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How Michigan made a tradition out of football and turkey

A Healthier Michigan
The Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day, 2014

When the Detroit Lions host the Minnesota Vikings tomorrow, they’re continuing a Michigan tradition that goes back further than many of us can remember. How and when did this tradition of Thanksgiving football get started?

Mark Harvey, the state archivist at the Michigan History Center, joined Stateside to recount the history of the Thanksgiving game.

On UM’s role in creating Thanksgiving Day football

While the Lions have been playing Thanksgiving Day football games since the 1930s, Michiganders have been combining football and turkey for much longer. “The University of Michigan made it a tradition back in the 19th century, starting around 1885 they were playing Thanksgiving Day games against the University of Chicago Maroons,” said Harvey. The consistency of the Michigan-Chicago match-up created a tradition that has lasted for over a century. That series of games proved fateful for one other key reason: When Michigan music major Louis Elbel was on the train returning to Michigan from the 1898 match-up, which ended in a 12-11 win for the Wolverines, he began composing “The Victors,” UM’s fight song, said Harvey.

On how the Detroit Lions brought the tradition nationwide

The Detroit Lions, under new owner George A. Richards, were undefeated in the 1934 season before Thanksgiving but, with their attendance lagging, Richards thought that playing on Thanksgiving Day would boost attention from the fans. “It wasn’t the very first time a professional team played on the day, but what Richards did that was different was he took it nationwide,” said Harvey. “He convinced NBC to broadcast the game nationwide, thus instilling that tradition across the country, not just in specific locations.” The Lions lost the game to the Chicago Bears, “but a tradition was born,” he said.

Listen above for the full conversation.

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

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