How New Jersey Kicked Off Thanksgiving’s Football Tradition

Princeton University was the site of the first holiday game 150 years ago.

This 1876 print by Everett Henry depicts the Thanksgiving Day game between Yale and Princeton that was played at St. George Cricket field in Hoboken. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Thanksgiving is a time to reunite with family over food. Princeton University helped add a third F—football—to the holiday nearly 150 years ago.

Princeton and Yale universities squared off in Hoboken on November 30, 1876, for the first college football game on Thanksgiving, 13 years after President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving.

Jerry Price, historian for athletics at Princeton, describes the matchup as rugby football, a first for the school’s team. It marked a change from association football, whose rules were closer to soccer, which Princeton and Rutgers played in the first college football game in November 1869.

The switch to rugby football also meant a change from a round ball to an oval one. One referee and two umpires served as game officials.
Each team fielded 15 men, who competed without protective equipment, such as helmets. 

Playing conditions at St. George’s Cricket Grounds were rough on the players. “[T]he ground was so hard that terrific thumps and bruises were the rule and not the exception,” the New York Daily Herald reported.

Before a crowd of roughly 1,000 fans, Yale defeated Princeton 2-0. Yale’s goals were scored by kicking the ball through the crossbars, Price says. The game also featured a fashion first for Princeton’s players. “They wore black jerseys with an orange P and black tights,” Price notes.

Princeton-Yale games grew in popularity. By 1893, about 40,000 fans attended the Thanksgiving game and saw Princeton win 6-0 to cap off an undefeated season. That would be the final holiday game, as Yale faculty members objected to their team playing on Thanksgiving.

The holiday tradition continues in New Jersey. Millville and Vineland high schools held their first Thanksgiving game in 1893 and this year will renew their rivalry, the state’s longest.

The advent of the football playoff system means fewer holiday contests, notes Dave LaGamba, Millville’s athletic director. “The drive to get a true state champion means the playoffs start earlier and earlier,” he adds, leading some schools to drop holiday games. 

Some schools opt to keep the custom. “There are 28 Thanksgiving games scheduled during the upcoming season,” says Colleen Maguire, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. 

“We’re looking to continue playing on Thanksgiving,” LaGamba says.

The same goes for Phillipsburg, which will play Easton at Lafayette College’s Fisher Stadium on Thanksgiving in the 115th meeting between the schools.

Be it a high school or an NFL game, a pigskin appetizer will precede the main course of turkey for many fans.  

Tom Wilk lives in Pitman, which plays Clayton on Thanksgiving.

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