After the turkey has been roasted, toasted, carved, and devoured, along with the sides and the pies, if your family is anything like the majority of American households on Thanksgiving, you are watching a football game. Perhaps some of you may be half-asleep on the couch, what with all of that tryptophan circulating in your system, but some of you are waiting to see YOUR team play that traditional gridiron match. If you have ever wondered who started this turkey day tradition, look no further than…two Philadelphia cricket clubs?
Turkey and the Gridiron
Thanksgiving was designated as an official holiday in the United States on 3 October 1863, by decree of Abraham Lincoln. The holiday had been informally celebrated for several decades, but different states recognized different dates, and there was a need to set a known date nationally. Sarah Josepha Hale, a well-known magazine editor of the day, had actually requested the official holiday declaration to solve that very problem, and Lincoln finally made it happen.
Six short years later, American football was invented in 1869. It originated from a combination of English rugby and soccer, eventually becoming known as “gridiron” football in reference to the “bar-like” markings on the field. The game caught on quickly, but there was no standardization of the rules for a long time. Some teams played something closer to soccer, and others played something closer to rugby. The first American “foot-ball” game was credited to a contest between Princeton and Rutgers on 6 November 1869 and was reportedly closer to soccer (Rutgers won). Two short weeks later, the first “foot-ball” game played on Thanksgiving happened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the Germantown Cricket Club between the Germantown cricket team and the Young America cricket team. The players had apparently seen the Princeton versus. Rutgers game and liked what they had seen (Germantown won).
Several northeastern colleges began playing football, but there were no set, universal rules. Harvard was one school that adopted more rugby-centered rules which was referred to as the “Boston Game.” When Harvard played a match versus McGill University of Montreal in 1874, the whole team preferred the Montreal rules, and so they began to adapt the game further to improve the play. In 1875, Harvard and Yale played according to these new rules, and they were also liked by the Yale team. Walter Camp was the Yale team captain from 1876 to 1881 and is now known as the “Father of American Football” because of the role he played in further developing the rules of American Football.
Since the nation had a day off of work on Thanksgiving Thursdays, the idea of holding games on that day essentially guaranteed a tradition would be born. Princeton and Yale played their first Thanksgiving game on 30 November 1876 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The ground was hard, and the weather miserable, but Yale ultimately won, starting an annual Thanksgiving tradition. In 1882, the Thanksgiving game became the championship game between the top two member teams of the Intercollegiate Football Association, but this was almost always Princeton and Yale. That first Thanksgiving game attracted about 1,000 fans. The game moved to the Manhattan polo fields in 1880 and began drawing crowds over 10,000. By 1893, approximately 50,000 fans attended the Princeton-Yale game. Eventually, these games would move to the university campuses.
As football became more and more popular, high school teams began playing on Thanksgiving Day, too. Not only did the day become a “game day,” it also became “rivalry day,” wherein teams who agreed to meet on the field on Thanksgiving often defined their relationship as especially significant. The oldest continuous rivalry between high school teams that plays on Thanksgiving is between the Boston Latin School and the English High School (both of Boston, Massachusetts), which began 134 years ago in 1887. Games were cancelled in 2020, due to pandemic restrictions, but they will resume in 2021.
The National Football League was established in 1920, and of course they would follow the tradition of Thanksgiving games. The first team to have an established hosting game was the Detroit Lions who began holding Thanksgiving games in 1934. The Lions’ owner, George A. Richards, owned two major radio affiliates with the NBC Blue Network, and he secured a deal to broadcast the game live to a national audience. This was the first NFL game broadcast nationally. Not counting the cancelled seasons from 1941 to 1945 during World War II, the Lions have been the “first game” on Thanksgiving Day for 83 years.
By the 1960s, the NFL was looking to add a second game on Thanksgiving Day, and the Dallas Cowboys won the bid in 1966 thanks to a savvy marketing move by Tex Schramm, the Cowboy’s president. The game attracted over 80,000 in-person fans, despite the fear that people weren’t as willing to attend a game on a Thursday. Of course, the game was fully televised, in color by 1966. Excluding the years 1975 and 1977, the Cowboys have been the “second game” hosts on Thanksgiving for 53 years.
In 2006, a third game was added to the Thanksgiving Day NFL schedule, but without a standing host. The fact that there are three NFL games scheduled for the holiday indicates the continued demand for the beloved sport.
