Adam Gonzales
Asst. Arts & Entertainment Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly taken an intense toll on the lives of high school and college athletes; it has removed a large portion of what these students and coaches spent their time doing. The pandemic guidelines have kept most sports from having full practices and have prevented teams from getting a full experience from their sports, as well as limited seasons.

This aspect of the pandemic leads me to a question about sports, and, more specifically, football. As somebody who played and went on to coach high school football, how are the kids being impacted, and is there going to be a noticeable difference in abilities with upcoming college freshman athletes?

In order to get the best grasp on this subject I could, I interviewed a high school senior, a college senior, a high school coach, and three college coaches. The interviews themselves opened my eyes in some aspects and shed light on the current situations high school and college athletes are facing in the pandemic. However, a lot of the information I got from many of the interviews also came as expected, given the similar outlook a lot of higher division players and coaches have.

Firstly, I would like to cover the lower levels: high school players and coaches. This is where I felt much of the impact would be had, as colleges have more formed adults who have been playing longer. I felt the impact may be seen in the skills of the high school students and even their drive with everything being so off. My questions followed that same idea, such as whether they felt their own skills and the skills of their teammates had diminished a bit throughout quarantine, the mental strain, and the overall impact on them as student-athletes.

To get the answers to these questions, I reached out to one of the students I coached in previous years for his opinion, as his entire senior year has been impacted. Anthony Lira plays defensive end and offensive tackle for John Glenn High School, and is currently a senior hoping to play in college his freshmen year. He personally felt that he and much of the team suffered from an intense lack of practice, scrimmages, competitions, and games. Part of Anthony’s worries was that, due to a lack of games, he will not be able to get enough varsity film to send to prospective colleges. He said, in response to how he felt his game has been impacted, “Before COVID, I could compete with other players, and it’s really taken a toll on me because I can’t do physical drills anymore.”

As expected, Lira felt that this missed year had fundamentally impacted his skills as a player because he is not getting the work he previously had been against other players, and he feels he has less motivation than he’s ever had. “We just can’t do what we were doing; the people we were seeing every week, we can’t anymore,” he said. In terms of his mental impact, Lira said he has been “feeling isolated” and that he has “been down because [he] can’t do what [he] was doing before.”

Overall, the conversation I had with Lira covered the feeling of frustration and hopefulness as a student who wants to get back to the tail end of his senior year and maybe get to play a couple of games.

After speaking with Lira, I wanted to get the views of a high school coach who has been attempting to work with other coaches and their students to maintain some semblance of normalcy for their teams. James Melton, the varsity offensive line and freshman’s head coach at Troy High School, had some interesting insights on how he feels the seniors may perform as freshmen in college next year, as well as how the kids have been impacted during the lockdown.

Firstly, I asked if he thinks there will be a skill gap in college freshman athletes next year due to the coronavirus. His response was that it “totally depends on the students and whether they got to play like the southeast and midwest, but, on the west coast, these seniors may see some skill gaps.” This was the general consensus from some of the coaches I talked to: Southern Californian kids may be in a bit more trouble than other states because a lot of them had more lax regulations and even got to have full seasons.

One thing Melton was concerned about was, with Southern California kids having less time playing, they could less access to scholarships through film and getting observed by college scouts, a similar sentiment we heard from Anthony Lira. Melton did end on this question with saying, “There is no ubiquitous blanket statement.” In response to my question on how this has impacted seniors, Melton said that it “has been brutal on seniors,” but he did mention that the seniors would get seven games this year, their first one being Friday, March 12. He also thinks that their overall athleticism and agility have stayed the same, if not gotten better, as they were running drills over Zoom but could only do non-contact agility work.

The overall sentiment is that the year without pads may have an impact on the physicality of the game, but, overall, their athleticism and technical skills should be in a healthy state. As a longtime coach, Melton himself felt that he grew as a coach and really had to get used to pandemic football while having a family and still trying to get Zoom practices running.

After covering the impact on high school players and seniors specifically, I wanted to move into the realm of college football. For my collegiate player, I interviewed Ryan Nelson, who plays left tackle on the University of Virginia’s offensive line. Nelson’s answers to the similar questions I had for Anthony Lira were a little different, but that is expected from a player out of a Division 1 program. Nelson said that, as players, they were impacted by the first wave of shutdowns through “training becoming a bit unorthodox.”

Nelson had actually caught the COVID-19 virus in the tail end of February, and was coming out of a 22-day quarantine, working to get back into that “football shape.” In terms of training, he mentioned garage workouts, using cars and trucks to push when there were no sleds accessible, and really just making it work because “those who really cared made it work.” He also credited a bit of accountability to Zoom calls with coaches.

