ATLANTA – Ambition meets accuracy on the campus of Morehouse College.
People cover their faces with multi-coloured masks to deliberately go to their destinations. A security guard stops the cars as soon as they enter the campus in the heart of Atlanta, wave to some after a quick conversation and carefully interrogate others.
In a conference room at the Forbes Arena where the basketball team plays, Morehouse’s football coach, Rich Freeman, explained how much has changed in the past 15 months, as his athletic department became the first among colleges to cancel fall sports. Football Scholarship for Due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
“It has been a major adjustment period for us,” said Freeman, whose team returns for the 2021 season.
When Morehouse, one of the nation’s most acclaimed historically black colleges, decided to abandon the 2020 campaign, football players videoconferenced to reflect on their lost year and share concerns about their future. Used to change abruptly. His game.
They returned for spring practice in February with significant health restrictions and limits on how much they could play. Athletes were tested for the virus twice a week during the summer, and for their initial team meetings, coaches divided players into groups across multiple rooms because the entire team could not gather indoors. Old players were challenged to rebuild camaraderie and welcome newcomers, who were new, and sophistication, which their first season had missed out on.
The players were happy to be back together. In the end, everyone was vaccinated.
“A lot of people were losing their minds, and I understand where they’re coming from,” said quarterback Mike Sims, who missed a season for the first time since age 6.
Sims was on pace to graduate in May this year, but his plans were delayed when the 2020 season was canceled. He said he felt it was his role, in part, to help his teammates keep calm and think about situations beyond football.
“Of course, kids, we’re not really trying to hear that,” Sims said in an interview sitting next to Morehouse’s athletic director Freeman and Curtis Campbell. “Of course, we’re just itching to play, but sometimes it’s a situation, especially like Covid, it’s bigger than just having fun.”
Because of the college’s decision-making, the coronavirus wreaked havoc on black people, who are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it than white people in the United States. For the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some members of the team immediately understood that reality. Sims anticipated a cancellation, so when it actually happened he called Freeman a day later to tell his coach that he planned to return to school.
Last year, the NCAA granted all fall sports athletes an additional year of eligibility because of the pandemic’s impact on college sports. Morehouse, which plays in Division II, also promised that it would allow each athlete on its football team to retain their scholarships, which Freeman said, helped pique the anger of the players concerned and their parents. helped.
“That greatly reduced the blow,” Freeman said. “We were able to re-focus our energies like, ‘Hey, look, you’ve got an extra year to boost that GPA, to see if you can go on with your career after you matriculate for an internship. There are a few things you can do to help the case. Campus.'” He added: “That was the silver lining. We had a few people who were able to do certain things to put themselves in a better position when they graduated Were.
When Morehouse College president David A. Thomas decided to cancel the season, he argued that somewhere, a school would have to be the first to make a sacrifice. Morehouse, he decided, would be the one.
“We need to let down our athletes, who always want to play, disappoint our alumni and boosters, and even with other schools in our conference,” Thomas said in a phone interview. are in conflict.” . “It was also a moment where I decided Morehouse should and should provide leadership.”
The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the league Morehouse plays in, and the Middle Eastern Athletic Conference, whose full membership is made up of HBCU, suspended their fall games for 2020 less than a month after Morehouse made its decision. done.
Most other conferences and events went ahead with their college football season despite positive cases. The Southwestern Athletic Conference, whose member schools include Jackson State and Grambling State, moved its football season to spring 2021.
In the Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12 delayed their declines later in the season. The Southeastern Conference played only one conference schedule. Almost all of them staged the games in the presence of few or no fans.
The coronavirus has had a particularly adverse effect on historically black colleges. Many of them receive less state funding than white-majority schools. Some faced financial struggles even before the onset of the pandemic, including a drop in enrollment during the academic year 2018-19. With the coronavirus forcing universities across the country to move to online learning, many HBCUs have had to raise additional funds to obtain the resources they need to transfer their students. For Morehouse, that involved sending internet hot spots to students who needed them.
“We found that for many of our students, they were trying to learn online on their cell phones because that’s how they were connecting to the Internet,” Thomas said. “When they were on campus, they could go to our computer lab and study center when they really needed a full screen and set of equipment.”
Morehouse also suffered a number of financial impacts from their lost 2020 football season. Thomas awards about $2 million a year in college football scholarships and has to run out of income — about $500,000, Thomas said. He said it also missed out on raising funds from the football program and alumni associated with its sports.
His main concern throughout was to find a way to keep his students safe.
When Thomas called on Freeman, who has coached Morehouse since 2007, with news of the cancellation, Freeman spent little time contemplating what would be lost. His priority became to make sure his 18- to 22-year-old players understood why football, which had consumed much of his life, was being snatched away from him. And before such meetings become common in school and corporate life, they have to give news over video calls.
“That was the tough piece,” Freeman said. “Sometimes you want to give information in person. Anytime you’re dealing with a loss, a phone call to let someone know they’re going to experience a loss is sometimes hard because You don’t have that personal touch.”
Some players needed extra help, and Freeman missed the phone calls he would get to ask what would happen next.
“There are very few youngsters in our team who see the game of football as their only option. Very little,” Freeman said. He continued: “We have a handful of young men, a handful, who come to school and look at the sport as, ‘That’s all I can do.’ The answer is no. It’s not true. The truth is, you won’t always be able to run fast and jump high. The truth is, the good Lord puts something in you to do something for others, and It doesn’t have to be just a football game.”
As players returned to the field this fall, some continued to seek Freeman’s advice. Some asked their families and academic advisors. Others include Morehouse’s sports pastor, A. Van Smith, whom he calls Uncle Van.
Smith can be seen walking to the side of the team during the game, shouting things like “Good game, nephew,” when a player does something extraordinary.
“A bunch of winners,” he said with pride on Saturday as Morehouse played Edward Waters of Jacksonville, Fla.
It was Morehouse’s second home game of the season, at Lakewood Stadium, the team’s temporary home as its stadium is under construction.
Morehouse never took the lead in sports. Its offense went in and out of sync, and the team managed only 13 points. But its fans kept on shouting, singing, celebrating for the whole game.
Morehouse fell to 0-5, and the signs of a lost year stalled. But at least the players are back. At least they are competing.
Morehouse graduate Tim Turner said while watching the game, “It adds to the college feel to back football.” “To get back to the game, to get back to anything where you can gather together.”
He stopped as Edward Waters scored a touchdown. He continued: “It looks like we’re going to be 0-5 right now, but it’s still something good. I think people need that. They need to be around each other. The past year In that isolation, it couldn’t have been easier for these kids.”