A season without football
College football on television has elicited different responses from those missing their game.
"The first time I saw a game on TV, it was like I smelled a bad smell," Pacific Boxers coach Ian Falconer said.
Lewis & Clark running back Michael Abraham, a Central Catholic High grad from Portland, described watching others play football on TV as experiencing stages of grief.
"I feel different things at different times," Abraham said. "It's frustration. Sometimes I feel anger, also at times I feel sadness."
So far, Abraham said, he has chosen not to seek out college football on TV, but isn't avoiding it if he happens to see it.
Falconer, after his initial sour response, said he spent five hours on a recent Saturday on his couch watching games. The Pacific coach was quick to note that the couch is the last place a football coach should be in the fall.
"A lot of people who do my job are complete fish out of water right now," said Falconer, a Lake Oswego native.
While some Division I conferences are playing football — and the Pac-12 is preparing to play games beginning Nov. 6 — all NCAA Division III competition has been postponed. The Northwest Conference, which includes Lewis & Clark, Pacific University, Linfield and George Fox, is hoping its football teams can play a five-game schedule in the spring. If a five-game schedule is played, all players will retain that season of eligibility so that current seniors will have the option of playing a final season in fall 2021.
While missing the games, players appreciate having extra time to focus on studies. They are finding competitive outlets where they can. For most of them, playing football in the fall has been a part of their life for more than a decade.
So, it's weird, they all agree.
"Now that we're at school and there's no football, it's really hard," said Abraham, who has envisioned rushing for 1,000 yards and helping the Pioneers compete for a NWC title this season.
In general terms, programs are approaching this fall as they would a normal spring. County limits on group size and contact mean that Lewis & Clark and Pacific remain limited to small-group work on the field. In Yamhill County, George Fox and Linfield have some more leeway. As of last week, George Fox was including on-field sessions without pads for groups of 25 to 30 players. Coach Chris Casey noted the university was continuing to monitor and follow Oregon Health Authority guidelines. He is optimistic his team will progress to full-pad practices at some point this fall.
One thing players and coaches at all four programs share is an appreciation of the chance to spend time together, even in small groups, be it on the field, in the weight room or at the dorm.
Loudyn Reese, a Pacific sophomore defensive end from Hillsboro's Century High, is among those who is thankful he is an athlete with support from coaches and teammates during the pandemic.
"It's not just me going through this. My teammates and my coaches are going through this, too," he said.
"This has been pretty hard for everyone," Reese said. "I feel blessed to be with a great team, to have great teammates and great coaches supporting each other."
Another common response from players and coaches is praise for their strength and conditioning coaches for developing programs that challenge players and keep them motivated and engaged.
Lewis & Clark's Abraham was a unanimous All-Northwest Conference running back as a sophomore in 2018 and a second-team all-conference back as a junior. He said his experience as an athlete and dealing with challenges that arise during a game or a season has helped him adjust to the changes during COVID-19.
At Lewis & Clark, football right now involves small-group strength training, small position group practices on the field without pads — sessions that are preceded by video team meetings held remotely.
As strange as that set-up is, Abraham said he's glad to have the chance to interact with coaches and teammates, calling the experience "therapeutic."
"I'm not taking it for granted," Abraham said, noting that at times during the pandemic he worried that he'd ever have another chance to play football.
A rhetoric and media studies major who is considering law school among other postgraduation options, Abraham said he will definitely consider staying at Lewis & Clark to play football in fall 2021 if that opportunity happens.
The possibility of an abbreviated spring season for Northwest Conference teams is the first target. If that cannot happen, players will have the option of returning next fall without losing a year of eligibility.
Life is different at Linfield, where the team is allowed to practice in pads within position groups and some in-person instruction is happening.
Connor McNabb, a Linfield sophomore from Scappoose, understands that as strange as it is not to have a football season this fall, his situation is better than some. McNabb is moving from running back to receiver this season and noted that drills against the defensive backs is one competitive outlet for him.
His other competitive outlet is playing the new NBA 2K video game with a couple of teammates and with friends from Scappoose. McNabb is living on campus with two roommates and said he and his dorm mates are following rules that include wearing masks. One example: They can get meals at the dining room, but must eat elsewhere. Having tested negative for COVID-19, McNabb noted that under state guidelines roommates are treated like family members.
McNabb said he feels safe, that coaches and school officials have done a good job enforcing COVID-19 rules and that the football players are following edicts such as staying at least six feet apart in social settings.
