There are few feelings in the life of a college football player that equal the adrenaline rush that accompanies a signature victory. The tailgates begin at dawn, the anticipation rises throughout the day and crescendos when the final seconds tick off the clock and fans rush the field.
Those are the moments often seared in memories, the tradeoffs for all the 5 a.m. workouts, endless film sessions and mandatory study tables that enable them. The 2020 football season came with even more demands for the nearly 12,000 FBS college football players — frequent and invasive COVID-19 testing, the inability to interact with loved ones and the isolation from both the campus itself and the campus community.
Notre Dame, for example, travels with its own plexiglass to separate everyone at team meals. Boston College set up barriers on the road to make sure players stayed socially distanced from their families. USC coaches asked their local players to avoid going home for Thanksgiving, even scheduling a late-afternoon practice to discourage it. And at Army, the players have left the base just three times since June 1 — all for road games. “Not even to go to the McDonald’s drive-thru,” coach Jeff Monken told Yahoo Sports.
So what has the 2020 football season actually been like for the players? In many ways, the cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands are a fitting representation of the season itself — an imposter dressed up like the real thing but devoid of so much of the emotion and interaction that fuels the spirit of the game.
Yahoo Sports attempted to peel back the curtain on the sacrifices, empty stadium realities and radical changes for the athletes who’ve alternately endured and enjoyed this 2020 college season. “The average person has no idea how hard it has been for the players,” said Boston College coach Jeff Hafley.
Boston College party of one
After Boston College scared the daylights out of then-No. 1 Clemson on Oct. 31, star center Alec Lindstrom navigated over to the Boston College buses. BC played valiantly, charging out to an 18-point lead, before falling short, 34-28.
It’s normal to see parents hanging out with their kids in the bowels of stadiums after games, lingering near the running team buses amid the stacks of equipment bags and boxed meals to go. But when Lindstrom approached his family, he noticed two rows of barriers separating them. “I couldn’t go and give them hugs and hang out with them,” he said. “That was definitely weird.”
So while they chatted about the game and caught up for a few minutes, even the most basic of family interactions have been warped by COVID-19. The barrier was designed in this COVID-19 world to ensure the virus didn’t spread from family and friends to players on the team.
Lindstrom wants to be clear that he’s not complaining, that he’s happy to be playing the game he loves and would gladly make more sacrifices if necessary. But he juxtaposes that with the reality of 2020, which has no fans at BC home games, no chance for the players to escape into Boston for a few hours and has fundamentally altered even basic things like celebrating after wins.
“It’s been really hard for us,” Lindstrom told Yahoo Sports by Zoom last week. “It’s really starting to take a mental toll. Guys can’t go home like they usually can.”
Boston College has been part of one of the sport’s most remarkable stories this season. From the time the team returned to campus in June until last week, the team went nearly 8,500 COVID-19 tests with just one player testing positive.
The players took pride in the streak, which spanned nearly the entire season before ending last week prior to the Virginia game after a player tested positive in the wake of returning home for Thanksgiving. “It’s a special group,” Hafley told Yahoo Sports. “These guys are going to succeed in whatever they do in life. This is hard and life is hard. They can overcome something most people in college football have not.”
For Lindstrom, the day-to-day reality of that has been taking some classes by Zoom, which he said has been a struggle at times because he’s a better in-class learner. He and his teammates have found an escape through playing “Call of Duty,” a popular video game. They’ve also binged “The Mandalorian” on Disney+.
Lindstrom has also taken on baking as a hobby since March, learning his mother’s recipe for Whoopie Pies and making them for his fellow linemen this summer. Aside from his own desserts, the closest thing Lindstrom has had to an indulgence was a Thursday tradition with fellow linemen Tyler Vrabel and Ben Petrula. They ventured to renowned local wing joint, Buff’s Pub in Newton, to devour plates of wings. They took advantage of the outdoor dining for a quick escape. “It was a way we found to get away from it,” he said.
Lindstrom also has a podcast, “Listen up My Dudes,” and is noted for his food reviews around town. Like many, he’s pivoted to ordering from apps during the pandemic — “always tip your driver,” he says with a laugh — and has been getting delivery from local spots like Jim’s Deli, Eagles Deli and Amelia’s Taqueria.
BC has gone 6-5 in Hafley’s first season and is expected to play in a bowl game. As Lindstrom and his teammates established a new identity for the program amid an empty stadium, he’s adamant he’d do it all over again. “It’s 100% worth it,” Lindstrom said. “If I had to do more stuff, more tests or whatever, I’d do it. I love playing football. I’d 100% do it again.”
