Football, Sports, WVU Sports

COLUMN: Thanksgiving week is a special time for football players

MORGANTOWN — For most of us, Thanksgiving is all about the food. We get together with our families and eat generous helpings of our favorite holiday staples. Then we might finish the day off by watching an NFL game or two — this year has an intriguing division matchup between the Cowboys and Giants at 4:30 p.m. — before falling asleep on the couch or some other similarly comfortable place.

For college football players, most of them are away from home and won’t see their families, and it won’t fully be a time for relaxation as they prepare for the regular-season finale on Saturday.

“This is a really tough week for young football players,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “The season’s long and this is the first major holiday they haven’t been at home.”

“It’s not just Thanksgiving, it’s always tough being away from your family,” linebacker Lee Kpogba said. “Being a college athlete, you’re not around your family really the entire year.”

Even so, WVU coaches and players look at Thanksgiving week as a fun time.

“This is a good week of the year,” Brown said. “We don’t have any classes in session so it’s football and eating. Especially for the big guys, it’s a good week for them.”

The lack of classes is especially enticing for the student-athletes, who get to feel a bit like professionals as they focus only on football for a few days.

“Personally I like it a little bit more,” guard Doug Nester said. “There are no classes, you focus on straight football. It’s pretty much like being a professional this week. You get to work out, watch a lot more film, practice and just get your body ready.”

Saturday at Oklahoma State (noon, ESPN2) will the Mountaineers’ final game of the season, with no bowl game on the horizon.

“This is our last game. We don’t like it, but it is what it is,” Brown said. “I think this week is about gratitude in a lot of different things and we’re thankful for the opportunity to finish the season on the right note. We’ll make it a good week and a fun week for the guys and I fully expect us to go out and play hard and give ourselves a chance to win.”

Football and Thanksgiving go hand-in-hand in America and WVU’s coaches have plenty of memories to share from over the years.

“My dad was a high school football coach so in Texas when you practice on Thanksgiving, you know you’ve made a run in the playoffs,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “That’s what I remember from growing up because we had some pretty good teams. Practicing early and going home for Thanksgiving and watching the (Dallas) Cowboys. There’s nothing more American than watching the Cowboys and eating Thanksgiving dinner, right?”

“As a coach, you always remember the losses, even as a player,” Brown said. “We lost the (Kentucky) state semifinals my junior year (of high school) the day after Thanksgiving and I still remember that … I got tackled on a cleat-cleaner and so I’ve got all these scars (on my arm) from a damn cleat-cleaner the day after Thanksgiving.”

As for favorite foods, Nester and Kpogba both said stuffing, but Brown had an unexpected answer.

“My mom, which comes from my grandmother’s recipe, makes a squash casserole,” Brown revealed. “It’s a little bit of a different dish, but I’m a big fan.”

It’s almost fitting that WVU’s final game of the season is preceded by a holiday like Thanksgiving. It turns what might otherwise be a sad affair into more of a celebration.

“I think Thanksgiving and football have kind of been tied together at this point,” Harrell said. “I always thought this was an awesome week, a great week to play football.”

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