Thanksgiving Day to sports fans is as much about football as it is about the traditional turkey dinner. From high school football in the morning to watching the afternoon game on TV as dinner starts, this tradition is as old as time. Well, almost as old as time.
The Detroit Lions have played at home on Thanksgiving every year since 1934 — except when games were paused from 1939 to 1944 during World War II. The annual holiday tradition expanded to add a home game for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s. These franchises — and their fans — only know football on Thanksgiving. In 2006, the NFL added a third game with no specific host team to the prime-time window.
The 2022 Thanksgiving Day schedule:
So why do the Lions and Cowboys always play at home on Thanksgiving? What does the day look like for the coaches, players, families and fans who put their holiday celebrations on pause to take part? And how many thousands of pounds of food is served at the stadium? We asked NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer and Eric Woodyard to explain the history.
We have also laid out the Thanksgiving stats and numbers you should know and even took a journey back in time to explore the biggest and best moments on the turkey day stage. (Note: This article was originally posted in November 2021 and has been updated for 2022.)
How the Thanksgiving tradition began
The Lions were first up to host games every year: In 1934, Lions owner G.A. Richards scheduled a holiday matchup between the Lions and the Bears. Earlier that year Richards had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans football team and moved it to the Motor City, renaming it the Detroit Lions. The Bears, the defending back-to-back world champions, beat the Lions 19-16 in front of 26,000 fans at the University of Detroit Stadium on Nov. 29, 1934.
Now, more than eight decades later, Thanksgiving football has become a staple in Detroit with the Lions going 37-42-2 in the annual holiday classic. — Woodyard
Thirty-two years later, the Cowboys joined as a home team: The Cowboys first played on Thanksgiving in 1966, beating the Cleveland Browns 26-14 at the Cotton Bowl. General manager Tex Schramm wanted more national publicity for the Cowboys — this was before they were known as America’s Team — and thought the holiday game made perfect sense. The NFL was a bit worried, however, and guaranteed the Cowboys a certain amount of gate revenue. Some 80,259 fans showed up and a tradition was born. The Cowboys have played on every Thanksgiving Day since — except in 1975 and 1977.
Why didn’t the Cowboys play on Thanksgiving those two years? Prior to the 1975 season, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle wanted to see if the St. Louis Cardinals could build their popularity under coach Don Coryell, whose teams were nicknamed the Cardiac Kids because of their exciting finishes. So he scheduled them to host Thanksgiving games in 1975 and 1977. Unfortunately, the Cardinals lost both games decidedly, and Rozelle went back to Schramm to ask whether the Cowboys would take the Thanksgiving game back.
“It was a dud in St. Louis,” Schramm said in 1988 to the Chicago Tribune. “Pete asked if we’d take it back. I said only if we get it permanently. It’s something you have to build as a tradition. He said, ‘It’s yours forever.'” — Archer
Given how long the series has lasted, it’s not a surprise that the Lions have the most wins and losses on Thanksgiving Day. But two other teams that frequent the holiday tradition are the Bears and Packers.
What’s it like to play on Thanksgiving?
Ezekiel Elliott has played on Thanksgiving every year but one since joining the Cowboys in 2016. He doesn’t have one favorite memory.
“My favorite thing about playing on Thanksgiving is we’re the only team playing at that time, all eyes on us,” Elliott said in 2021. “Everyone is watching. We’ve got the stage so we just have to go out and handle our business.”
Elliott had a viral moment when he tossed Dak Prescott into the Salvation Army red kettle after a touchdown in the 2018 game vs. Washington.
“I don’t think it was really preplanned,” Elliott said. “It was kind of spur of the moment.” — Archer
Lomas Brown, former Lions Pro Bowl OT (1985-95), said players view the Thanksgiving game as a gauge for how the season is going or how it needs to end.
“The Thanksgiving Day game kind of marks the point of the season that you’re in,” he said in 2021. “Meaning, you’re getting ready to turn the last quarter of the season over and get into the homestretch or get into the stretch to where if you want to be a playoff team. Or if you’re gonna make some noise in the playoffs, you need to start playing better. At that point, everything should be clicking for you, especially if you’re at that point in the season.”
The Lions’ No. 2 overall pick and Michigan native, Aidan Hutchinson, will play in his first Thanksgiving game in 2022.
“It’s gonna be cool,” he said. “I’ve got a whole bunch of people coming to the game. This is gonna be my first time playing two games in four days, so it’s a lot of exciting stuff and hopefully we get a big win on Thanksgiving. And then go celebrate after, eat some turkey and eat some good food. So that’s the plan.
“I’m looking for a win.” — Woodyard
How do players celebrate Thanksgiving?
