- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2006

Scholars of Thanksgiving will tell you that in 1621, the Wampanoag Indians taught the Pilgrims to hunt, fish and survive in their new land. Modern Thanksgiving traditions, however, also might credit the tribe for teaching the forward pass and nickel defense.

Historical accuracy aside, it’s a safe bet that as Americans gather with family and friends today, the sounds of forks on dinner plates will be accompanied by sounds of the National Football League in the background.

For the 67th year, the Detroit Lions will play host to a Thanksgiving afternoon contest when they face the Miami Dolphins. The Dallas Cowboys will hold their 39th when they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I think football is very much a part of the day and has been for more than a century,” said Len Travers, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who specializes in research of American holidays and traditions. “Thanksgiving is very much a family holiday rather than a day devoted to worship. And I think football kind of goes along with that. They’re pretty inseparable at this point.”

Indeed, the tradition of playing football on Thanksgiving dates to the decades after the Civil War. In 1876, rugby teams from several colleges created an early version of the rules for a game that would become American football. They also agreed to begin playing a championship game on Thanksgiving Day.

Within a decade, the Thanksgiving game was the premier sporting event of the country, routinely drawing tens of thousands of fans to the Polo Grounds in New York. By the mid-1890s, several thousand high schools and colleges across the country took part in Thanksgiving Day games. In this area, George Washington High of Alexandria and Washington-Lee of Arlington met for decades. Currently, the D.C. Public Schools championship game is held on the holiday.

The pairing of holiday and sport didn’t please everyone, however.

“Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given,” the New York Herald editorialized in 1893. “It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football.”

Fewer than three decades later, the fledgling NFL held its first Thanksgiving Day game, a 7-0 victory by the Akron Pros over Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs in 1920. The Lions became involved in 1934, when club owner George Richards persuaded NBC to broadcast his team’s game against the Chicago Bears coast to coast.

The Cowboys began playing on Thanksgiving in 1966, when the league requested a doubleheader.

The tradition proved a bountiful tradition for network broadcasters. CBS drew 26.4 million viewers for a game between the Cowboys and Denver Broncos last year, the most watched regular-season game of the year. Even the Lions, whose last winning season was 2000, routinely draw more than 20 million viewers on Thanksgiving, more than nearly all other games during the regular season.

“Because it’s a true national telecast … there’s a lot of excitement,” said Artie Kempner, who will direct Fox’s coverage of the Cowboys game today. “It gets the biggest ratings, other than playoff games, during the season. Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, and football is a true American sport. So they have to go together.”

The NFL this year added a third Thanksgiving Day contest, a game that marks the debut of the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football telecasts. The league is marketing the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos as the start of a “new tradition.”

Coaches and players involved in Thanksgiving Day games talk fondly of the tradition, but the game also carries some hardships for them.

“It’s a short week and a short week of rest,” Lions coach Rod Marinelli said Monday, after getting only a short nap on his office sofa before starting preparations for today’s game. “It’s part of the deal.”

Sports historian Richard Crepeau recalled when he first realized how intertwined Thanksgiving and football had become. During a research trip in Russia in the mid-1990s, he gathered with a small community of homesick Americans for a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner. The celebration was made complete when a colleague pulled out an old tape of a Cowboys game.

“It was a year-old game, probably not even played on Thanksgiving,” said Mr. Crepeau, now a professor at the University of Central Florida. “But everyone was so excited to watch a football game. To me, that really introduced how much football and Thanksgiving is a part of the American psyche.”

Jack Paggeot, a retired aerospace industry manager from Muskegon, Mich., has attended every Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit since 1982 with his wife, Judy.

“We decided to circumvent the traditional family Thanksgiving meal problems like, ‘Where do we eat this year?’ ” said Mr. Paggeot, 65. “Saves a lot of calendar-marking, discussion and family issues.”

Mr. Paggeot grew up in the 1950s, when the Lions dominated the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving and beat their rivals nine times in a 13-year span.

The Lions haven’t given Mr. Paggeot much to cheer about in recent seasons, losing four times in the past five years on Thanksgiving Day. But no one is advocating any changes to the system.

“Our ‘tradition’ is being tested … but it has remained intact — and will, as long as the Lions are able to continue their proud tradition of leading off Thanksgiving Day football,” Mr. Paggeot said.

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