Georgia Tech players, families show caution making Thanksgiving plans



In a normal year, Hope Oliver’s family would gather in Memphis for Thanksgiving. Both Hope and her husband, Kevin, are from Memphis, so both sides of the family get together — around 60 people total.

This year, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen?

“Oh, we’ll be home,” Hope Oliver told the AJC. “My immediate family, the six of us. Well, it’ll be five because Kaleb won’t be here.”

Hope and Kevin have four children, and their youngest son, Kaleb, is a junior defensive back at Georgia Tech. Kaleb has the option to go home — it’s about a three-and-a-half hour drive to Murfreesboro, Tenn. — but Hope thinks he’ll be safer if he stays on campus.

Tech coach Geoff Collins had a Zoom call with all the players’ families last week to express his concerns about safety if players do go home for Thanksgiving and explain the protocols they’ll follow for team activities around the holiday.

Collins and his wife, Jennifer, typically have a large Thanksgiving meal for everyone involved in the program, from players to staff and their families. That isn’t an option this year. They have plans to have a modified version, but it won’t be the same — just like most families’ Thanksgiving gatherings this year.

“We’re gonna modify it,” Collins said Monday. “Kinda how we do our Friday night meals where it’ll be by position, with the Plexiglass between them. Rolling times to come in. The Thanksgiving piece is a huge deal for my wife and I. It’s sad that we’re not gonna be able to fully execute all the things that are special in this culture.”

For players who are going home, Collins implored the families to follow CDC guidelines, have events outside whenever feasible, keep gatherings as small as possible and wear masks.

While Hope Oliver would love to have Kaleb home, she knows the risks involved. With COVID-19 cases rising in Tennessee, she doesn’t want Kaleb to take unnecessary chances.

“I did tell him that I felt like he needed to stay put for his safety,” Oliver said. “They’ve been doing a pretty good job of keeping things under control down there. Numbers here in Tennessee are continuing to rise, and so I’d rather he just kinda stay put. I’ll probably send him a care package or something like that.”

Natalie Meiguez isn’t expecting her son, freshman linebacker Tyson Meiguez of Fairburn, to come home either. Christmas is the big holiday in the Meiguez family — Natalie already put up all three Christmas trees — so Thanksgiving tends to be smaller, but their normal seven or eight people is shrinking to just three. It’ll be the first time neither Tyson nor his older sister, Tyler, are home for Thanksgiving.

“It is gonna take some getting used to,” Meiguez said. “We’re truly empty-nesters now. It’s just taking me a little longer than my husband to get used to it because I’m a mama bear.”

The Swilling family is planning to gather in person, but in smaller numbers and in a different location than normal. 30-50 people would normally get together in Toccoa, where Pat Swilling’s mom and brother live. This year, junior cornerback Tre Swilling and senior running back Bruce Jordan-Swilling will meet with their parents, Pat and Robin, siblings Patrick and Starr, and Robin’s parents at a condo that Pat keeps in Buckhead.

“That’s the same group that goes to all the games, so we’ll take precautionary measures as well,” Pat said. “My wife runs a daycare down in New Orleans, so we have temperature gauges and all that. We’ll take everybody’s temperature on the day of, when Tre and Bruce get there, and just try to be safe. ... They’re tested two or three times a week, so we know they’re fine, but we don’t take any chances with anything happening on our watch.”

The family around the Swillings’ table will be different this year, and so will the food on the table. Gumbo is a staple for them, but Pat’s brother Jarvis won’t be on hand with his famous prime rib — something Pat is sure Tre and Bruce will be upset not to have.

All the parents who spoke with the AJC expressed their disappointment about not being able to have a normal family Thanksgiving this year, but everyone made it clear that safety is their top priority. No one felt having a big Thanksgiving was worth the potential risks, though the smaller gatherings will make for a more subdued holiday.

“I’m gonna miss my family,” said Pat Swilling, a Tech legend and member of the College Football Hall of Fame. “We will miss family. ... It’s such a family time, so as I watch people around the country and look at people who are very upset about Thanksgiving and trying their best to have Thanksgivings outside, I kinda feel for them. You just don’t want to take the chance.

“I heard something the other day that really hits home. You don’t want to have Thanksgiving then be planning a funeral for Christmas. You just have to be careful and do it differently this year.”