All celebrations generally don’t happen until the next day, when Lions players can celebrate with their families. Brown says he “couldn’t wait until after the game was over, man.”
“Because look, it wasn’t just that Thursday night, at least for me, I went on an eating binge Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I would put on weight over the holiday because a brother would throw down because you didn’t have no more responsibility after that game until next week. So, it was almost like another little open week and that’s the way we kind of looked at it, too.” — Woodyard
For the Cowboys, most players with families will also celebrate on Friday. With a late-afternoon kickoff, most of the time players will not get back to their homes until later in the evening, far too late for such a heavy meal. — Archer
Are there any team traditions?
While the Lions don’t hold any locker room or team traditions for the holiday game, Brown said that former Lions coach Wayne Fontes did place extra emphasis on the annual contest by dropping inclinations about its importance all throughout the season. Players took that to heart, too.
“When I looked at the schedule when it came out, the second thing I looked at was Thanksgiving,” Brown said. “The first thing I always looked at was to see if we had a Monday Night Football game, then the second thing would be who are we playing on Thanksgiving. That was the order every year when I looked at the schedule. Thanksgiving was pretty much the most important thing and we used to emphasize that as leaders on the team. We used to tell all of the young boys coming in that we don’t lose on Thanksgiving. That’s a game that we said we definitely had to win.” — Woodyard
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The Cowboys open the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Kickoff Campaign at halftime of every Thanksgiving game. Since 1997, nearly $3 billion has been raised, and aiding the Salvation Army is a long-standing priority for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jerry, along with his daughter Charlotte, have led multiple initiatives year-round with the Salvation Army, from raising money with the 50/50 raffle at games to holiday initiatives that benefit local communities.
In most years, Cowboys players will visit a Salvation Army shelter in Dallas or Fort Worth and feed early Thanksgiving Day meals to those in need, although that practice has been put on hold the past two years because of the pandemic.
In the past, players often were joined by their wives and children. Former TE Jason Witten had his two sons and two daughters participate in handing out meals during his career with the Cowboys.
“I just try to tell [my kids], ‘Look, you’re going to have an opportunity to give back to people that are less fortunate,'” Witten said a few years ago. “They do it with a happy heart. I think they like seeing those fans and being able to hand out that food.” — Archer
What are some season-ticket holder traditions?
There is a tailgating group of more than 100 die-hard Lions fans who gather bright and early at 9 a.m. typically in the parking lot of Detroit’s Eastern Market. Usually, they cook about four turkeys and each signs up to bring a side dish. The dishes are named based on the team the Lions are facing — for example, Bears Stew and Mac-And-Not-Packer-Cheese.
Megan Stefanski, a lifelong Lions fan and longtime season-ticket holder, helps organize the festivities. She makes a five-hour drive from Goetzville, Michigan — located in the Upper Peninsula — to Detroit.
Mark “Pilgrim” Mullins has been a season-ticket holder since 1991 and dresses up yearly as a pilgrim for each Thanksgiving Day game with his daughter, Mandie, accompanying him also in costume.
“We’re known in Detroit as the pilgrims,” he said in 2021. “Matter of fact, I’ve got souvenirs from all my friends this year because it’s my 30th anniversary of actually dressing as the pilgrim.” Each year, he has added to his costume, since the Pontiac Silverdome days and now at Ford Field. He also attends the tailgates with Stefanski.
Thanksgiving Day is about more than just turkey for Lions fans at Ford Field. Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports
“That was the whole goal was just to dress like a pilgrim, be festive and get on TV,” Mullins said. “So, the next year comes around and all of the people in my section were like, ‘Hey, big guy, you’re gonna be the pilgrim again?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I should.'” — Woodyard
And how about perhaps the most famous Cowboys season-ticket (or suite) holder, Roger Staubach?
The Hall of Fame quarterback, better known as Captain America, holds an annual Turkey Bowl game at AT&T Stadium on the day before Thanksgiving.
How much sway does Staubach have? As he entered The Star last November, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy had to catch his breath in a way as he saw the quarterback.
“That’s Roger Staubach,” McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, said, turning his attention back to the media. “Man, I’m shook. Just thinking about the old Super Bowls, Steelers and the Cowboys …” — Archer
The night before Thanksgiving is not necessarily a team turkey dinner for the Cowboys, but turkey and all the fixings are available for the players if they want. But a lot of the players stick with their traditional night-before-game meal of either a steak, chicken, fish or pasta. Given how most people feel after wolfing down their turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, it’s probably wise the players don’t gorge themselves like that. — Archer
The Lions don’t have one big team Thanksgiving dinner, as some might think. Some guys would understandably rather eat at home with family. Traditional Thanksgiving fare is typically served to players at the day before the game. — Woodyard