Thanksgiving is only a few days away, and soon UW students everywhere will be returning home to their families to participate in the United States’ oldest tradition. The first official U.S. tradition associates the holiday with a meal held in 1621 by the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Mass. This tradition continues in modern times with a turkey dinner, the key element of the celebration.While many details of the American Thanksgiving story are myths that developed in the early 1900s as part of the effort to restore the national identity following the Civil War, no one disputes the date that the first NFL Thanksgiving Day game was played.In 1876, the Intercollegiate Football Association held its championship on Thanksgiving Day, and by 1893 football had officially become a holiday tradition. The New York Herald went so far as to declare it the official holiday for watching football.The NFL played its first Thanksgiving Day game in 1920, when the Akron Pros defeated the Canton Bulldogs 7-0. Featured in the game were Fritz Pollard, the NFL’s first African-American quarterback and Native American star Jim Thorpe.But it was not until the Green Bay Packers took on the Detroit Lions in 1950 that the NFL Thanksgiving Day game really became a national pastime. The two teams would continue to play each other every year until 1963.Since that famous day in 1920, Thanksgiving has emerged as a national football holiday with a side of turkey and stuffing. Thanksgiving is so intertwined with sports that people get worked up to watch the Cowboys and the Lions (yes, the Lions) each year.So why does it work so well? How has a holiday so far removed from the world of sports been defined by the NFL for the last 86 years?TraditionThanksgiving is a tradition that no one can really seem to explain. There are many conflicting reports of when the first Thanksgiving celebration took place, and how the holiday has emerged a pumpkin-pie eating, beer-drinking family reunion will never be explained.Similarly, try and find out why the Cowboys and Lions play on Thanksgiving each year. Beginning in 1966, Dallas has missed playing on Turkey Day only in 1975 and 1977, while a Detroit team has played in the game every year with the exception of a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944.Despite the Cowboys’ and Lions’ standing as disappointing teams in recent years, they continue to play a different opponent every season on Turkey Day. The reason is tradition. I think most football fans would prefer to watch the best teams each year — the Colts and Bears would certainly be appealing this year — but when the fourth Thursday of November rolls around, you’re going to eat turkey even if you have a shot at the finest piece of steak.StuffingWhen a holiday is predicated on stuffing your face until you physically can’t move, it’s no surprise that football somehow became associated with it. No one can just sit in a Barcalounger and watch a game without some tortilla chips or brats to keep themselves busy, and as long as people are watching sports, there will always be a market for kegs and 30-packs.You probably won’t find turkey being grilled at your average tailgate, but when Thanksgiving rolls around it seems like everyone is doing a Fred Flintstone imitation with a drum stick in one hand and a remote control in the other. No NFL game is complete without some form of fatty meat or alcoholic beverage, and the same goes for Thanksgiving.Family ReunionFor some, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to reunite with extended family members who you have been dying to see since last November. For most, however, Thanksgiving is the time of year where you’re forced to tell your family everything that is going on in your life, while you wonder if it’s too early to leave the table and check the score in the game.And that is precisely why NFL games need to be played on Thanksgiving Day. No matter how many times your grandmother tells you your hair is too long or that you don’t call her enough, you can take solace in the fact that soon enough you will be able to watch some football.Who’s playing in the game doesn’t really matter, and neither does the score. All that matters is that for a few hours you can watch football with your wacky uncle instead of being grilled by that annoying aunt.We all love our families, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend an entire day with them.TurduckenJohn Madden has accomplished a lot in his illustrious football career. As coach for the Oakland Raiders, Madden won seven AFC West Titles, as well as Super Bowl XI. As an announcer Madden has won 14 Sports Emmy Awards — but perhaps his greatest contribution to the NFL is turducken.For those of you who are unfamiliar with the unusual poultry dish, turducken is a de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck, which is stuffed with a small de-boned chicken. The cavity of the chicken and the rest of the gaps are filled with breadcrumb mixtures or sausage meat.If that isn’t a meal made for 300-pound linemen, then I don’t know what is.So how has exactly has Madden helped to integrate football and Thanksgiving, you ask? Well, while working the annual Thanksgiving Day games for CBS and later FOX, Madden would award a turducken to players of the winning team, knowing they were unable to attend their families’ feasts.Unfortunately, Madden has moved on to the Sunday night broadcast, leaving the turducken tradition out of football for the last few seasons. Nevertheless, Madden’s turducken remains a long-standing Thanksgiving tradition that will forever be linked to the National Football League.Today, the NFL is the largest and most popular professional sports league in the United States. Super Bowl Sunday has become a national holiday all by itself, with fans holding all-day tailgates as the entire country anxiously awaits the big game.Then there is Thanksgiving — a national holiday where we are supposed to give thanks for everything great in our lives. Health and happiness are always on my list, but Thanksgiving Day football is always on the top.Andrew is a junior majoring in journalism. For more information on NFL Thanksgiving Day games contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.