Thanksgiving is a time for family, food and football — and for Broncos players, it is also an opportunity to rest and reflect ahead of Sunday’s game against the Panthers.
Quarterback Russell Wilson said that he cherishes the memories of Thanksgiving celebrations from his childhood, recalling that he and his late father would watch Thanksgiving football together every year.
“It’s an important time to celebrate your family and loved ones,” Wilson said. “… My dad means the world to me, so every Thanksgiving I always reflect back to that.”
The season may not be going as planned, but the players noted that they have plenty of things to be grateful for. While their answers varied, they overwhelmingly expressed gratitude for one thing: family.
“It’s too many things to just name one thing [that I’m grateful for], but I guess I’ll say family,” wide receiver Jalen Virgil said. “Without family, there’s no way I’d be here.”
Added cornerback Damarri Mathis: “I’m thankful for God being able to bless me [and put] me in the position that I’m in, play football. I’m thankful for my family, my teammates, you know. Family and friends.”
Guard/center Quinn Meinerz said that he is particularly grateful for his family this week, as they traveled to Denver for the Broncos’ Week 11 game against the Raiders to watch him play at Empower Field at Mile High for the first time.
“I’m thankful for the health of my family,” Meinerz said. “It was really good to see them last weekend. It was actually the first game that all my siblings got to come to, and they came to [Empower Field at] Mile High, so it was really an experience that I’m thankful for. Ever since high school, I’ve dreamt of that moment of waving to my family before the game starts in an NFL game, so I’m really thankful for that.”
In addition to giving thanks, Broncos players will celebrate the holiday with a cherished meal. Some will cook with their families, while others will gather at teammates’ houses. Several players expressed excitement for the Thanksgiving meal, but their opinions on the best dishes were divisive.
“My mom’s dressing or sweet potato casserole [is the best dish],” Virgil said. “And I won’t be able to have it this year, but I told them, ‘Make sure eat an extra plate for me.'”
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton added that his mom’s creamed corn is his favorite dish, and he also had a strong opinion on what the worst Thanksgiving food is.
“Dry turkey,” Sutton said. “It’s the absolute worst. It can stay there, honestly, at the store. You don’t even got to cook it, just leave it at the store.”
Mathis, who noted that he plans to attend Thanksgiving dinner at safety Kareem Jackson’s house, has several dishes that he is looking forward to.
“I like ham,” Mathis said. “I’m a big ham person. I like ham, I like collard greens, oh — mac ‘n’ cheese.”
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On Tuesday, cornerback Pat Surtain II partnered with Family Promise of Greater Denver, a nonprofit that assists families at risk of or experiencing homelessness, to hold a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. Surtain noted that the event provided more than 30 local families with turkeys and gift cards, and the second-year cornerback expressed gratitude for being able to help members of the community have a joyful Thanksgiving.
“This event was something I planned for the whole year, was giving back — especially for this special holiday, Thanksgiving,” Surtain said during the event. “I felt like it was right. I want to thank the Family Promise organization for allowing me to have this special event to give back, so I’m just grateful for this to happen.”
How football became a Thanksgiving tradition
Every year, millions tune in to watch the annual Thanksgiving NFL games – last year’s matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the Las Vegas Raiders garnered an audience of 38.5 million people, the most-watched NFL regular season game since 1990. (By comparison, 33.8 million tuned in to President Joe Biden’s inauguration).
But how did America’s favorite sport become so linked to the holiday? CNN spoke with experts to find out.
The tradition actually started with college football
Football started out as an amateur sport – played mainly in elite northeastern colleges like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia, said Matthew Andrews, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Thanksgiving tradition began back in 1876, when the Intercollegiate Football Association began hosting their championship game on the holiday. But the tradition didn’t begin to pick up steam until 1880, Andrews said, when the association moved the end-of-season game to New York.
It’s this game, Andrews said, that took football from a sporting event to a social one.
