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Monday, January 18, 2021

Turkey or Pigskin?: How the Gators are spending their Thanksgiving during COVID-19

<p>Gators kicker Evan McPherson said that holidays away from home is one of the sacrifices he makes to play Division I football at UF.</p>

Gators kicker Evan McPherson said that holidays away from home is one of the sacrifices he makes to play Division I football at UF.

How do you like your turkey: oven-cooked, fried or served up nice and hot with a little pigskin on the side?

Football and Thanksgiving go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Thanksgiving weekend is usually when UF and FSU get together for the historic Sunshine Showdown. For the first time since 1958, the two teams won’t duke it out on the gridiron.

Instead, the Gators will play the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

A midweek holiday during the season always makes it difficult for players to go home and visit their families. Thursday meal, Friday walk-throughs and Saturday kickoff does not make for an ideal Turkey Day recipe.

Now, throw a pandemic into the mix.

Usually, coaches invite players into their homes for Thanksgiving dinner if they’re unable to go home themselves, said Gators kicker Evan McPherson. But this year, with COVID-19 cases on the steady incline, that’s not an option.

“I haven’t gone home the past two years,” the Fort Payne, Alabama, native said. “I kind of just tag along with my roommates. They’ve been good to let me kind of just go home and spend time with their families.”

This year, the team will hold their own Thanksgiving Day celebration, similar to their Friday night dinners at the team hotel before games. While the athletes aren’t forbidden from visiting their families this week, the program is encouraging players to be conscious of their surroundings and be respectful of their teammates. 

“We’re trying to be on the safe side,” McPherson said. “I think (the organization will) handle it well and kind of make it feel like a, as much of a family dinner as possible.”

Since the program-wide outbreak in October, the Gators managed to keep COVID-19 at bay. In its final testing update, the University Athletic Association reported 37 total positive test results within the football team. As of Nov. 23, however, the UAA has reported just one positive for UF football this month.

With three more regular season games (Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU) before the Gators likely SEC Championship berth, it’s safe to say they’d like to maintain a clear bill of health through the end of the 2020 season.

“Even though I'm not there, you know, I’ll FaceTime my family while they're about to eat and stuff, so I still say like I get to talk to him a lot the day of and, it’s not like I'm too homesick about it,” McPherson said. With this being his third Thanksgiving away from home, McPherson has his virtual traditions down pat. He’ll call his family, and they’ll pass the phone around so he can say “hi” to all of his aunts, uncles and cousins, McPherson said. He’ll tell them he misses them and that he wishes he could be there.

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Gators linebacker Ventrell Miller said he plans on staying in Gainesville for the holiday. His family will travel from Lakeland, Florida, to The Swamp for UF’s game this weekend. They might bring some leftovers, Miller said.

On Thursday, though, the redshirt junior will be sure to call home, comparing his hotel cuisine with their homemade holiday menu. 

“Yeah, probably give them a call, see what they're eating,” he said. “Hopefully what I'm eating is as good as what they're eating.”

Spending the holidays away from home is just one of the many sacrifices Division I athletes have to make to play at such a high level, McPherson said. Being socially confined, for the most part, to hanging out with each other during the pandemic has brought the players closer together, he said.

“I feel like everybody’s super comfortable with each person,” McPherson said about the team’s chemistry. “I think, definitely with COVID and having to stay within our cells and within our groups, like, that definitely helped our relationships on the team.”

Contact Payton Titus at ptitus@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @petitus25.

Gators kicker Evan McPherson said that holidays away from home is one of the sacrifices he makes to play Division I football at UF.

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