Home away from home at USC
USC star wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s birthday is Oct. 24. Last year, his girlfriend took him to the Cheesecake Factory and organized a surprise gathering with all his friends when the couple returned from dinner.
Two of St. Brown’s good friends have birthdays around the same time, so they all enjoyed the type of communal celebration inherent to the college experience. The options were as endless as the Cheesecake Factory menu.
This year, St. Brown’s birthday featured dinner with his girlfriend. No gathering. No community. He said he’s based his habits on the daily advice from coach Clay Helton. “He tells us we have to make smart decisions every day,” St. Brown told Yahoo Sports. “You can get the virus just by touching something. Every decision we make, we have to make with the team’s best interest in mind.”
That’s why St. Brown has essentially established two residences for this semester. He’d been slated to live in an off-campus apartment with two teammates and a friend from Mater Dei, where he went to high school. But he’s primarily lived by himself on campus during the season because of the threat of contact tracing. Essentially, if a player lives with other players and gets COVID-19, all of the roommates would be put in quarantine because of contact tracing rules.
So putting players in their own silos is a strategy to make sure any positive tests — which are a near inevitability of the season — don’t wipe out a large swath of the team.
With the Pac-12 not starting its schedule until November, USC’s semester has been in a state of flux. First the conference planned to play the 2020 season, then they decided not to play, then league officials reversed course and decided to start in November.
It has played out against a backdrop of local restrictions, as USC is playing despite what’s essentially a stay-at-home order in Los Angeles. The state of California is averaging 21,000 COVID-19 cases a day.
The majority of USC students are not on campus, as the school transitioned to online learning in March. Only 10-20% of classes are held in person, and those are labs, performance and instruction that necessitate in-person attendance.
“Not going to class is weird,” St. Brown said. “Going to class and meeting new people and new professors is part of the whole college experience.”
St. Brown, a junior receiver, has thrived on the field for the 4-0 Trojans. He caught four touchdowns against Washington State on Sunday — yes, a perfectly 2020 Sunday afternoon college game — and has caught at least five passes in all four games this season.
Every day remains strange. St. Brown said the daily team meeting at 2:15 p.m. would be held in the team room in normal years, with the whole group of more than 100 players in a movie theater-style auditorium. Now players see Helton virtually while they are sitting socially distanced in their assigned position rooms. “We’re all looking at the projector and it’s Coach Helton talking,” he said.
There’s no experience more surreal than gameday, as USC plays in the Coliseum, an immense structure that holds 77,500 and until a recent renovation accommodated more than 90,000. Now, it’s just a vast sea of emptiness.
“I definitely miss our fans, that would be the biggest thing,” St. Brown said. “Playing in the Coliseum without fans is something we all miss as players. They bring the juice, the fans put so much energy into the game.”
Florida wide receiver Justin Shorter transferred from Penn State and arrived in June. With the country already in the throes of the pandemic, Shorter has completely missed the traditional University of Florida experience.
He’s missed simple things like walking to class on campus, which he doesn’t do because all of his classes are online. He’s never played in front of a full house at the The Swamp, the affectionate nickname for Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He’s really yet to experience local restaurants because he’s been encouraged not to sit and dine anywhere.
Shorter said his only contact outside the team facility is with his mother and girlfriend, and both are going through great lengths to be safe amid the pandemic. After a big win, like Florida’s recent home blowout of Kentucky, Shorter summed up his celebration this way. “I sat here with my family,” he said. “I didn’t really go anywhere, the risk of getting COVID is way too high. I don’t want to spend 14 days [quarantined] in a hotel room.”
As he’s adjusted to a new team, campus and town, Shorter hasn’t really been able to experience much outside Florida’s football facility. He’s passed his free time by playing “Madden,” the video game that’s spanned generations. “Football is my life,” he said. “I’m doing schoolwork, football or playing ‘Madden.’ It’s kind of boring. You’re doing it every day.”
That focus almost exclusively on football has helped Shorter relish the daily rituals of practice, as the players appreciate the banter and camaraderie that’s available few places outside the field. He’s also built a strong relationship with UF wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales, who has shown a passion for teaching Shorter the details of the position. “I can’t wait for him to continue to coach me and bring me to the highest level I can be at,” Shorter said.
Shorter admits that he frequently looks up videos online of the The Swamp at full capacity, teeming to an emotional throttle at the apex of a rivalry game. Shorter can’t wait to experience that in 2021.
Until then, he navigates the reality of his awkward introduction to his new school. That doubles as the reality for college football in 2020. “Everything is different,” he said.
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