By Tim Gayle
After two years of playing on Christmas Day, the Camellia Bowl has a new twist this year with a post-Christmas playing date. For the first time, teams arrived before Christmas — on Dec. 23 — and will play after Christmas.
That means a large group of college kids will be celebrating Christmas in a strange town on Sunday.
“I started my bowl experience in Alabama, in 2018 in Mobile,” Buffalo linebacker James Patterson said. “This is a great way to finish my career, to finish off in Alabama. I love Alabama. The food’s great, the people are great and we play some good football down here.”
Georgia Southern quarterback Kyle Vantrease was a teammate of Patterson when Buffalo played Marshall on Christmas Day in 2020. Two years later, he’s back with a new team in a somewhat familiar setting.
“Two out of the last three years on Christmas, I’ve been in Montgomery, Alabama,” he said. “I might be one of the only people here that have that stat that don’t live here.”
Both teams are planning similar activities for the special day, focusing more on the extended football family and forgetting — for a few hours, anyway — of their impending encounter on Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Cramton Bowl.
Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton will celebrate Christmas with his wife Angela and their three children, sons Reid and Turner and daughter Aubrey. For Turner, a redshirt freshman quarterback at Western Kentucky, it will be his second bowl in a week after facing South Alabama in the New Orleans Bowl.
“The biggest thing for our kids is the opportunity to have a Christmas service and one present under the tree,” Helton said. “I’ve always taken the approach that I have three children by birth and 134 adopted sons. So my three children, who are 25, 23 and 19, are all here for Christmas with Miss Angela and our 134 adopted sons. Each one of them is going to have a present under that tree that they can open.”
Buffalo coach Maurice Linguist send his players out in search of gifts before they left Buffalo so the team can have a gift exchange on Christmas.
“We’re going to surprise them,” Linguist said. “We’re not going to practice on that day but we do have meetings to take care of. We’ve got some gifts that we’re going to be able to give to the guys, we’ve got a great family Christmas meal planned. And then we’re going to do a secret Santa gift exchange. Every player is going to buy one of his teammates a gift between $10 and $20 and we’re going to do a secret Santa gift exchange.
“We’re going to keep the spirit of Christmas alive. We know why we’re down here. The objective is to come away with a ‘W,’ but we also recognize it as during the holidays and want to make sure we create that great bowl experience for our guys.”
Christmas in Montgomery? That’s fine for the players, who insist the spirit of Christmas follows a person even when he’s stuck in a downtown hotel far away from home.
“I’ve done it before,” Patterson said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way, to celebrate Christmas with my brothers, doing something that we love. To get this win would be a great present for our families, the Bulls’ nation and ourselves. That would be a great gift.”
For the second time in three years, Vantrease is calling Montgomery his home on Christmas Day.
“As long as I’m near my family and near the people I love and care about, that’s all that Christmas is about,” he said.