Nelson’s opinions on incoming freshmen and whether they may have a skill gap is that the incoming kids always have to adapt because it’s different from any high school experience. He thinks that the kids coming into Virginia will have been practicing at home and keeping their skills top-notch, but still have that ‘first-year shock,’ as nelson put it. “They were the big dogs at their school,” said Nelson; he went on to mention that college is just another level and the high school to college gap surprises a lot of incoming freshmen. “There is always a learning process,” Nelson said.

Mentally, Nelson said it has been grueling and that he had to “figure out the best way to do XYZ.” He was sure to tell me that he has an easier time than a lot of other players because of his amazing support system (loving parents and girlfriend who attends Virginia with him). The final question I wanted to ask Nelson, given the fact that he got to play a lot of his season, was if there were many times he felt uncomfortable playing teams because of COVID-19. Nelson’s answer was that his comfortability level really depended on the team they were playing, citing a specific game cancelation with Florida State the morning of the game because the college team had too many positive cases. Virginia is in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was part of the 139 college games canceled over the past year.

The final section of interviews I did were with three college coaches: Donne Lobendahn, the offensive line coach at Fullerton College, Mike Neale, the head coach at Whittier College, and Garett Tujague, the offensive line coach at the University of Virginia.

Opening up my conversations with each of these coaches, I asked their opinions on whether or not colleges were going to be seeing a skill gap from the incoming freshmen, and if this would be larger than the average skill gap. All of their opinions were pretty similar, with the coaches saying that, at higher divisions and, especially out of California, the high school seniors have been preparing and working for their incoming freshman seasons even with the pandemic in full swing. Tujague mentioned that he grew up in California, and that he has kept up with what was going on with California sports given the state had more strict quarantine restrictions than others.

This can also be looked at deeper through what Coach Donne Lobendahn experienced with most of his college players. “I lost 99 percent of contact with the college athletes,” Lobendahn said when mentioning that many of his players had jobs and other things to tend to. However, in contrast to Lobendahn’s 99 percent,  Tujague felt that, “if you’re a football player, [you’ll] take that time to sharpen that axe before [you] chop the wood.”

Coach Garret Tujague found that his students and many prospect athletes similar to Ryan Nelson kept the work going and found new, innovative ways to stay as in football-shape as they could. However, this sentiment of “sharpening that axe” is not upper divisions alone, as even Coach Lobendahn had one student stick around and really focus on improving themselves and ramping up their skills.

On the other end of things, Coach Neale felt that there was a “tremendous impact on everyone; the guys missed the opportunity to compete and the comradery.” A similar sentiment represented by Coach Lobendahn and Tujague was that, if the kids are serious about upper-division football, they will get after it and not allow themselves to have a skill gap. Both coaches assured that there is nothing wrong with playing for fun, but there is a stark difference between athletes who want to be in the upper divisions and really strive to set themselves apart. In terms of dealing with the adversity, the University of Virginia’s Tujague felt that the leadership within the team really shined, and that the team was able to place second in the ACC because of their own hard work.

All three coaches felt the strain of the pandemic themselves. Lobendahn lost his grandmother during the pandemic and felt that he had to grow not only as a coach, but as a person, and that he needed to “work with more conditions and confines and deal with the situation.” He felt that he and the kids he got to work with had to learn to overcome the fear of COVID-19 and focus on getting better and working where they could.

Tujague felt similarly in terms of overcoming barriers as a coach who has coached 28 seasons of college football. He has evolved as a coach, using Zoom and other socially-distanced tactics, as well as getting creative to keep his offensive linemen in necessary shape. Making the players do drills and send videos for reviews was a big part of what Tujague practiced through Zoom university, but, overall, he was “impressed with how resilient the kids were.” Garett Tujague also gave some insight on the possible changes in rulings for California Junior Colleges, which would allow student-athletes to make one penalization-free transfer. This is quite impactful, as there are “over 1,800 kids in the transfer portal.” As Whittier’s own Coach Neal mentioned, “I never thought there would be a Fall where we wouldn’t be out there.” He talked about how, as a coach, he had to adapt to having regular Zoom meetings and taking things very seriously. 

All in all, the sentiment seems to be harmonious: there has certainly been an impact on football itself due to the pandemic, but some kids and states are seeing it a bit more. We have high school seniors like Anthony Lira, who have truly felt the pandemic and the lack of practice, as well as high school coaches like James Melton, who had to find new ways to keep their kids trucking. All of the college-level interviews revealed an interesting but also unsurprising unanimous understanding: there are certain kids from certain states who may not have had to deal with as big of an impact as California players, but also that the higher division players and kids will ensure that they go into their first year in tip-top shape.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Harvard Medical School

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Next Post

The Filibuster Needs to Go