Players from each program said their team remains tight, that having teammates to share the strangeness of life during COVID-19 is a huge help — even if that connection is through texting groups, virtual gatherings and video games.
George Fox senior linebacker Bradley Thurber, a Sunset High grad who has played every game the past two seasons, said he was adjusted to the new normal, until football season arrived.
"It's been difficult to not have football because it's been a consistent part of my life since third grade," Thurber said in an email, echoing the emotions of players everywhere. "We are doing everything we can and I'm grateful for how hard our coaches are working to keep us working together and growing as a team but at the end of the day it's not the same without games."
Thurber also misses hanging out with teammates after games and practices. George Fox asks its students to limit the size of gatherings.
"On the plus side, this is helping me appreciate the interactions that I am able to have much more," Thurber said.
Rustin Williams, a junior linebacker for Pacific from Sherwood, said it's been strange having time to do homework or to study the playbook in the afternoon after practice.
"Usually we flip right into football as soon as classes end, so that's different," Williams said. "It's nice having extra time after class for homework, instead of having to do it at night."
Williams said one of his focuses is to check on freshmen, who have a particularly challenging transition into college this year.
"I just try to make everybody stay positive," Williams said. "I've learned that we can face adversity and still focus on what we can do instead of what we can't do. And we can definitely hold each other accountable and make sure we're doing what we need to to get ready for next season, whether it's next fall or in the spring."
His teammate, Ty Hargis, a two-time all-Northwest Conference receiver from Lebanon, is one of the positive voices for the Boxers.
"Although the season has been postponed, my life has still been very much focused on football. My preparation hasn't changed as each day is a new challenge to find ways to get better," Hargis said.
With his senior season delayed, Hargis said he has found his voice.
"Through COVID I have learned that I love to lead, that my voice and actions carry great impact — that whatever may be thrown my way, or my team's way, that we can handle it together and get through it positively," Hargis said in an email. "The chase for our goals continues, and our story is far from over, just going to take a little longer than we thought to complete."
Pacific's Reese is taking extra classes this fall and using the time to get stronger and bigger as he transitions from a high school linebacker to a college defensive lineman. Reese played sparingly late in several games as a freshman in 2019, and said that transition helped him adjust to this season's challenges. He said he is replacing the opportunity to compete on the football field by competing with himself.
"When I wake up in the morning, I ask, 'How can I use today to get better? When I go to bed at night, I think, 'How did I get better today," Reese said.
With that mindset, Reese lifts weights four days a week and does agility workouts, too.
Falconer said keeping players interested and motivated to improve is among the challenges for coaches.
"It is interesting problem-solving. You've got to find ways to challenge them and for them to feel like they're getting better," Falconer said.
At Pacific, players are doing drills on the field in small groups without pads in addition to their strength and conditioning work. Falconer noted that Washington County remains in Phase 1 of COVID-19 restrictions, which significantly limits team activities. Players' temperatures are checked before participating in a team event and players must wear masks while in the weight room or on the field — and keep the 6-foot social distancing recommendation.
Pacific holds virtual team meetings each Sunday and Wednesday to make sure everyone is doing OK and sticking with training plans. For fun, each Friday players submit photos of themselves flexing on the mobile app the team uses to communicate.
"The way our kids and coaches have reacted reminds me how lucky we are to love something this much," said Falconer, the Boxers' coach.
And for some, watching the game on TV is a nice escape.
"I miss playing, but at the same time it's so great just to see football again and see that this pandemic hasn't canceled football," Reese said.
Hargis agrees, saying as he watches others play football he knows his day will come.
And, there is one significant bonus.
"The best thing COVID has allowed me to do is spend more time with my family," Hargis said. "Being able to be home for the longest period of time I've been since I left for college really allowed me to focus on one of the most important things in my life, spending time with my family."
It's similar for coaches. For maybe the first time in their lives, football isn't monopolizing weekends. Casey at George Fox said he is as busy as ever during the week, but has enjoyed the opportunity to spend fall weekend time with his wife.
Pacific's Falconer said he will participate in a friend's wedding anniversary celebration, something that wouldn't be possible in a normal year. He is encouraging his staff and players to take advantage of weekends.
"In this business, you sacrifice time away from the people you love," Falconer said, noting that any chance to spend more time with family and friends — "the most valuable thing in your life" — is the big positive of this strangest of autumns.
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