Whether it’s bragging rights, the chance to carve the bird or first dibs on the pumpkin pie that’s on the line, odds are you want to do the opposite of the Detroit Lions and actually win your Thanksgiving football game.
However, unless you’re a member of the American Flag Football League (AFFL) or a coach down at your local Boys and Girls Club, you probably haven’t had the pleasure of placing your paws on a pigskin since tossing one around at the beach this summer.
So, how do you ensure you don’t end up on the short end of the drumstick?
To answer that question, we reached out to cornerback Stephon Gilmore of the New England Patriots, running back Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers, offensive lineman Justin Pugh of the Arizona Cardinals and AFFL founder Jeff Lewis.
1. Make sure you are dressed for the elements
This doesn’t mean you need to go shopping for a new wardrobe, but remember you are playing football, not watching it. “Before cold-weather games, I usually make sure I have on the right gear so I’m not as cold once I’m on the field,” Gilmore says. “I usually wear long sleeves before the game. And I put this hot cream on my legs to make sure they stay warm and put tights on top of them just to have that extra comfort so I’m not as cold on the field.”
Pugh has a more relaxed approach: “Don’t go out to your local sporting goods store and get every sleeve and wristband,” he says. “Just wear your favorite team’s shirt and call it a day.”
2. Get the blood flowing before you take the field
“Make sure you get a good warm-up in,” Gilmore says. “Run a couple of hard sprints before you get out there and play.” But make sure those sprints aren’t coming from a standstill. “The best way to not pull a muscle – truly – is to not sprint from a standing start ever,” Lewis adds.
Pugh concurs: “The older you get the more stretching you need to do. You will get made fun of but do a short stretch and a jog routine to warm up.”
3. Choose your quarterback wisely
Not everyone was made to play in the pocket. “It’s a lot of pressure playing quarterback. So not everybody wants to play it,” Gordon says. Age also plays a factor. “Whoever has the best arm gets to play,” Pugh says. “But usually, the oldest gets first dibs.”
If you end up back there, remember that the best receiver is the open receiver. “Spread the ball around,” Pugh says. “Everyone gives more effort if they think they’re doing their fair share. However, if the game is on the line, find the mismatch and go to your best player.”
4. When in doubt, chuck it downfield
The consensus opinion is that pass plays, not runs, are the way to go when it is fourth and got-to-have-it. “Go deep,” Pugh says. “Never fails.” Growing up playing in the street in Wisconsin, Gordon and his buddies had a similar mantra. “It was a freestyle thing, but it was always the go route,” he says. “When in doubt, run straight and throw it in there.”
Gilmore adds: “I would say throwing the ball is better because running, unless you have someone super fast, you probably won’t get down the field as much.”
5. Have your hands and eyes ready when catching a pass
When you are running a route, make sure your hands are visible and at the ready. “Catch the ball in your hands – not against your body,” Lewis says. “The harder the ball is thrown the more important it is to not let it get to your body.”
Though he’s not really a pass-catcher, Pugh has a similar strategy. “Always high point the ball and attack it with your hands,” he says. “Go up and get it.”
Make sure your eyes are ready for action too. “Just look it all the way in,” Gordon adds. “You don’t have to worry about being tackled, so be more aware of catching the ball and looking it in.”
6. On defense, G.T.F.B. and keep it simple
Bill Belichick is known to use that acronym when coaching his defensive backs to get the fuck back to avoid giving up big plays. It’s something to bear in mind on Thanksgiving.
“Coaching in Turkey Bowls we say the same thing on defense every play: keep the play in front of you,” Lewis says. “We will only lose if they make big plays over the top. Of course, the kids don’t listen and the other team invariably gets a lot of big plays over the top. Nobody is patient in a Turkey Bowl — they are going to want the big glorious play.”
Another way to prevent the big play is by not overcomplicating things. “Play man-to-man defense with your best athlete at safety,” Pugh says. “Don’t try to get fancy and run that Cover 2 you learned playing Madden or heard a commentator talk about.”
7. Get in the heads of your opponents
“As we learned in Little Giants, it’s all about intimidation,” Pugh says. “Talk some smack — no swinging foreign objects at each other — and have fun.”