Thanksgiving and football go together this time of year as well as turkey and pumpkin pie (even if the latter is highly overrated!).
That’s especially true in Massachusetts where high school football games bring communities together amid long-standing rivalries as many a young gridiron athlete buckles up his helmet one last time.
Last week Patriots head coach Bill Belichick reminisced a bit about what the Thanksgiving holiday, and its connection to football, means to him.
“It’s always had a very strong association with our family,” Belichick recalled of growing up the son of a Navy scout. “The Army-Navy game was played the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That’s always the way it was, other than in 1963 when President [John F.] Kennedy got assassinated. Thanksgiving was Thursday, the trip to Philadelphia was Friday and the Army-Navy game was Saturday, and that’s the way I grew up. So, yeah, I’d say football was a pretty big part of it. We, in high school, always had a traditional Thanksgiving Day game, Annapolis-Severna Park. It was always good to beat the Falcons there.
“It was a great – like it is here in Massachusetts, a lot of Thanksgiving games that, you know, great for high school football and all that. I remember the Thanksgiving Day high school games. So, yeah, it’s always been a part of it. Certainly, when I was with the Lions and we had the two Thanksgiving games out there – the home games, my first, second and third year in the league, those were – that’s the ultimate Thanksgiving game. There’s really nothing like that, and the way the city supports that game and what it means to the Lions, and just that game in general. We played in it at the Patriots, played the Lions, so that really kind of put the exclamation point on that whole day.
“You know, Thanksgiving, turkey, football. But, yeah, very appreciative of all the things that come with Thanksgiving, but as they specifically relate to football, definitely the opportunity to participate and be a part of it, to watch the other games that are played then and the camaraderie that it brings, just even family sitting around watching a game. If it’s not your game, or you don’t have a specific rooting interest necessarily in the game, just being together with your family and friends, that time of year.”
Given the obvious ties between football and Thanksgiving, it only seemed appropriated during this time of giving thanks to look at some of many things that fans of Patriot Nation have to be grateful for this 2019 holiday season.
1 – Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s never-ending hunger: No, we’re not talking about a love for turkey, sides or pie. This is the hunger to work, hunger to compete and hunger to win. For two decades the duo has led New England to the heights of football greatness, competing for a Super Bowl basically every season. The next big thing comes along each fall – the Rams, Chiefs or Ravens – yet Brady and Belichick remain chugging along together toward trophies. If there is an outside chance that this is the Hall of Fame pair’s last season together, sit back and enjoy at least one last ride.
2 – Stephon Gilmore: New England’s No. 1, shutdown cornerback is Da Man around whom the Patriots’ elite defense is built. Gilmore has grown into a versatile, dominant coverman quite worthy of the No. 24 jersey he dons each week before shutting down his competition. He’s also evolved as a whisper-quiet personality who generally lets his play do his talking, but of late has been an entertaining postgame quote, if you are close enough to his lips to actually hear it.
3 – Dante Scarnecchia: The offensive line has clearly had its issues this season that have been detrimental to the production of the Patriots’ offense. Of course it’s been soooooo bad, that the team is 10-1, on pace for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Scarnecchia lost his center and captain, David Andrews, before the season began. He then lost starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn in Week 2, having to replace him with a journeyman veteran signed off the street. This all came after a summer filled with retirements and failed trade additions that cut into the group’s depth. The line hasn’t been great, but the great coach Scarnecchia has kept it from being a fatal flaw.
4 – Julian Edelman: The receiver position has been a rotating corps of problems, injuries and inconsistency…other than the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Edelman has battled chest and shoulder injuries that have clearly limited him physically, but the gritty veteran hasn’t allowed it to really limit his go-to production. Even as the only legit option at receiver/tight end at times, Edelman continues to find ways to get open and catch the ball. His contributions this season have been immense and immensely impressive.
5 – The Boogeymen: Whether you like the nickname or not, New England’s versatile, veteran linebackers have indeed instilled fear in opposing offenses this fall. Jamie Collins’ return to the Patriots has been better than anyone could have imagined. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy continue to evolve in their multi-faceted roles. The Boogeymen have been the real deal.
6 – Jake Bailey: An elite team like the Patriots usually doesn’t lean on a rookie punter, but the way things have played out Bailey has been a key cog in New England’s winning formula. The fifth-round pick has taken home two AFC Special Teams Player of the Week awards as one of the more active punters in the NFL due to some of the team’s offensive issues. Bailey has also done a nice job on kickoffs since Stephen Gostkowski’s injury.
7 – Devin McCourty: There was plenty of talk last winter that McCourty might consider retirement following the Super Bowl. Not only did the veteran not walk away from football, but he returned to the Patriots to put forth one of his best seasons. From his five interceptions to his play-saving, chase-down tackles, McCourty has shown no sign of slowing down in his 10th NFL season. I guess Bill Parcells was wrong, when you are thinking about retirement apparently you are just preparing to return to play at an extremely high level.
8 – James White: Year in and year out White just goes about his business as one of the best pass-catching running backs in the game. Need a field-flipping screen pass executed to perfection? White’s your guy. Need a wheel route down the field, beating a Pro Bowl veteran safety on a back-shoulder throw? Look no further than White. The Patriots have a long history of reliable pass-catching running backs, but White has taken the role to the next level the last few years.
9 – Lawrence Guy: There may not be a more underappreciated Patriots player over the last few years than Guy. He’s been a mainstay on the front, living up the to the Do Your Job mantra. He’s also developed into an obvious leader in the locker room with a unique style and personality. This Guy is far more than just a guy.
10 – Matthew Slater: Slater is the do-it-all leader of the special teams and THE voice of the locker room. Another aging veteran who many thought might be at the end of the line, Slater has blocked a punt, returned one for a touchdown and continues to down punts among the best in the NFL. His postgame comments to the team have become a thing of legend, while he’s the guy who meets with the media when the Patriots make a controversial signing like Antonio Brown. As a leader, Slater is a proven rock in the New England locker room, more impressive than even the Plymouth Rock.
11 – Josh McDaniels: Some offensive coordinators force their scheme, style and philosophies on their talent. McDaniels continues to prove that he can meld what he wants to achieve with the talent he has to work with. His weapons have been in a state of flux all season. His running game has been non-existent. It hasn’t always been pretty –and he’s needed to turn to things like no-huddle tempo and double passes – but McDaniels has pulled it together just enough on offense to win at as high a rate as any team in the NFL. That’s his job.
12 – Joe Judge: Many are well aware of Judge’s role overseeing a special teams unit that’s made major contributions to victory. Without stability at kicker and lacking many options in the return game, Judge’s group has still been a clear net positive in its impact. Even if that’s all Judge did, it would be worthy of note. But, he’s also in his first year as the Patriots wide receivers coach. The group has seen Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown come and go. Mohamed Sanu was a mid-season arrival. N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers have had to be brought up to Brady’s high standards. Somewhat appropriately as we hit Thanksgiving, Judge has had a ton on his plate this fall and been able to digest it all quite capably. The way his punt block and kickoff teams out schemed the overmatched Cowboys last Sunday was just the latest, most obvious example of his hard work paying off for the Patriots.
13 – John Simon: The veteran edge player generally flies under the radar. Collins, Hightower and Van Noy get far more attention. But it seems every game that Simon makes at least a play or two that deserve a little extra attention. Simon has three sacks, four QB hits, an interception, four passes defensed, a forced fumble and is a regular contributor on special teams. All this from guy who even passionate Patriots fans might be slow to acknowledge.