By Katie Lindley
From cultural to familial to wacky, various traditions surround the holiday season. Thanksgiving calls for mountains of food, long forgotten family members, and for those lucky enough to be Bulldog fans, a great football game. While everyone else relaxes on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving, Assistant Head Coach Rodney Garner and his team will be working. Going home for Thanksgiving is not an option for many players. Coach Garner and his wife, Kimberly Garner, have graciously opened their home, and every Thanksgiving upwards of 60 people spend it with the Garners.
“It’s something that the players look forward to. It’s something that I know my family looks forward to,” said Coach Garner.
Mrs. Garner remembers the first Thanksgiving with her husband and stepdaughter: “It was just the three of us and some Cornish hens. We didn’t even feel like making the whole turkey.” Used to a full house during the holidays, the thought of a solitary Thanksgiving was unbearable.
The tradition also stems from Coach Garner’s memories of being confined to the dinning halls for Thanksgiving dinner when he played football for Auburn. “I truly hated it, so it’s just a way for me to give those guys a sense of being at home with family on that special holiday. Being able to open my home to them and just being able to spend that family time with them,” he said.
The guest list changes every year. The rule is, “you get an invitation once and after that, just show up,” said Garner. “It’s a hodge-podge of people, and I think the players really enjoy it because it reminds them of being around family.”
Feeding such a crowded table can be daunting, but “everyone sort of chips in,” said Coach Garner. His aunts in Alabama, his mother, and his wife’s family in Augusta all contribute to the feast. Everything in a traditional Thanksgiving meal is represented: turkey, green beans, black-eyed peas, dressing, macaroni and cheese, and numerous desserts and side dishes.
Each guest is instructed to “fill in the blank” with their favorite Thanksgiving dish to round out the meal. Garner begins preparation in early November by preparing pans of macaroni and cheese. She makes all of the vegetables and cornbread the night before, and each year the turkey cooking method changes.
Coach Garner’s side of the family makes and freezes big aluminum pans of dressing and most surprisingly, chitlins. He gets his aunt to prepare 40 gallons every year. “I’m still shocked about the number of guys that like chitlins,” said Coach Garner. Without fail, they are the only item that runs out.
Not once has there been a shortage of food. “Somehow, we always have more than enough. It’s definitely a miracle,” said Garner. Any leftover food is donated to the men’s homeless shelter here in Athens. The Garners discovered a few years ago that the men’s homeless shelter is often overlooked during the holidays, so they send all of their leftovers there.
Their day begins around 2 p.m. with guests milling around the house, and at 3 p.m., everyone gathers in the den to bless the food. The meal is served buffet style with guests trying to wedge in any seat available. “We have tables set up in the basement, in the dining room, in the living room, in the den and in the kitchen,” explained Garner.
When everyone finishes eating, the players and kids move down to the basement to watch football or play video games. Garner’s children look at the players “like big brothers and live playgrounds,” she said. “I think it helps the guys to not be quite so homesick too.”
Senior defensive end, DeAngelo Tyson, has joined the Garners for Thanksgiving each year since arriving at UGA in 2008. “I enjoy going to Coach Garner’s house for Thanksgiving because it’s such a family environment,” he says. “Most of us don’t get to go home for Thanksgiving, so it’s nice to have a place to go where you feel comfortable and can enjoy each others company,” Tyson explains. Furthermore, Tyson thinks that the Garners provide a home away from home during the holidays.
Garner most appreciates the players pulling out and setting up all of her Christmas decorations. “The reason we decorate kind of early is so we have time to enjoy it.” If the season goes well, Christmas will be interrupted by bowl games.
Even after players graduate, the Thanksgiving tradition leaves a deep impression. Former players send Garner messages on Facebook saying they are returning, how much they miss attending, or reminders to save a turkey leg. “It’s fun to see the guys come back. That let’s me know that they really appreciated it,” she said.
This Thanksgiving crowds descended on homes across Athens, and in one house, a large, very extended family gathered, as Coach Garner explains, “to be together and be thankful” because on Thanksgiving, they’re not Georgia football players, they’re just family.