Practice becoming a Thanksgiving tradition for Gwinnett prep football teams

Norcross’ Josh Boyd (9) finds running room during the game last week against Brookwood. (Photo: Craig Cappy)

Norcross’ Josh Boyd (9) finds running room during the game last week against Brookwood. (Photo: Craig Cappy)

Like most Americans, Gwinnett County’s high school football players and coaches have their traditions for Thanksgiving Day.

Turkey and all the trimmings? Check.

Spending time with family and friends? Check.

Maybe a football game on television as time allows? Check.

But for five area teams, at least part of Thanksgiving Day will also be spent on the field preparing for their respective quarterfinal games in the state playoffs.

For most of those five programs, some sort of practice has become its own Thanksgiving tradition.

“It’s something to be thankful for,” said Buford head coach Jess Simpson, whose Wolves (12-0 and ranked No. in Class AAA) will be practicing on Thanksgiving for the 15th consecutive season, and 17th in the last 19, as they prepare for Friday night’s game against Carver-Columbus at Tom Riden Stadium. “And it’s not just playing. It’s also practicing and just being together and being around each other for Thanksgiving.”

The sacrifices for preparing for a game during Thanksgiving are many — most notably, it pretty much rules out any chance to travel out of town to visit family members.

But as Norcross coach Keith Maloof pointed out, the reward of being one of only a handful of teams still playing for a chance at a state championship is the reward that trumps all the sacrifices.

“It’s expected,” said Maloof, whose third-ranked Blue Devils (10-2) will continue their defense of last year’s Class AAAAAA state crown by hosting Lowndes in a quarterfinal game Friday. “(The players) have known since Day 1 this is what we wanted to do.”

And the adjustments and sacrifices go even beyond just Thanksgiving Day.

With school not in session, the entire week’s practice schedule undergoes some sort of alteration, and different coaches have different philosophies with regards to just how drastic those changes are.

Some, like Simpson and Maloof, like to bring the players in and get them on and off the practice field early each day, and then give him the rest of the day off.

“We practice at 7:45 a.m.,” Maloof said. “We’re usually done by 9:30 a.m. Then they have a film session. The kids are usually out by 12 (noon).”

Others, like North Gwinnett’s Bob Sphire and Collins Hill’s Kevin Reach prefer a different approach, opting to keep practice times as close to what they would be during a normal week as possible.

“We are not changing anything,” said Reach, whose No. 6 Eagles (11-1) play host to McEachern for a Class AAAAAA quarterfinal game Friday. “We’ll go early on Thursday because it’s Thanksgiving, but other than that, we are keeping them right on schedule,”

Still, Sphire admits that there are advantages to having the extra time during the day with school being out all week.

“We don’t want to change the routine too much,” said Sphire, whose fourth-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) travel to Hillgrove for a Class AAAAAA quarterfinal game Friday. “But it’s really nice to be able to work later (on Sunday night) and then you don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to get all the normal work done before school the next day. You have the ability to focus more on football and get more work done.”

The differences in philosophy carry over to the Thanksgiving Day schedule.

As is the case with the rest of the week, Buford, Collins Hill, Dacula and Norcross prefer to get their work in early.

“We have our usual hour and 15 minute walk through from about 9 (a.m.) to 10:15,” Simpson said. “At the end of that, we circle up at the ‘B’ (at midfield on the practice field) and have a moment of thanksgiving before we break up for a few meetings, and then we give them the rest of the day. It’s a tradition that goes back to when I first got to Buford (as an assistant to former coach, and current Buford athletics director, Dexter Wood) in 1995. It’s part routine and part tradition.

“I guess it’s what you and your family get used to as coaches. And the parents know what to expect. They know the kids have to be here early, but they get them the rest of the day.”

Dacula (8-4), which welcomes No. 5 Colquitt County to Barron Stadium for the other Class AAAAAA state quarterfinal, has a similar schedule.

“Thursday is generally more of preparation, mental walk-through day,” Falcons coach Tommy Jones said. “We will practice early in the morning. We are going to serve them breakfast, have a devotion and walk-through. Then they’ll be able to go through their day as they normally would.

“I think it’s important they are able to spend some good time with their family as well. I think it helps them play well, too.”

By contrast, Sphire prefers to give his players the early part of the day to spend with their families and eat some turkey before getting back to into preparation mode later in the day.

“We go earlier in the day on Wednesday, and then give them the rest of Wednesday and (most) off Thursday off until 6 p.m.,” Sphire said. “Then, we (practice) under the lights. It gives them a block of time from Wednesday afternoon and all of Wednesday evening, and then they’re able to get out with their families at around 1 o’clock or so (Thursday) before they come in.

“Now, at that point, we’re trying to work the turkey off and get ready to go and get refocused on football.”