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A thankful time to work
Practice on holiday a reward for football teams still in search of title

From the many college and pro games available on television to the two-hand touch game in the backyard, football is as big a Thanksgiving Day tradition as the usual feast with family and friends.

While many folks around Gwinnett County will be gathered around the tube or out in the yard awaiting the turkey to come out of the oven today, a select few high school players and coaches will be out on the field grinding away, practicing football rather than watching.

And they wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's a goal we set back in August to be practicing this week," said Wesleyan coach Franklin Pridgen, whose Wolves will be conducting a Thanksgiving Day practice today for the first time in five years in preparation for their Class A state quarterfinal game at Miller County on Friday. "It's really special to be practicing on that day when we have so much to be thankful for."

A Thanksgiving practice always means a deep run in the state playoffs, and this year is no different, with the quarterfinal round in all classifications set for Friday.

This year, Wesleyan and four other Gwinnett teams - Buford, Grayson, North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge - have earned the right to still be working with the pigskin on Turkey Day.

Most players and families - especially those in traditionally strong programs - are prepared for the inconvenience a practice may mean for getting together with family on Thanksgiving.

However, some coaches still have to issue a reminder about how much of a privilege practicing on Thanksgiving Day is.

"I got an e-mail from a mother of one of our younger players and she was like, 'I had no idea there would be practice on Thanksgiving Day,'" North coach Bob Sphire said. "I wrote her back saying, 'Ma'am, we talk about this each year when we come back in January. We have to be practicing on Thanksgiving if we want to win a championship.'"

While the coaches of Gwinnett's teams that are still alive agree that practicing on Thanksgiving is a good thing, exactly how and when those practices should be conducted still presents somewhat of a quandary.

With school being out most of the week - or in Buford's case, the entire week - the normal routine of after-school practice has been disrupted even before today.

There are differing schools of thought as to the best time to practice on Thanksgiving, and throughout the rest of the week.

Buford and Wesleyan will hold practices early this morning, which should all be completed in plenty of time for the players to get back to their families for Thanksgiving dinner.

"Since I've been a high school coach, and even when I was playing in college, we always liked to get our work done early and have the rest of the day to be with our families," said Buford coach Jess Simpson, whose top-ranked Wolves (12-0) are used to practicing on Thanksgiving, having missed doing so only once in the last decade. "I just hope we don't eat too much. At this point, I don't think anyone on our team looks at it as a sacrifice. It's a reward (for a strong season)."

Sphire, meanwhile, has a different philosophy. His Bulldogs had an early practice Wednesday, and won't meet today until 6 p.m. - after the players have had an early dinner with their families.

"It's a better block of time to spend with their families," Sphire said. "And to be honest, I want to get some Thanksgiving dinner out of their systems. I've done it the other way before, and I thought the guys were really sluggish on Friday when we did. I want to get back into the football flow and get the tryptophan out of their behinds."

SideBar: Football playoffs

STATE

QUARTERFINALS

Friday's Games

Class AAAAA

· Coffee at Peachtree Ridge

· Lowndes at Grayson

· North Gwinnett at Newnan

Class AA

· Dublin at Buford

Class A

· Wesleyan at Miller County