Duke, Texas A&M go toe-to-toe off field in Atlanta

Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel took part in a basketball skills challenge during halftime of Saturday's Hawks game.

Kevin Liles/Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — It’s easy to get caught up in the football and forget that they’re kids.

Then you see them racing between video games, bouncing on their toes, laughing, and yelling at each other over a game of air hockey and reality hits you. Yes, these guys are big, tall, fast, strong and some of them are destined to be millionaires. But they are also 18- to 22-year-old young men at a stage in their lives where trips to Atlanta for a bowl game are new, exciting and fun.

That is what the week-long festivities for the Chick-fil-A Bowl have been about for the players from No. 22 Duke and No. 20 Texas A&M. Sure, there were press conferences, practices, autograph sessions, visits to children’s hospitals, and tours of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site — typical bowl-week fare — but there were also milkshake-making contests, a team version of Family Feud, arcade games and go-kart racing, all part of the bonding experience.

The organizers at Chick-fil-A kept a running tally of each event, afte which the winning team received a WWE-style championshp belt they kept until the next day’s competition. Texas A&M led after the Family Feud night (favorite football movie — ‘Remember the Titans’), but the kart racing at Andretti Karting Track in Roswell, Ga., appeared to be going Duke’s way.

"Our week has been special," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "It’s been diverse in the events. I’ve watched our players enjoy every part of it from playing games at Dave & Busters to an incredible FCA breakfast, a great message that was delivered there by Derrick Brooks and Steve Fitzhugh, then from kart riding, to visiting the children’s hospital, to the Martin Luther King Jr. experience yesterday. Live, laugh, and learn, and we’ve been able to do all of that and practice a little football."

"You can see why this particular bowl game will be part of a bigger picture down the road," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin added. The Chick-fil-A Bowl will be part of the new college football playoff system and the coordination of the events this week were a statement by the organizers that they are ready.

"The city is great," Sumlin added. "There are a lot of things for our players to do. But the organization has been the key, with the events that have been competitive outside (of football), and then going to the (Atlanta) Hawks game, being in the children’s hospital, doing things in the community, but also the organization of the practice sites and the logistics of travel between the hotels. It’s been wonderful and that comes with experience and leadership."

It also comes with understanding the needs of young men during Christmas and New Year’s break. Without an organized schedule and a lot of fun events to keep them busy, players at bowl games have a tendency to wander astray, often getting into trouble.

But as the practices wound down and the go-kart racing finished up, it was obvious that Chick-fil-A Bowl organizers had put on quite a show.

The laughs from the players proved it.