“I try to tell our guys that just because it’s supposed to happen and people think it’s going to happen, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
It’s fitting that this part of Sam Howell’s response to a question about the Tar Heels’ expectations following last season’s success also doubles as a slogan for the uncertain future of the sophomore North Carolina quarterback and college football as a whole.
Despite CNN reporting Sunday that the United States surpassed 5 million COVID-19 cases — over 162,000 of which have been deadly — football administrators have spent this summer trudging closer to a finished blueprint for an attempt at a season this fall.
“Coaches are creatures of habit,” UNC football head coach Mack Brown said. “We’re creatures of a plan and direction. It’s hard to have that when you’ve got very few answers.”
Since Brown expressed that sentiment nearly two months ago, many conferences have outlined their plans for variations of a conference-only schedule in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. UNC’s revamped football schedule, featuring new opponents and game dates in the ACC’s one non-conference, 10 conference games format, was initially unveiled Thursday.
With that announcement, the team now has its plan and direction, albeit one that could become obsolete at any moment as athletic directors and commissioner chairs continue to meet. Here’s how this ever-evolving process has unfolded for North Carolina over the course of this summer.
‘Trying to stay healthy’
“I wear the mask a lot,” senior running back Michael Carter said. “I had a mask on before I got (to this interview). Big credit to the football staff, they gave us a couple extra masks.”
And with those extra masks came a catalog of precautions that seems to grow each week for the Tar Heels.
Following the team’s multi-phase return to campus from mid-June to the end of the month, a few of the new rules include helmets with extensive face shields to cover players' mouths, a portable mic for Brown to call out players not social distancing and regular sanitizing of the field and practice facilities.
“It just gives you more motivation not to get sick, to try to stay away from other people and stay in as small of groups as we can,” senior wide receiver Dazz Newsome said on June 26.
“Our kids have had a ‘don’t blink’ mentality as far as the fact that they trust everything we have in place for them,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie added the following week. “I think we had a great plan of how we slowly brought the guys back.”
And for a few weeks, the team’s three-part return and guidelines seemed to go according to plan. Players typically arrived to campus on Fridays, were tested that day and told to separate as much as possible over the weekend while the team awaited results.
Brown said they made an effort to avoid large gatherings at practice for more than 15 minutes at a time and divided position groups to have socially-distant meetings throughout multiple facilities.
“All the guys on the team right now are taking the coronavirus precautions very seriously,” senior wide receiver Beau Corrales said days before the final group of players stepped foot on campus. “We’re trying to stay healthy and do the right thing so that we can play this year.”
The future of college football this fall was somewhat bright. There seemed to be a dim light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, the reality of this pandemic set in.
‘It just goes from nothing to fast’
“I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to have some (cases), and you've got to learn from them,” Brown told reporters on July 21. “All of us will be more cautious now, in my opinion, than we were before.”
Two weeks before, on Wednesday, July 8, the University announced campus health and UNC Hospitals had administered 429 COVID-19 tests on college athletes, coaches and staff since June 1.
37 of them came back positive.
“It just goes from nothing to fast,” Brown said.
Although the number of positives associated with the football team wasn’t announced, Brown said every football player who tested positive had little to no symptoms. As a precaution, the football team temporarily paused its voluntary workouts, and the weight room was shut down for cleaning.
Since then, UNC has not released any more testing results related to the athletics department.
The news sent enough of a shockwave through the program for Brown to feel compelled to remind everyone that anybody could claim a hall pass to take the year off without consequence.
“There’s a lot of macho in young people and young men in college football, and they don’t want their buddy making fun of them,” Brown said. “We have said, ‘This is real. This is real stuff. If you are uncomfortable at all or anxious, if you want to miss workouts, if you don’t want to play, let’s do it.’”
Still, it went without saying that changes had to be made. The team couldn’t expect to have a successful year without making any adjustments.
“The experiences of the football team were informative,” Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at UNC, said. “The football team had issues that were very public, but they were handled with the strategies that were developed.”
The aftermath of those positive test results saw UNC’s two main parties in the fight to protect everyone’s health — the athletes and the staff — take what they learned from that “informative” process to adjust to today’s new normal in varying ways.
‘This is very new, very scary for me’
In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the UNC athletics department began to fill some of the cracks in the system.
Infected players were interviewed for contact tracing and allowed to keep people anonymous to create a comfortable environment.
“I think, from what I can tell and the information I’ve gotten back, they feel like our players have been really, really honest,” Brown said.
Since this “wake-up call”, the coaching staff has also shifted its focus to positional flexibility and depth, especially since training camp started on Thursday, Aug. 6. In the event that a player were to test positive or require isolation during the season, their teammates will need to be prepared to line up in unfamiliar territory as replacements.
But for some of the players themselves, the recent outbreak, the beginning of camp and the finalization of this season’s schedule have been overwhelming. One of those players is redshirt senior defensive back D.J. Ford, one of four Tar Heels to opt out of the upcoming season, so far.
“Personally, I just wasn’t comfortable,” Ford said. “I was one of the guys who was more paranoid, who was at home.
“I told myself I would give it a shot, went to workouts, then we had our first day in pads with the face visor and everything,” he continued. “Things were just very different. I felt like I was having trouble breathing, like I said, I was very paranoid about becoming infected. I just didn’t feel good about the season and potentially being exposed to people.”
Ford was adamant that the North Carolina coaching staff and his teammates were fully supportive of his decision. A team spokesperson said Ford will remain on scholarship for the year, but there are still too many unknowns about whether he will receive an extra year of eligibility.
Ford’s situation represents a microcosm of the reality that scores of college football players are facing. Countless college athletes from across the country have recently taken to social media to make similar announcements about sitting out amid the pandemic, and thousands of young adults will face a similar risk/reward decision.
“I’ve always played football, so this is very new, very scary for me to not play,” Ford said. “But I think my fear of COVID was greater than my fear of not having football.”