Ask Tiger Woods what he's most thankful for this Thanksgiving and he doesn't mention his victories in the Masters and the U.S. Open this year, all the other titles he's won or the money he's made.
For Woods, Thanksgiving is a day to get away from golf, join his family in California and give thanks that his father is still alive.
Earl Woods, 70, the man who taught Tiger to play, has had more than his fair share of health problems in recent years: heart bypass surgery in 1996, prostate cancer two years ago, diabetes.
Tiger rarely talks about his father's problems, but they're never far from his mind.
''I'm awfully thankful just to have him still here and still kicking and fighting,'' said Woods, who won his fifth straight Grand Slam of Golf in Hawaii on Wednesday.
If fans could sit around a Thanksgiving table with sports stars, they would hear them talk less about winning or losing and see how many of them really do appreciate the lucky life they have.
''Success comes and goes,'' Dallas running back Emmitt Smith said. ''I'm thankful for the opportunity to be able to breathe, to wake up and see another day. That's good enough for me.''
For some, like Smith, Thanksgiving is a working holiday or another day on the road, when most Americans are with their families.
''In our situation, the team becomes like a family to you,'' said Phil Jackson, whose Los Angeles Lakers played Wednesday night in Orlando and are in Memphis on Friday.
Detroit Lions rookie quarterback Joey Harrington will rush to Thanksgiving dinner in Portland, Ore., after playing at home against New England. It will be his family's first Thanksgiving without his grandfather, Bernie, who died in March at 82.
''Grandpa would always sit at the head of the table and start talking about how wonderful our family is,'' Harrington said. ''You never really got a chance to appreciate it until you went away and came back. When I went to college, I understood what he was talking about. We would always put a stopwatch on him to see long it would take for him start crying -- he always had the waterworks going.''
New England offensive guard Joe Andruzzi will give thanks again that his brother Jim, one of the first firefighters who went into the World Trade Center last year, escaped after saving people on the 20th floor. Andruzzi has had his own problems this year, including a mysterious virus that forced him to miss most of training camp and a knee injury that has sidelined him for four games.
''I thought my career was over with that virus,'' he said. ''I'm thankful for a whole lot of things.''
Tony Gwynn is thankful for his easy transition away from playing baseball for 20 years and into coaching at San Diego State, where the stadium bears his name and his son, Anthony, is one of his top players.
''I'm doing exactly what I want to do,'' Gwynn said. ''I'm having a ball. My knees are good, mind is bright, kids are doing well. Life is good for me right now.''
Gwynn also is busy supporting charitable projects in the San Diego area and just finished his 11th annual fund-raising golf tournament.
Washington Redskins linebacker Eddie Mason and his wife, Sonya, provided feasts to 450 needy families through their Faith Foundation. Blowing out his knee in 1996, being out of football and going through hard times financially for a few years gave Mason the motivation to help others when he came back.
''It really humbled me,'' he said. ''I don't play this game just because of football. ''I want to try to use it ... to impact people's lives.''
Health is precious to every athlete, and few can appreciate it more than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox, who was carted off the field Nov. 17 at Tennessee and was paralyzed for more than half an hour.
The experience, and some encouraging words he heard last Sunday, made him realize how lucky he is.
''A coach for the Bengals came up to me and said, 'We don't realize what we've got because we're always worrying about what we want and the things we want to achieve, when the things we already have are pretty good,''' Maddox said.
Losing, even as often as the 1-10 Bengals have, doesn't mean players are sulking around the dinner table.
''It's a great life,'' Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins said. ''I know people who'd give their first-born child to be here.''
Jerry Rice, still among the NFL's best receivers at age 40, said he counts his blessings every day.
''Oh yes, indeed!'' Rice said. ''I'm still productive, I'm still explosive. I can still run with those young guys. Before every game, I drop down to one knee to give thanks.''
After the prayers on Thanksgiving, the day pretty much comes down to the eating.
St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz loads up his plate and slathers gravy over everything.
''Then I put a towel over my head so nobody can get splattered,'' Martz said, ''put my face down and shovel as fast as I can. Now that's Thanksgiving.''
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Asso-ciated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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