By Mick Rouse
Photo c/o Everett Collection
Growing up, my cousin, his family, and some of his neighbors had a Thanksgiving tradition. Like thousands of other people across the country, they would head out to the backyard before turkey was served and engage in six-man football. As a high school basketball player amongst eleven other football heads, I always felt a bit of anxiety ahead of these showdowns. Sure, I was tall, fast, and could catch a football with general consistency, making me a hot commodity at wide receiver once it came time to select teams, but the truth of the matter is that I couldn’t throw a football to save my life. Even if I were to pull off a spectacular, David Tyree-esque catch, that only meant I would then have the throw the ball back to our center to get the game going again. I was convinced that if anyone were to see my pathetic, wobbly throws, I’d undermine every single catch I pulled off. Or worse, I’d be laughed at.
In an attempt to save myself from any potential embarrassment, I devised a plan. Anytime I had to throw a ball back to someone, I would do so underhanded. Rugby style. You see pro football players do that all the time on TV, I thought. They look sort of cool when they do it, I told myself. But deep down in the back of my mind, I couldn't shake the feeling that everyone noticed that I would never throw a ball overhanded, that I always declined invitations to casually toss a ball around before our Thanksgiving showdown in favor of the all-important stretching. Don’t wanna pull a hammy!
The truth of it all, though, is that I would have loved to be under center, zipping bullets across the field and pulling off perfect fade routes. Whenever I created myself in the Madden games of the early aughts, it was never as a wide receiver. It was always as a quarterback! I wanted to be the Mark Brunell of our Thanksgiving football games (I’m much too much of a realist to even fantasize about throwing a football as well as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning). Unfortunately, it wasn’t until years later that I finally found the courage to ask a buddy of mine — one who I once watched in awe as he casually chucked a football the length of a Marriott Courtyard parking lot with a perfect spiral — to teach me how to properly throw a football.
As it turns out, my pitiful throws had nothing to do with my overall throwing motion, or even my strength. After all this time, I wasn’t even holding a football properly. Those laces on a football? Yeah, they’re not there for you to line up your fingers with like I idiotically assumed. You actually want your grip farther back on the ball, with your middle finger right before the laces of the football begin and your ring and pinky fingers over the laces. The second thing with your grip: You don’t want to hold the football flush against your palm. Instead, you want a little space between the ball and your palm. After years of playing basketball, this immediately made sense to me. You don’t dribble a basketball with your palm, but with your fingers. When you shoot a basketball, the ball should be resting on your fingertips, and not your palm. Honestly, throwing a football has way more in common with shooting a basketball than you might assume, and it’s more than a little embarrassing to know that I never made that connection on my own over the span of 20 years. Just as countless basketball coaches instructed me, if you can slide your opposite hand’s index finger between your palm and the football, you’re holding it right.
Speaking of your index finger, it’s the very last part of your hand that should be making contact with the football as you throw it. That’s ultimately they key to making a football spiral. If, like me, you have been throwing a football with a death grip, the football is going to look like an airplane that’s just hit turbulence every time. It may seem counterintuitive at first, because so often we associate power with a strong grip, but you actually want to allow your wrist to ease and slacken on your release of the football. The power that you want behind your throw comes less from your arm itself and more from your hips, just like a golf swing.
Thankfully, there was one aspect of throwing a football that I had been doing correctly. When you throw a football, you want to do so over your shoulder, not from the side of your shoulder. Not only will that motion make it easier for you to get some hang time under the ball, but it will also help with your accuracy. If your shoulders aren’t square with your target, it’s unlikely your throw will make it to your target. I noticed very quickly that by throwing the football over my shoulder, my whole upper body seemed to follow suit without me having to consciously think much about it, and that my passes were going where I was intending them to end up in the first place.
Sadly, it has been years since my last six-on-six Turkey Bowl game. By the time my friend gave me the rundown on how to actually throw a football, my cousin and I, along with all those other neighborhood kids, had scattered across the country. The opportunity to go down in local history as one of the greatest backyard quarterbacks of all time had passed me by. But my fiance? She has a family filled with football fans. So if someone just so happens to bust out a pigskin this Thanksgiving, at least I’ll have the confidence to air some out.