Before facemasks and player substitution and championship games, the NFL had Thanksgiving.
A generation of younger fans might have a hard time believing the marriage of football and Thanksgiving is older than the careers of Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. A few graybeards out there might remember the bare-knuckled Lions-Packers series that took place every November from 1951-1963. But to get to the roots of holiday football, you have to go back -- way back.
According to historian Richard C. Crepeau, the Intercollegiate Football Association was staging its annual championship game on Thanksgiving Day before 1880. By the mid-1890s, more than 120,000 football players from colleges, clubs, and high schools were taking part in some 5,000 Thanksgiving Day games across the nation.
When the American Pro Football Association was formed in 1920, it immediately adopted this thriving ritual. In the APFAs inaugural season, 9 of its 13 teams played on Thanksgiving Day (three of them against nonassociation opponents). The APFA became the NFL in 1922, and except for a pause during World War II (1941- 44), has played Thanksgiving games every year since.
Three early games helped to crystallize the tradition.
The Bears and Cardinals were Chicago rivals from 1921 until 1959, when the Cardinals moved to St. Louis. The Bears played on the north side of the city, the Cardinals on the south side. Their fans had little in common, and little empathy for one another. Yet they celebrated Thanksgiving together every year from 1922-1933.
The 1922 edition was the first game in the series to be held at Comiskey Park. The Cardinals came in with a 6-2 record, while the 8-1 Bears were chasing Canton and Toledo for the league title. The crowd was 14,000, then the largest ever for a pro football game in Chicago.
The Cardinals won 6-0. But the football action took a back seat to a wild brawl, supposedly initiated when the Bears George Halas and Joey Sternaman tackled star Cardinals halfback Paddy Driscoll a little too enthusiastically, and ended when Driscoll supporters rushed the field.
As the Chicago Tribune reported: Chicagos Cardinals carved the Chicago championship turkey yesterday, gobbled all the white meat and stuffing and left the Bears the neck, wing, gizzard, and a bunch of black eyes.
It was so much fun they decided to make it an annual event. Three years later, it became the hottest ticket in town.
This was 1925, and Harold (Red) Grange, the famed Galloping Ghost of Illinois, had just signed with the Bears. The Thanksgiving contest at Cubs Park would be his first NFL game. The day before the event, 20,000 tickets went on sale and disappeared almost immediately. The Tribune reported that mounted police were needed to disperse the unlucky fans who came up empty.
When the turnstiles stopped spinning, 36,000 enthusiastic fans had entered the stadium. But the game didnt match the anticipation. Driscoll repeatedly punted the ball away from Grange, and defenses dominated in a scoreless tie. The crowd hardly cared. Police had to hurry Grange into a dugout to avoid being mobbed after the game.
Grange still was playing for the Bears in 1929. By this time, the Cardinals had a marquee name of their own -- Ernie Nevers, a fullback from Stanford. Neither club had a winning record as Thanksgiving Day approached, and a heavy snow fell the morning of the game, contributing to a low turnout of 8,000.
Later, many more would claim to have been at Comiskey that day. Everyone wanted a piece of Neverss outlandish feats. The big, handsome fullback ran for 6 touchdowns against the Bears and added 4 extra points to account for all the Cardinals scoring in a 40-6 victory. His single-game records for points and rushing touchdowns remain the most enduring marks in the NFL Record & Fact Book.
If Chicago didnt invent Thanksgiving football, it certainly demonstrated its full potential. In 1934, the Bears bid adieu to the Cardinals and played at Detroit, launching a holiday tradition in that city that has lasted for decades (save for World War II). Opponents change, but the Lions play a Thanksgiving game every year (they have been televised since 1956). The Dallas Cowboys began a similar tradition in 1966. Since then weve seen a miraculous comeback directed by a quirky and obscure Dallas quarterback (Clint Longley in 1974), a record rushing output by O.J. Simpson (273 yards in 1976), a comical miscue by the Cowboys Leon Lett on a blocked field goal attempt (1993), an overtime coin toss gone awry (1998), and many other highlights and high jinks.
By now, the standard Thanksgiving buffet includes turkey and tackles, mashed potatoes and smashed wedges, stuffing and run stuffers. Well never be able to consume it all, we tell ourselves. But we do. And next year were always back for more.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times