As the floor continues to crumble under them, the BYU Cougars continue to stand their ground and hold out hope for a fall football season.
Tuesday was especially trying, not just for BYU, but college football as a whole, as two Power Five conferences opted to cancel the fall season and instead eye a possible spring season amid the pandemic.
Yet, BYU still wants to play. And no player has opted to sit out this season due to concerns about COVID-19.
The Big Ten and Pac-12′s decision to cancel football came a day after the Mountain West pulled the plug on its fall sports. The Mid-American was the first FBS conference to cancel its 2020 season on Saturday.
While (remaining) college football programs throughout the nation have started releasing plans to play this fall, that could all come to a halt if teams find it hard to keep the coronavirus from infiltrating their practices or games.
Leagues and teams have boasted that they have protocols in place — most haven’t been clear as to what that entails — but the majority of the work won’t fall on the schools or staff. It will come down to each individual player to be accountable and be aware of his choices outside of the team to make sure to keep any possible outbreaks at bay.
Matt Bushman is well aware of the situation. Even though the senior tight end wants to play, the season takes second priority to his family. Each day, Bushman goes home to his wife, who is pregnant with their first child.
An MMWR study suggests pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized and are at increased risk for intensive care unit (ICU) admission and receipt of mechanical ventilation than nonpregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You see some of the horrible stories that your loved ones are passing away and you don’t want to be guilty for getting your grandma sick and getting her at the hospital or something,” Bushman said. “My wife, Emily is pregnant right now … There’s different players that have different situations and you have to take it seriously because you don’t want to be the young, rebellious guy who just goes out and ends up getting people sick that you love and care about.”
Of the 120 players currently on BYU’s roster, 36 are married. The rest of the players are a mixed bag when it comes to living arrangements — sharing apartments with fellow teammates, other athletes or other students; or living on their own.
Because there are so many ways people can be exposed to the virus, with varying levels of risk for different activities, it can become harder to impose team protocols or precautions.
When not with the team or at any of the athletic facilities, the staff stresses the importance of following safety protocols when away, such as social distancing, wearing masks, keeping up good hygiene and washing hands.
Coach Kalani Sitake said one of the priorities with the team has been educating them on the virus and necessary precautions, especially if the team wants a shot at a season.
That includes making sure all players understand they have to do their part to try to minimize infection as much as possible.
“I have a lot of confidence in the sports medicine department and our players,” Sitake said. “I think educating them and being honest with how they’re feeling and also being mindful when you’re going home. For the most part, when they do go home, I think a good portion of them are too tired to do anything. But if they do, we ask them to be careful and wear masks and take the proper precautions to keep themselves and others safe.”
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said it took a while for the impact of COVID-19 to really settle in, as it did with most people. When the virus was still fairly new to the US, it was hard to process the significance of the situation and understand the newly-declared precautions until it became personal.
For Grimes, that moment came when one of his friends (who also works as a coach) tested positive back in June.
“That first person who really had to go through it, then it hits you — OK, now it feels real to me,” Grimes said. “… And I thought to myself, we really do need to be careful. And I think all of us, whether you’re a player or a coach, we recognize the importance of at least doing what we can to control what we can control and give ourselves the best chance to stay healthy.”
Running back Lopini Katoa hasn’t had anyone close to him get sick with COVID-19, but has seen the toll it’s taken with some distant friends that have gotten sick and it didn’t look pleasant.
However, even as the start of the semester is right around the corner, Katoa feels safe in his situation and the environment his coaches and staff have created for him and his teammates.
“I feel like everybody is doing great at just making sure we’re taking the proper steps to ensure the health and safety of the people on our team and in the staff as best we can,” Katoa said. “I feel good coming out every day knowing everybody is taking the proper steps and precautions.”
While the team has felt safe, it still hasn't been easy.
Now that the Cougars are in their second week of fall camp, players are getting better adjusted to practicing with a mask on, underneath their helmets, but once classes start there will be a new set of obstacles.
BYU is home to more than 30,000 undergraduate students. It is still unclear how much of the student population will make its way back to Provo or on campus for the fall semester, but it will definitely be the most populated since BYU moved to remote coursework and asked students to return home back in March.
Zach Wilson, who’s in the middle of a quarterback battle and hoping to earn the starting position once more, said people need to understand the significance of COVID-19 and realize that one of the best practices to avoid infection is to keep your distance from other people.
Even though BYU only has three games on their schedule at the moment, that mentality is what the football team is holding on to in hopes of playing this fall.
“The hard thing is we all want to play — every single player here at BYU wants to play this year,” Wilson said. “No doubt about it. So it’s really just taking those precautions that, hey, if we’re going to play, you’ve got to avoid some of those people outside of football. You’ve got to be able to stay with your roommates that are also on the team and not go out and go to a party and get sick and bring it to the team, or get sick and take it home.
“We want to play and I think those are some of the sacrifices that we need, is just say ‘hey, if we want to play football, we just got to not go out of the house for a while.’”