach Jim Thorpe. But the highlight of the day had to have been the Decatur Staleys versus the Chicago Tigers.

As legend has it, this game served as a duel between the two teams, in which the loser had to pack up shop and never play again. The Decatur Staleys prevailed over the Chicago Tigers. A week later, after defeating the Thorn Tornadoes, 27-0, the Tigers dropped out of the NFL and never played again. The following year, the Decatur Staleys moved from Decatur to Chicago. They changed their name in 1922 to the Chicago Bears.

This would be an incredible story if it were true. The truth is, the Tigers were in financial trouble and could not compete with its cross-town rivals, the Chicago Cardinals. One theory is that this urban legend came into being as a convenient way for Tigers owner, coach and starting fullback Guil Falcon to bow out of the league without losing face.

Another version of the story has the bet between the two Chicago teams, but the Cardinals and the Tigers never played each other on Thanksgiving. They actually played three weeks earlier, on November 7.

Thanksgiving Day football as we know it

The modern iteration of Thanksgiving Day football began in 1934, when radio executive George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans for a sum of $8,000 and moved the team to Detroit, rebranding them as the Lions. Richards liked the name because he said his team would be the "King of the NFL," just like the lion is the king of the jungle.

Richards liked the idea of playing on Thanksgiving as a way to boost ticket sales and increase fan engagement. The move was an immediate success. The Lions sold out the game and had to turn away people at the gates.

Richards owned WJR, a radio station that was an affiliate of NBC's "Blue Network." The same year he bought the team, he negotiated an agreement with NBC to carry the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game live across all 94 of its radio stations across the country.

The Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day ever since.

Detroit Lions from left Gus Frerotte (L), Greg Hil Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys decided to start hosting a Thanksgiving Day game as well.

However, in 1975, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle asked the St. Louis Cardinals to host the game in place of the Cowboys. The Cardinals did not have the same national recognition as the Cowboys did at that time, so in 1978, the game was re-awarded to the Cowboys with a promise that they would have an annual spot on Thanksgiving Day.

NFL: NOV 22 Redskins at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Primetime Thanksgiving Day football comes to Kansas City

In 2006, the NFL added a primetime football game to its Thanksgiving Day lineup. It was a matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead stadium.

I was at this game.

How I got there is a story in itself. It was two hours before kickoff, and I wasn't planning on going to the game, when a buddy of mine named Steve called me up and said, "Hey, let's go to the game."

"We don't have tickets."

"We'll buy them off someone who's scalping them."

15 minutes later, I was in his truck on my way to Arrowhead.

As we pulled into the parking lot, Steve turned to me, "We are getting tickets, no matter what they cost."

"Deal."

Once we parked, we basically went person to person, awkwardly asking them if they were illegally scalping tickets and if we could buy them. In hindsight, we must have looked like idiots. About half an hour before kickoff, we finally found a guy who told us he would sell us a pair of nose bleeds for $250. At the time, that was a lot for Chiefs tickets. I was also pretty broke at this point in my life, but it was the Chiefs, and it was Thanksgiving!

We started to hand the scalper our money, at which point we realized we were standing directly in front of a police officer.

The cop looked at us in disbelief. We were blatantly breaking the law right in front of his face. Lowering his voice, he said, "Hey!"

Speechless, all three of us jumped and turned to look at him, suddenly realizing his presence.

"Don't do that directly in front of me, have some respect. Go over there to do it," he said, pointing at an area that was out of sight.

The three of us quickly apologized and snuck behind some cars to complete the transaction.

We were in!

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It was Trent Green's final year in Kansas City and only his second game back from a severe concussion that landed him in the hospital and caused him to miss eight of the first nine games of the season. When Green returned to the lineup in November, it was clear that he was suffering from the lingering effects of the injury. No longer the gunslinger he once was under Dick Vermeil, he was still a battle-tested warrior who fought through the game, passing for 161 yards on 22 attempts and throwing an interception.

This game was won in the trenches.

With an ineffective passing attack, head coach Herm Edwards turned to his ground game, handing the ball off to Larry Johnson 34 times in the contest. Johnson rattled off 157 yards and a touchdown. The defense was stout in the run game, holding running back Mike Bell to just 28 yards on 10 carries.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The fighting Scotsman, Lawrence Tynes, was the real hero of the game, converting all four of his field-goal attempts and accounting for 12 of the Chiefs' points. The Chiefs came away victorious — 19-10 over the Broncos.

This is one of the greatest games I've ever been to; it was worth every penny. Not just because of the game itself, but also the little adventure we went through to get there.

Looking back, I don't miss the 250 bucks at all, and I can't remember any actual individual plays of the game. What I do remember is what it felt like, standing in Arrowhead, watching the fireworks go off with a beer in my hand.

I wasn't happy to be there; I was thankful.


Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to write about our team and our city.

Enjoy your family, food coma and most importantly — rooting against the Raiders.