This Thanksgiving, as we celebrate pigskin feats instead of pilgrims feasts, talk about personal fouls instead of hunting fowl, and the hybrid turducken tries to usurp the traditional turkey, it may start to feel like the NFL actually owns the holiday ... but I promise you, it doesn't. The NFL has no binding contract with the Mayflower's ancestors to lay official claim to this particular day. We, the people, own it -- which is why Thanksgiving pick-up football games are just as much of an American tradition as the annual pro game in Detroit.
In towns across the country before the NFL games kick off, high school buddies, families and entire neighborhoods show up at local fields for their own games of pick-up ball. Some teams are set in stone every year, while others use a captain system or simply divide up the teams along the lines of what would be the fairest match-up (our game is always old guys v. young guys, with the age cut-off shifting depending on who shows up).
To this end, what if you were elected coach of the ultimate Turkey Day football team, and rather than having to pick from your group of friends, you got to pick any professional athlete to play on your team? Who would you pick? Of course, there are a few rules:
1) You can't choose a current or former NFL player (they already have a league to play in).
2) You can only choose two guys from any one sport (you can't just take the Miami Heat as your squad).
3) Despite everyone playing both ways in traditional pick-up games, it's more fun to pick an offense and a defense, so you can.
4) It's two-hand-touch football, with only one designated lineman on each side. The defensive lineman has to count to "Five Mississippi" before rushing.
We look forward to seeing some of your squads. Here's ours:
6-5, 200 pounds.
NFL quarterback is often thought of as the toughest position in sports. Since no actual QBs are available, I'd take Verlander here. He's clutch, so he won't get flustered; he's tall, so he can get a good view of the field; and since he has the fastest man on earth as one of his receivers, having a cannon for an arm (a 101mph fastball has to equal being able to throw an 80-yard bomb) will help him out-throw any coverage the defense puts up. Verlander also works hard on his agility off the mound with the Tigers' strength and conditioning staff, so he should be able to evade a rushing defender long enough to unload his cannon of an arm.
Note: Some street football games allow the QB to run only if he's blitzed. Others don't allow him to run at all. Others don't care. Basically, it's up to the guys playing. If your game tends to be more of a QB
running/scrambling-type game, you might want to pick someone like Rajon Rondo, who played QB in high school, loves to pass and has video game-level speed.
5-7, 150 pounds.
This selection would probably have to change if the pick-up game was tackle, but since it's two-hand touch, La Liga Player of the Season Messi would be nearly impossible to lay one hand on, let alone two. With lightning fast feet and an insane ability to dribble around defenders, we can only wonder how quick he could be running through traffic without having that annoying soccer ball to kick around.
6-5, 207 pounds.
On the football field, Bolt, the Olympic sprint champ, would be a taller, much faster version of Randy Moss in his prime. Let that sink in. With the ultimate first down play in pick-up football being the deep out, telling Bolt to "go long" should be an automatic six points. Nobody covers 100 yards faster than he does, making him virtually un-coverable.
6-8, 250 pounds.
LeBron is the ultimate what-if athlete. What if he played football instead of basketball? Would he be better than Jimmy Graham? A taller, stronger, faster Rob Gronkowski? With his speed, physicality and vertical leap, could he be stopped in the red zone? No matter how you use him, he'd be a gigantic target for Verlander on any route, and if all else fails, tossing up a jump ball in the end zone will likely end in a
6-9, 260 pounds.
If you can't have an entire offensive line, why not draft someone who is about the same size all by himself? Anybody who has caught a Bruins game in person has marveled at the sheer size of Chara, the defenseman who tops nearly seven feet in skates. The noise generated by one of his signature crushing hits sounds more like a car accident than anything in sports. That's the guy you want watching your QB's blind side.
6-9, 200 pounds.
This is another selection that might be different if the pick-up game was tackle football, but since we don't have to worry about Dalhausser's lack of weight, we can focus on what he does best: Swatting balls into the ground. Known in pro beach volleyball circles as "The Thin Beast," Dalhausser has hands that can reach 12 feet off the ground -- and that's when he jumps in sand. His huge wingspan, fast reflexes and quick-leaping ability make him a QB's nightmare to have to throw over. He's a taller, much skinnier J.J. Watt.
6-3, 189 pounds.
The Oklahoma City guard might be the fastest zero-to-60 guy in the NBA, which makes him a perfect ball hawk for a pick-up football defense. His ability to change speeds and blow by defenders will allow him to play off his man a little bit and fool the QB into throwing a ball he can pick off. At 6-3, he has the range and explosive jumping ability to track down almost any ball thrown in his direction.
6-2, 185 pounds.
Imagine getting jammed at the line by the UFC middleweight champion, a man who probably knows 1,256 ways to kill you. That's what it might be like lining up across from Silva. In the cage, he has no problem smothering opponents whose goal is to knock him out, so having him smother a wide receiver who only wants to catch a ball should be no problem. Athletic, acrobatic, and tenacious, the Spider is just as likely to knock down a ball with his feet as he is with his hands.
6-1, 210 pounds.
Even though Trout was snubbed for a Gold Glove this season, the Rookie of the Year winner is the ideal pick-up football safety. The amount of ground he can cover in the outfield of Angel Stadium is
staggering, and we know he has the hops to snag balls high out of the air (see: his famous home run-robbing catch of Prince Fielder). He's already built like a slightly smaller Brian Urlacher -- might as well
get him on the gridiron.
6-1, 180 pounds.
When Federer is firing on all cylinders he can return shots anywhere on the court. Couple that with his ability to dominate on any surface and he won't be fazed one bit by the dirt, rocks and clumps of grass on the little league field you're playing on. His endurance is legendary. His footwork is impeccable. His speed is deceptive. You'll never have to worry about Federer, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, being out of position or intimidated. Just drop him back and let him go to work.
-- Follow Jon Finkel on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.