“This game was sort of the unofficial start of the winter holiday social season,” he said. “People from the different colleges and universities would flood New York City, and there would be pregame Wednesday night dinners and Friday and Saturday night there would be post-game balls and trips to the theater. And that’s when it really takes off, in the 1880s and the 1890s.”
And so, by the mid-1890s, college football and Thanksgiving day were synonymous.
Not everyone approved of the new tradition
Thanksgiving didn’t really become an annually celebrated holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln encouraged its recognition as a way to promote unionism during the Civil War, Andrews said. The rise of Thanksgiving, then, is almost congruent with the rise of football: the holiday helped fuel the popularity of the sport, Andrews said, and in turn football made Thanksgiving a little more secular and more widely appealing.
A wood engraving from “Once a Week” magazine shows the onfield action during a football match between Yale and Princeton, in the late 19th century.Stock Montage/Archive Photos/Getty Images
And their alliance makes sense, Andrews said. Professional football didn’t exist yet, so the sport was intrinsically tied to communities at the high school and college level, which can foster fierce loyalties. School colors are often linked to football teams, and landmark events like homecoming are typically tied to a football game.
“Football is the sport around which communities revolve,” Andrew said. “This holiday in which we’re celebrating community, I think it makes sense that football would seamlessly fit into that culture.”
But that doesn’t mean everyone celebrated the shift.
In 1893, the New York Herald condemned the rise of football on Thanksgiving, arguing that the sport was ruining the holiday.
“Thanksgiving is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given,” the paper printed. “It is a holiday granted to the state and nation to see a game of football.”
NFL teams began playing on Thanksgiving to increase their popularity
At that point, football was still an amateur sport. When the NFL was founded in 1920, no one was really interested in professional football, Andrews said.
So, the league started scheduling games on Thanksgiving – drawing on pre-existing traditions to help establish the league into American consciousness. In the first decade, the NFL would schedule as many as six games on Thanksgiving, a far cry from the three games they schedule now. It was all an attempt to bring interest and notability to the sport, Andrews said.
A Detroit Lions football team photo from circa 1934. That year, the Lions began their annual Thanksgiving game tradition, which has continued to this day.Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images
“Of course they played on Thanksgiving, because by 1920 Thanksgiving meant football and football meant Thanksgiving,” Andrews said. “The NFL would’ve been missing a critical opportunity to popularize the game if they had not played on Thanksgiving day. It almost would’ve been un-American.”
And the strategy worked. The Detroit Lions, who play every year on Thanksgiving, first began that tradition in 1934 – done in an effort to increase their brand and put fans in the stands.
By the 1970s, Thanksgiving and NFL football were inseparable
Still, professional football hadn’t really exploded in popularity just yet. Baseball was still the most popular sport in the US. But by the 1960s, that had begun to shift, Andrews said.
It’s during that shift that the Dallas Cowboys, who also play every year on the holiday, started their Thanksgiving tradition. At the time, the Cowboys were a new team looking to build their brand and their fanbase. So in 1966, they began to host a Thanksgiving game, Andrews said, bringing instant exposure to the team.
By the 1970s, the Cowboys were the most famous football team in the US, and Thanksgiving and professional football were intrinsically linked. And still, per tradition, the Lions and the Cowboys continue to play every year on the holiday.
The Dallas Cowboys’ Bob Hayes, pictured in action against the Washington Commanders in Dallas on December 11, 1996.James Drake/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
But eventually, other teams complained, arguing that they didn’t “get a piece of that Thanksgiving pie,” Andrews said. As a result, in 2006, the NFL added a third Thanksgiving game to the lineup, featuring rotating teams.
And these Thanksgiving games are important to fans. Last year, the Thanksgiving matchup between the Raiders and the Cowboys was the fourth most-watched telecast of 2021, behind the Super Bowl and the AFC and NFC Championships. Aside from the presidential inauguration, the top-10 most watched telecasts were all NFL games.
“Right or wrong, football is a religion in this country,” Andrews said. “And so football on Thanksgiving is sacred.”