Thanksgiving Day on an NFL field: sacrifice in the spotlight

Turkey and football. Then more turkey ... and more football.

It's an endless cycle that fills the ever-treasured Thanksgiving Day. When I was a kid, we'd layer up and play sandlot football at the local park, then go watch the NFL games. It's a popular tradition that people have been sharing since seemingly forever, and I, for one, love it.

But this American holiday is more than a time to be with family while eating a cooked bird and yelling at the NFL's triple feature. It can also remind us all of how similar we really are.

Most people, especially during the holiday season, have to make sacrifices -- for some, this includes working during a national holiday. The professional athletes in the NFL definitely feel this reality. Six teams play Thanksgiving day, and the teams that are scheduled for Sunday still practice.

One of the biggest sacrifices that players make? There's really no time for loved ones during the season, whether it's Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year's or any other holiday during which family time is cherished. I remember one year, when I was with the Patriots and I watched the ball drop while sitting in a hotel, because we had a game the next day. And, of course, I remember spending Thanksgiving in our New England throwback uniforms in Detroit, and finishing the day at 32,000 feet.

Early on in my playing days, I had my parents and siblings, but I didn't have a family of my own, so I didn't have to spend time away from that. When I had my daughter toward the end of my career, I understood the hardships of the constant travel, especially during the holiday season.

Players don't get to relax unless they're lucky enough to have a bye week. The holidays are a special time for everybody, but players realize that they have a responsibility -- like many others -- to their jobs, which often have to come first in this business. As an athlete, when you sign a contract, you know what you're signing on for. Missing holidays and family time isn't ideal, but players understand the lifestyle of being a professional athlete.

And playing on Thanksgiving is also a great opportunity, because all eyes are on you. The production of the game is big, and the competitive spirit of fans is at an all-time high, even if their team isn't playing. You can feel the holiday in the stadium air, with the prize of a six-legged turkey looming on the sidelines.

Along with the excitement comes the stress of preparing during a short week. It's not an easy game to plan for, especially if your opponent isn't in your division. It's necessary that players focus on the task of winning and not extra festivities, because ultimately, the outcome will affect your holidays. If the team suffers a loss, it's a long 10 days -- a stretch that sometimes does not include time off -- before the next contest. However, with a win, some relaxing family time can be salvaged.

Of course, whether you're lucky enough to celebrate the holidays or spend them working, remember that there's always leftovers and a lot to be thankful for. Wishing everyone a happy and football-filled Thanksgiving!

Follow Willie McGinest on Twitter @WillieMcGinest.