Thanking Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt for Thanksgiving football

If your household is anything like mine then somewhere in the midst of dad getting his hand stuck in the business end of the turkey and the tryptophan induced coma, there will be football. Thanksgiving football is like the Thanksgiving turkey: It’s a tradition, it’s huge, and there is more than enough to go around. Whether it is a family game, a high school or college rivalry, or the NFL, one thing is for sure on Thanksgiving; there will be football. In the spirit of the holiday, let us give thanks to two of the men responsible for this bounty of gridiron goodness, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.

Detroit Lions v. Green Bay Packers, Thanksgiving 2007 (Flickr photo by Dave Hogg via Wikimedia Commons)

For a man who never played, coached, or participated in organized football, Theodore Roosevelt had a lasting impact on the game. Roosevelt became a football fan when he watched the second iteration of The Game between Harvard and Yale as a Harvard freshman in 1876. For that day on, Roosevelt extolled the virtues of football as a metaphor for life. He once said, “In life, as in football, the principle to follow is to hit the line hard.”

Unfortunately, by the time Roosevelt took office in 1905, the sport was under siege. Catastrophic injuries and deaths (18 in 1905 alone) had led some institutions, including Roosevelt’s alma mater, to drop the sport. Roosevelt summoned the legendary Yale coach, Walter Camp, along with representatives from Harvard and Princeton to the White House in 1905 and threatened to ban football unless something was done to ameliorate the violent nature of the game. From this summit, the American Football Rules Committee was formed and they instituted a number of rule changes which transformed the sport from a rugby-esque melee into the sport we know today.

The new rules included the legalization of the forward pass, banning mass formations like the wedge, extending the distance necessary for a first down from five to ten yards, and instituting a line of scrimmage with a neutral zone. In 1906, the AFRC changed their name to the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of America and eventually it became the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Apparently the changes the committee instituted were enough to please President Roosevelt because he allowed the game to continue being played.

Like his cousin, Theodore, Franklin Roosevelt was also a football fan. Unlike his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt actually played freshman football at Harvard. Unfortunately, FDR was not good enough to make the full varsity squad. However, it was actually one of Franklin Roosevelt’s economic policies that had the greatest impact on Thanksgiving football.

 In 1934, Roosevelt sought to increase consumer spending by moving Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November in order to add an extra week to the holiday shopping season. While many decried the change, Detroit Lions owner George Richards saw an opportunity.

The Lions were 10-0 in November of 1934, but the on-field success had not translated at the gate. Richards recognized that if success could not draw fans, a gimmick was necessary. He took the opportunity to schedule a game with the rival Chicago Bears for the new Thanksgiving Day. On “Franksgiving” 26,000 fans packed the stadium to watch the Bears defeat the Lions, and a tradition was born. In fact, the tradition of the Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day is more traditional than the day itself. The official date of the federal holiday was not established until 1941, when Congress and FDR determined that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. By that time the Lions had already been playing on Thanksgiving Day for seven years.

So whether you choose to watch the Lions or the Longhorns or Norwich Free Academy and New London (the oldest high school rivalry) this year, remember to take a moment and thank the Roosevelts, because they helped make sure there was Thanksgiving football.

Michael Simzak is Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.