Our Man in Missouri - Week 12

One of the many subtle differences between Britain and America can be found in the number of seasons. Where each year back home can be broken down into winter, spring, summer and autumn (known as “fall” on this side of the Atlantic) – somewhere along the line a fifth category has been added to the US calendar. The ‘Holiday season’ has never been precisely defined but seems to run from Thanksgiving right through to the New Year.

Nobody is actually on holiday for all that time of course, and certainly not NFL players – with six teams playing on Thanksgiving Day itself. Even those who don’t have games still have to show up for work. NFL practice sessions will go ahead as normal on Thursday, even if most teams will find a way of shortening the day slightly for their players.

“We’ll work,” said the Rams head coach Jeff Fisher when asked by this column if the team had any special plans. “We’re going to work. Typically, in the NFL that’s what you do on Thanksgiving. But we are going to move things up a little bit and get the players out of here [early]. We won’t have post-practice meetings tomorrow. We’ll let them go home and enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with their families.”

That is, indeed, how most Rams players intend to spend the afternoon. More than one player – including quarterback Sam Bradford – admitted that their mothers had come into town especially to prepare them a Thanksgiving dinner.

“My mum’s got to cook it,” said cornerback Cortland Finnegan. “I don’t allow anybody else to cook. She’s been cooking her whole life for me and I appreciate that. So let the mum do her thing.”

Scott Wells was looking forward to introducing new members of his family to the tradition. The center adopted three children from Uganda during the offseason, making this their first-ever Thanksgiving. “That’s an American holiday, so we’re excited to be able to include them in it,” said Wells.  “I don’t know if they really understand what it is yet, but they’ll understand the big meal.”

Spending time with family is not an option for everyone, of course. Not all parents are in position cross the country just for the occasion, and the transient nature of the business means several players do not even have their own permanent homes near St Louis – instead taking temporary accommodation during the season and returning to another city at its conclusion. 

With his home and family in New York, linebacker JoLonn Dunbar said he would be going for dinner with one of the team’s coaches. “The NFL is not holiday friendly,” he added. “You miss Thanksgiving, you miss Christmas. All the good holidays!”

Opinions were split on whether the afternoon should be spent watching the day’s games on TV, or getting as far away from football as possible. “Absolutely not. I have enough just watching the team we’re playing, so I stay away,” said Finnegan, but the kicker Greg Zuerlein declared his intention to be in front of a screen for all three.

Either way, by Wednesday it was clear that the team was getting into the festive spirit. The mood was bleak after of Sunday’s home defeat to the New York Jets, but by Wednesday the players had found something to laugh about again. Namely: an elaborate and highly co-ordinated prank on team physical therapist and assistant athletic trainer Byron Cunningham.

During the loss to New York, Cunningham had been caught on camera performing a particularly exuberant celebratory dance after a big Steven Jackson run – swinging his hips and twirling his arm around his head. As footage of the incident circulated around the team, a plan was hatched. Cunningham would be told that the league were upset with his behaviour. A $2,500 fine for excessive and “sexually explicit” celebration was said to be on its way.

Soon everyone was in on the gag. The players ribbed Cunningham over his fine, while coaches either commiserated and shared stories about punishments they had received or simply gave him the cold shoulder as a means of showing their ‘disappointment’. Cunningham went home and told his wife. “She dropped the f-bomb,” he said.

And then, on Wednesday, the big reveal. At the end of training the players called Cunningham over and formed a big circle. They told the trainer that they loved how he got behind the team and knew he was anxious about coping with such a large fine financially. They said they had been worried for him and wanted to chip in and help.

It was then that the giant cheque was produced. Cunningham’s expression went from nervous smile, to wide-eyed amazement, and then finally to that of a man bellowing with relieved laughter. “Happy Pranksgiving” read the cheque’s subject line.

For the players – who did on the same day hand over a real cheque for more than $42,000 to the Sterling Thomas Fund, set up to help a Lindenwood University student who suffered a spinal injury during a game earlier this month – it was a much-needed moment of levity. Their season is now hanging by a thread, the Rams likely needing to run the table to have even a slender shot at the playoffs.

The last remaining positive, going into this week’s game against NFC West rivals the Cardinals, is their unbeaten record against division opponents. Arizona were, in fact, the last team that they beat – back on 14 October. “We have had some success against the division,” said Bradford. “We look to continue that this week.”

St Louis, after all, are not on holiday yet.

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In the news …

A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:

Brian Burwell of the St Louis Post-Dispatch argues that it’s time for the Rams to put the ball in Steven Jackson’s hands.

Ramsherd.com note the discrepancy between Bradford’s performances when facing a team he has played before, and those when he is facing a new team.

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Five-minute interview: Rams kicker Greg ‘The Leg’ Zuerlein

How are you finding your first year in the NFL?

I like it, it’s fun. It is challenging – especially when you don’t do as well as you’d like, and you have your ups and downs. So far it’s been good, but not great.

Have you been surprised by the amount of attention you’ve had?

Yeah, that maybe a little bit premature. I haven’t been doing that hot of late. But you’ve just got to have a level head, and keep working on it to get better. You’re not going to make every single kick.

You’ve already got more nicknames than a lot of players would have in their entire career – Greg The Leg, Legatron, Young Geezee. Do you have a favourite?

No, just Greg works for me!

Did you have a nickname before you came into the league?

My friends really just called me Greg, but on the football field ever since high school they used to call me Greg The Leg, which is how that got started here.

How difficult is it when you have a situation like you had against the 49ers two weeks ago where you kick a long field goal – from 53 yards – and make it, but then find out afterwards that it’s not going to stand because there’s  a flag down on the play?

Yeah, ideally you want it to count, but you’ve just got to not let that get into your head. You’ve got to just go out there and make the next kick, which unfortunately I didn’t do. But that’s just something you’ve got to take in your stride. You’ve got to convert in those situations.

Did you play other positions as well as kicker back in high school?

I was a free safety, and a receiver. And a punter.

Do you ever secretly wish you could play those positions again?

No, I’m just happy being a kicker!

Did you play other sports too in high school?

Yep, I played soccer my whole life. I played my entire life until I got to college, then I had to give it up – though even there I still played a little intra-mural. I played centre-mid.

So we’re guessing you enjoyed getting to immerse yourself in a bit of soccer culture in England too, then?

I did. We went to the Arsenal game against Schalke. They didn’t get the result, but it was good.

How did you find England generally?

It was a good experience, I’d never been there before I’d always wanted to go, and I got a dream come true – so that was definitely a cool experience.

Do you ever wonder what might have been if you’d pursued a career in soccer?

I do enjoy football, but in another life it would have been cool to play professional soccer as well.

What are you doing for Thanksgiving?

I am going over to our special teams coach [John Fassel]’s house, since we don’t really have time to go home with our families or anything. Coach Bones is opening his house and family up to us – the three specialists [Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and long snapper Jake McQuaide] plus a few other guys, so that’s pretty cool.

Coach Bones is a little skinny – are you sure they’re going to feed you enough at his house?

Hahaha! No, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of food.

Will this be your first Thanksgiving without your family?

In college I was only an hour from my house, then two hours after I switched colleges, so I was able to drive home when I finished practice. So this is going to be the first time I’m not home for Thanksgiving. But my whole family came in for the last game, and we had a little early Thanksgiving dinner with everyone here in St Louis.

Why should fans in the UK get behind the Rams?

It’s smash-mouth football, we play tough, and we’re a rising team. We’re going to continue getting better.