The football Thanksgiving tradition also features some light-hearted fun in the form of a “turkey leg award.” John Madden, former player, coach, and sportscaster began awarding the MVP of the game with a turkey leg back in 1989. Sometimes, he considered the MVP to be the entire defensive line, and so, a six-legged turkey was fashioned and presented to the lucky players. They’ve had as many as eight legs, and sometimes only two, but you can tell the players truly enjoy the honor and fun of “winning” a turkey leg. Madden revealed that he created his own version of Thanksgiving on the road by having the traditional feast on Wednesday night before the game, inviting all the football strays to join him, be they journalists, production crew, or team support staff away from family. He often hosted over 100 people, saying, “It's a chance to see everyone in an informal setting and have a few laughs. It's also a chance to eat.”
Perhaps the attraction of American football on Thanksgiving is just the fun of it, or perhaps it’s because it is a thing that unites us nationally, even if on a minor level. But at the end of the day, just like the meal, football on Thanksgiving is about togetherness.
Utilizing College and University Records in Research
In 1636, the Court of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay Colony approved the expense of 400 pounds to establish the first institution of higher learning in the United States which would educate members of the clergy. First known as New College, the school is now known by its more famous name Harvard University.
Colleges and universities can provide an abundance of genealogical resources for the students in your family who may have attended, as well as for your general research. Here are some of the school collections you may find to mine for your family history:
Campus Newspapers - Campus newspapers are excellent resources for providing contemporary accounts of the happenings around campus and for identifying relatives and ancestors for their academic pursuits or participation in student organizations. Search the school website for either the campus newspaper or the digitized library collections to locate these newspapers. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology newspaper, The Tech, has digitized past issues dating back to 1881.
Catalogs and Directories - Institutions of higher education produce a large volume of documentation within an academic year such as class schedules, course catalogs, student directories and commencement programs. These can provide excellent contextual details to add to your family’s school history by showcasing information pertaining to their academic life while in attendance. Search the school website for the digital library collection, or websites such as Ancestry, GoogleBooks or the Internet Archive to locate digitized copies of catalogs or other programs by academic year. Brigham Young University has digitized catalogs and directories dating nearly back to its establishment in 1875.
Greek Organizations - Fraternities, sororities and other academic Greek organizations kept their own sets of records for each chapter (each school). If you identify a relative’s participation in a Greek organization, you can determine if a chapter remains open at a particular school or contact the national organization regarding records. Some historic records have also been digitized through GoogleBooks or the Internet Archive. The University of Michigan Xi Chapter of the Zeta Psi Fraternity published a biographical catalogue of members from 1858 to 1897, including alumni data, which is available through GoogleBooks.
Historic Photo Collections - Schools may have historic photographs of the campus and surrounding town, as well as photographs of students, staff and organizations which may provide hidden gems for your research, such as The University of Georgia Hargrett Library’s Historic Images of Athens, Georgia. The school will likely also have several other photograph, map or newspaper collections which may be pertinent to a particular time, location, industry or to specific people, such as the website Portal to Texas History, which is housed within the digital collections of the University of North Texas.
Student & Alumni Records - You may be able to request an official student record of information submitted to the alumni office after graduation for deceased ancestors. The records of living former students are protected under privacy laws and can only be requested by the individual, but schools may be able to provide academic or alumni records from their collections for ancestors and relatives past. The records maintained by each school vary, so you’ll want to check the school website or contact the Registrar’s Office, Alumni Relations Office or the school library for availability.
Student Dissertations and Theses - If a student published a thesis or dissertation as a part of their degree program requirements, you may be able to locate the work through the school’s library. This will offer a glimpse into the work and the writing of the person of interest. The University of Southern California has over 65,000 digitized student dissertations and theses in its collections.
Yearbooks - College yearbooks don’t often have photos of every student or class as you might find in a high school yearbook, but as you ascend back in time when classes and enrollment were much smaller, you may be able to locate group or individual class photos, particularly for the graduating class. Yearbooks may also showcase photographs and information about specific departments, organizations, staff members and views of campus. Search the school website for the digital library collection, Ancestry, GoogleBooks or the Internet Archive to locate digitized copies of yearbooks. Howard University has digitized yearbooks dating back to 1914 and the University of Iowa has digitized yearbooks dating back to 1892.
As you research, remember that the name of the school your relative attended may not be the current name. Many institutions of higher education began under a name which may have changed several times throughout its history. A quick internet search can usually provide you with the timeline and progression of name changes and whether the school still exists today.
Additionally, many students who attended in the 1800s or early 1900s may not have graduated in the sense we think of today, but may have completed courses or enough course work to qualify for their occupation of interest over a semester or several years.
Even if you didn’t have a relative or ancestor who attended a particular school, colleges and universities also house many other historic and genealogical records in their campus libraries, so start searching and you may find some research avenues in unexpected places!
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