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Nebraska Football

Huskers Aware of Virus Concerns, Stress Comfort and Desire to Play

August 10, 2020
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Iowa canceled its 11 a.m. practice and then Purdue canceled a scheduled media availability with its team. Elsewhere in college football, Oklahoma State canceled a scheduled press conference with its coach and several players. Rumors swirled and the college football season appeared to be hanging by a thread

Nebraska was on the practice field Monday morning well into the 11 o’clock hour—albeit in just a helmet and shorts—and when Husker head coach Scott Frost walked off that field, he could have elected to follow suit and postpone a previously-scheduled 1:30 p.m. CT press conference with the media. 

“I have a group of players that I love—every single one of them—and I ask them to fight for us all the time, to fight on the football field all the time, and I think at some time the head coach’s responsibility is to fight for what they want too,” he said as part of an opening statement that lasted nearly 10 minutes. 

Amid uncertainty, faced with questions he didn’t hold complete answers to, Frost spoke to not just the Nebraska fishbowl or the Big Ten market but the larger college football public. 

And after, he let three of his team leaders—quarterback Adrian Martinez, defensive back Dicaprio Bootle, and offensive lineman Matt Farniok—speak for themselves. 

“We want to play football,” Martinez stressed. “I know for a fact that Nebraska’s taking care of us here and our coaches, our players, this locker room, we want to play and we’re going to do whatever we can do to find a way to play.”

Frost’s time at the dais served as a de-facto warning shot across the bow to the Big Ten league office: “We will play without you if you force us down that path.” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day made similar comments on ESPN 2’s College Football Live show shortly after. 

But Frost (and presumably Day) holds the political capital to be able to make such … what frankly seemed like promises … because his players are in his corner. 

As he is in theirs.

“I’m thankful I’m here. I’m thankful I’m a part of Nebraska and this community,” Martinez said. “We know those guys, our coaches, have our back. He’s not forcing us to play. There’s no one forcing us to play. If someone feels unsafe, they can go get tested, we can take the necessary steps to make sure they feel safe.”

For weeks, Nebraska has been making that exact statement. 

On Wednesday, Aug. 5—the same day the Big Ten conference decided to hold an hours-long TV special to unveil and prop up a football schedule we know now was written in pencil as lightly as can be—a Players’ Tribune piece was published. In it, more than 1,000 Big Ten players announced they were standing together and asking the league for more in terms of medical assurances with regards to COVID-19 protocols.

During the days leading up to that piece’s release, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren had held conversations, large and small, with Big Ten football players about their concerns. A player representative from the Husker football team took part. Nebraska’s team, even up until Tuesday evening, was unsure what side of the players’ impending line in the sand it stood on.

After #BigTenUnited had reached “trending” status on Twitter, the Huskers began a #WeWantToPlay movement. 

“Our leadership got together and abdicated from the Big Ten United group, and right on the heels of that, on their own accord, put out a lot of tweets about how they feel about Nebraska and said we want to play football,” Frost said. 

The head coach made clear one thing: this was player-driven and not university-driven.

“There’s been a lot of narratives out there. I was proud of our players a week or so ago when a statement came out from Big Ten United. We didn’t steer or direct our players as to what to do,” he said. “The only direction we gave them was to make sure that if this is a voice that’s supposed to be speaking for you, make sure that you agree with what the voice is saying.”

Another pocket of players, this one stretching beyond the confines of any individual conference, grabbed the megaphone late Sunday night. Led by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, players started sharing a graphic that featured the #WeWantToPlay tag but also a call to create a College Football Players’ Association.

Asked about that idea, Martinez said this:

“I think Twitter, as we’ve seen of late with what Trevor Lawrence has done, has been able to reach a more national level. He’s been able to use his platform to be talked about on various news channels and this and that, and it’s gotten his message, I think, to people in the NCAA office and beyond. 

“But also I think it’s important that the players’ wants and needs are addressed and are heard. I think that’s a very valid thing for players to want some sort of representation. However that ends up coming to be I’m not necessarily sure right now, but I do think that players’ concerns and players’ questions should be addressed in some formal way hopefully moving forward.”

At the end of this day, Nebraska just wants a chance to try and play football. 

“We’ve been working for months, and we want to showcase what we’ve been working for,” Farniok said. 

That’s the heart of it. 

Frost said if football was a factor in athletes contracting the virus, he’d be the first to “pull the plug.” But, he says, “The virus is here either way and I would contend that our players are safer here doing what they love to do and being monitored and screened constantly than they would be if we sent them home.” If Frost’s son was old enough, Frost says he’d be comfortable allowing him to play football. 

The three players that answered questions Monday all did so wearing masks, a small but intentional gesture. Nebraska’s coaching staff, Farniok says, has worked to enforce social distancing wherever applicable during practice. Frost has addressed the team and offered assurances that a player’s status with the football program moving forward would not be impacted if they chose to sit out the upcoming season. 

No one on the team, Frost said, has made such a decision. 

Bootle, when asked if he consciously thinks about the virus when he’s on the practice field, said no. His teammates nodded in agreement.

“Football’s always been kind of an escape for me,” he said. “When you cross those white lines to get on the field, nothing else matters but football.”

Collectively, the biggest concern the team has to date is what happens to eligibility. If Nebraska opens the currently-scheduled 10-game, league-only campaign with Rutgers and only makes it three or four weeks in before things are shut down, has everyone lost a year of their eligibility? If the Big Ten says “No football” and Nebraska cobbles together its own schedule, does the Big Ten recognize those games?

“The guys don’t want to waste a year of eligibility if we play a broken season—a two-game, three-game, four-game season where they’re going to lose an opportunity to play for a whole year,” Frost said. “That’s been the biggest concern I’ve heard from our players. We’re waiting to hear on eligibility decisions from the NCAA.”

Frost posited that his team, in certain situations, isn’t worried “enough” about the virus, and that the coaching staff has taken to making sure they understand the risk associated with playing a season amid a pandemic.

If the question is “What has changed in the time P5 conferences announced schedules and now,” ESPN’s Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach reported Monday that concern is being fueled by a potential heart condition.

“Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of athletes' medical care,” ESPN wrote. “Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, which can be fatal. It is a rare condition, but the COVID-19 virus has been linked with myocarditis with a higher frequency than other viruses, based on limited studies and anecdotal evidence since the start of the pandemic.”

Frost has told his team the university will work to answer their questions and provide EKGs or cardiac MRIs “to make sure the players are in the best health they possibly can to play and they’re not at risk.”

Martinez said there will need to be a “sacrifice” made by college football teams and schools around the country who choose to play football this year. That applies in more areas than one.

“We understand that, like Coach Frost said, we’re not doctors, we don’t understand every aspect of this COVID virus, but at the same time, if it’s possible, we want to play football,” Bootle said. “We want to be able to go out there and do the things that we all love.”

 
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