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NFL stars turn out to be regular sportsmen

Pro-Bowler Michael Strahan may have that killer instinct to drill playmakers, but his heart is as big as a battleship. 

"Mr. Strahan, will you please sign an autograph sir?"

Simple question. Funny answer.

"I'm sorry son, you must be mistaken," said the gap-toothed giant to the ball-capped kid.

The quarterback-terrorizing figure strolled away, then turned with a wink. The kid's face went from nervous to distraught in a split-second. Kind of like some NFL quarterbacks when Michael Strahan bears down on them.

"Aw, I'm just jokin' around," No. 92 enthused. "C'mere and give me that football."

The N.Y. Giants defensive end wasn't outside an NFL stadium, but at an upstate New York hunting camp several years ago.

Spring gobblers were the focus; fund-raising for youth charities the aim. An outdoor barbecue, a banquet and an auction and, oh yeah, plenty of turkey hunting. Everywhere Strahan went, that indelible marker came out of his pocket.

Strahan, named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year and to Saturday's Pro-Bowl starting team (he recorded 22 sacks this year for an NFL record), may have that killer instinct to drill playmakers, but his heart is big as a battleship.

Wherever the big man went, kids shadowed Strahan who, curiously, is teaming with PETA to stress that dogs be kept inside in cold weather.

One year before, same camp:

I sat on Turkey Trot Acres' lodge porch next to an bespectacled guy of some size 6 feet, 4 inches and 234 pounds. He was reading an outdoor magazine. The figure raised his head, sized me up briefly, extended his hand, shook mine, introduced himself, went back to reading.

It was Jay Novacek, the former Dallas Cowboys' tight end, and another Pro-Bowler (five times in fact).

I heard he might be in camp. Didn't quite expect a quiet South Dakota native wearing eyeglasses. (He used contact lenses at game time.)

Wary gobblers could give a hoot about appearances, of course, star status or Super Bowl wins. Irony had it that Strahan got his turkey on that hunt; Novacek didn't. Still the Giants lost Super Bowl XXXV to the Ravens; Novacek owns three Super Bowl rings.

Steve Tasker, the retired Buffalo Bills special-teams standout, was in the New York turkey camp with his son Deke in spring 2001.

Fact: Tasker was one of the few NFL guys I've ever met smaller than me.

Visibly prayerful at dinner, his hands folded, eyes closed, bowing his head silently, Tasker, as disciplined on the football field as off, retired to bed early and never was seen at our late-night bull sessions the social life of turkey camp.

Of course, we'd pay for our lack of sleep at pre-dawn breakfast, whereas Tasker and his adolescent son seem bright-eyed by comparison.

Strahan was funny and gregarious; Novacek, mostly silent, lurking nearby on a lodge couch, often reading; Tasker, a proud father bringing his boy along on his first turkey hunt. Just regular guys.

I got to Texas last year in pursuit of spring gobblers. I'm no different than many a New Englander who follows the turkey seasons around, heading south to where it opens earlier than our May start-up time.

Pre-dawn, Day 1, we were awakened by a rap on the door. A welcoming committee had gathered near the breakfast table. Somebody had just arrived at 4 a.m. after a delayed flight. A guy named Van Pelt. Hands extended in his direction. Names were exchanged. Only that afternoon did I hear him humbly say to some bystander, "I play football."

I hadn't a clue for whom.

Again, just another guy in camp; another turkey hunter. Just happened to play quarterback for the Buffalo Bills (then as a back-up; last season as a starter).

You become short-term buds with the guys who share your camp, of course. It was much the same with Alex Van Pelt. With one tag left the last afternoon, I hunted solo, killed a second Rio Grande turkey and waited for my ride back to camp at the appointed pick-up spot. The white rental van came trucking up the road, dust rolling behind it, Van Pelt at the wheel.

It's probably the first and last time I'll ever high-five a starting NFL quarterback, then have him drive me back to camp. Pretty cool experience for a hack outdoor writer.

On the Texas-to-Atlanta flight, we chatted, exchanged Pennsylvania stories (he lives in Pittsburgh; attended Pitt; my Pa. connections run deep), then shook hands before connecting flights.

Of all the players, Van Pelt had a serious handle on the whole turkey-hunting deal. His description of a strutting gobbler was most memorable:

"I love it when gobblers puff up and do that Dracula thing, with their feathers all gathered up like a cape," he said.

A description as dead-on as a perfect spiral.

Football players at spring gobbler camp? In truth, these guys are sportsman like you and me, but inherent job demands working weekends in the fall make it tough to hunt during traditional seasons. Spring gobbler action offers an alternative.

But like the football seasons though, these memories pass all too quickly.

Freelance writer Steve Hickoff writes on the outdoors for many national and regional magazines and newspapers. Contact him at hickoff@attbroadband.com.