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Touchdowns and turkeys: Former NFL players explain how it feels to play in league’s Thanksgiving Day games

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When you think of Thanksgiving Day football, what comes to mind? The “Butt Fumble”? Barry Sanders slicing and dicing through defenses for the Lions? Randy Moss getting his revenge on the Cowboys as a rookie after they took a pass on the future NFL Hall of Famer in the NFL Draft?

Every football fan has their Thanksgiving Day memories when it comes to the NFL; ones that pop up in their brains anytime they see turkey, mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce on their plates on the fourth Thursday of November.

But, while many have experienced Thanksgiving Day games from the comfort of their couches on their big-screen TVs, others have watched those games land on their team’s schedule as a player in the league, spending their holiday on the field with the country’s eyes focused on them.

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“A dream come true.”

One team whose players can always count on being booked when it comes to the Thanksgiving Day slate is the Dallas Cowboys. America’s Team will play in their 52nd Thanksgiving game when the 2019 installment rolls around, this time taking on the Buffalo Bills in the middle game on the holiday schedule.

Jason Bell, a former NFL defensive back, spent time with numerous teams throughout his tenure in the league, but got his start as a member of the Cowboys after being signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2001 NFL Draft.

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While many may feel like they got the short end of the stick if their team ends up playing on Thanksgiving Day, Bell said he relished the opportunity to shine when the lights were at their brightest.

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“I was just so excited because I knew the whole country was watching, because that’s what I was doing as a fan,” Bell said. “So, I knew everybody was watching me in this game, and that’s fascinating. I just remember it felt like I was in a big-time playoff game. Everybody was focused on you.”

Former NFL wide receiver Jacoby Ford was on the other end of the spectacle when it came to the holiday, getting the chance to play against the Cowboys as a member of the Oakland Raiders in his lone Thanksgiving Day experience during his career.

For an added bonus, Ford helped to break in Dallas’ new stadium in the process, playing in the venue’s first Thanksgiving Day game.

“A Thanksgiving game was something I always looked forward to,” Ford said. “Just growing up and being able to watch football on Thanksgiving is something I always loved to do, so to actually be able to do it one year against the Cowboys at the Cowboys’ new stadium, that was a dream come true for me.” 

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“Stick to your preparation.”

Anyone that’s been in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day knows how important it is to have a routine when it comes to preparing your family’s feast. An NFL team’s work before a game is no different, no matter if the game is on a Thursday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, it may be easy to get blinded by the bright lights and the magnitude of the game. But, while the game may feel like a postseason battle due to its national nature, the week usually just serves as the start of the third quarter of the NFL season, with teams settling in for the home stretch of their year.

“Preparing for it, it’s another game,” Bell said. “You don’t change what you do because of the date the game’s on. You stick to your preparation.”

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That preparation, however, isn’t uncharted territory for a team like the Cowboys, who have the week as a part of their usual calendar every year. For Bell, it gave him ease of mind to know that his team had the whole situation under control well in advance.

“Remember, I went to Dallas where this is what they did,” Bell said. “This wasn’t new to them. So, I tapped into a structure that was already in place: this is how they did it, this is how they handled it. So, it was very smooth for me. If I would’ve been on another team where that wasn’t what they did, it might have been different.”

Ford’s Raiders weren’t exactly regulars when it came to the league’s yearly Thanksgiving Day slate, but mentioned that the only real differences he saw as it related to the week came after the fact.

“You treat it as a regular game unfortunately, so it’s not really Thanksgiving until pretty much after the game,” Ford said. “After the game, I would probably go back to Oakland, and then try to shoot home for Thanksgiving.”

When the final whistle blows and players clear out of the locker rooms, they scramble to meet their families for dinner in various parts of the country, or they’re able to gather with teammates locally for their own Thanksgiving Day meal, instead.

While it may seem like a lot to handle or a burden for some, Bell said the experience is something that athletes become accustomed to at a young age.

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“I think in sports in general, especially in football, you’re used to it,” Bell said. “In college, sometimes you’re playing in bowl games on Christmas. I remember playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Everything’s going on and I’m in the room asleep. You’re used to not having to live the normal life as far as these holidays are concerned.”

“But on the flip side, you’re having the most fun because you get to do something that everybody’s watching.”

Jacoby Ford Raiders Cowboys

“What else do you want?”

So, what’s the verdict? Are there more positives than negatives when it comes to playing on Thanksgiving Day? Is it a 50/50 split? Would you rather not see Thanksgiving Day pop up on your team’s itinerary when the schedule drops in April?

For Ford, no negatives came to mind when asked about the game, although he may have wished the 31-24 final score was flipped in the Raiders’ favor during that 2013 battle with the Cowboys.

“For one, playing against the Cowboys; two, playing in that stadium; and three, just fulfilling a dream I had as a child,” Ford said. “I was just thankful that my parents actually got to see me play on Thanksgiving and just to see me on TV. It was awesome for me.”

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In Bell’s case, it was an easy decision when it came time to give his final answer.

“100 percent positive,” Bell said quickly and strongly. “Hands down. You gotta realize, as a player, you’re at the highest stage as far as the NFL is concerned. Cool. I’m on the Dallas Cowboys, or you’re playing against the Dallas Cowboys. Great. And the country is watching. What else do you want? I mean, why else do you play the game? You play it to be in the big stage.”

“Why does everybody want to get to the Super Bowl? Yeah, you want to win the trophy, but it’s the experience,” Bell continued. “I mean, the world is watching. You’re a performer. Why wouldn’t you want to have the opportunity to perform in front of everybody? It’s the best, it’s great.”

Have a great Thanksgiving! If you liked the story, let us know on social media by following @SOTSports on Twitter and by liking our Facebook page!

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