NCAA Football: What college teams played in the first Thanksgiving game?

California v USC
Caleb Williams of the USC Trojans before a game against the California Golden Bears

In the first college football game ever held on Thanksgiving, Yale defeated Princeton 2-0 on November 30, 1876, in Hoboken, New Jersey. The contest, held in chilly, wet conditions, drew close to 1,000 spectators.

In keeping with the tradition of Thanksgiving football, the NFL has played games on the holiday every year since it was founded in 1920. Since 1934, the Detroit Lions have hosted one game on the holiday, while the Dallas Cowboys have hosted one game every year since 1966. In addition, a third primetime game has been played on the holiday every year since 2006.


On November 30, 1876, Princeton faced Yale in what is regarded as the first collegiate game that was played on Thanksgiving. The game came seven years after taking on Rutgers in what is known as the inaugural college football game. Less than 1,000 spectators, largely former and active students, witnessed Yale triumph 2-0 on the holiday in a rugby-like match in Hoboken.

The crowd atmosphere wasn't too dissimilar from what it is today. This was despite football in the 1880s being a brutal game of huge collisions and soaring studs amongst people who wore nothing heavier than skull caps on their heads.

Sellers sold pennants and banners outside of the arenas. Profiteers upped the price of $1 tickets to $5. Fans who wagered on sports results would exchange their bet sheets for cash with bookies.


The stands were as colorful as the fall leaves, with Yale's fans wearing blue and orange and Princeton's wearing orange and black. Fans wore caps and necklines with colorful ribbons and attached handkerchiefs in their teams' colors to the tips of umbrellas and walking sticks. Female Yale supporters wore violets, while Princeton supporters wore yellow chrysanthemums and orange and black ribbons.

The Detroit Lions' Thanksgiving roots

As a marketing ploy to encourage fans to attend Detroit Lions games, George Richards, the team's first president, instituted the Thanksgiving Day game. Richards owned radio station WJR, a significant offshoot of the NBC Blue Network (the predecessor to today's American Broadcasting Company).

With his ties, he was able to reach a memorandum of understanding with NBC to carry his November holiday games live across the network. This set the Detroit Lions' efforts apart from those of other teams that played on the holiday.

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Edited by Nicolaas Ackermann