FREMONT, Neb. (AP)The temperature was approaching 90 and a light breeze was blowing while Jeff Jamrog put his Midland University football team through its paces under the midday sun.
From the street running past Heedum Field, it looked like a typical August practice. A group of linemen hit a blocking sled, there was a skeleton passing drill and a no-tackle scrimmage.
Signs of normalcy vanish at the field entrance. Visitors are checked for fever. A hand sanitizer dispenser hangs on a wooden post a few steps from the gate. Everyone, unless participating in a drill, is supposed to wear a mask.
”It’s annoying,” linebacker Theo Blum said of masking up. ”After the first three or four days most people got used to it. It is what it is. We wear it. Maybe we get the sun off our face a little bit and get nice tan lines. We do what we have to do to play.”
While the majority of the nation’s college football teams won’t play this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, Midland is among five in Nebraska pushing forward. They do not include the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who will be idle after the Big Ten decided to push back the season to the spring.
Disappointed Huskers fans will find no consolation in the fact Memorial Stadium will be surrounded by teams – albeit all from small colleges – attempting to carry on as usual. Of the 52 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics schools planning to play, 35 are in Nebraska and bordering states Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota.
Jamrog and Midland athletic director Dave Gillespie each spent nearly two decades with the Huskers as players, coaches and administrators. Both said they feel terrible their alma mater isn’t playing this fall and understand the outrage the Big Ten’s decision has caused in this state of 1.8 million.
Midland’s league, the Great Plains Athletic Conference, announced July 21 it would attempt a football season starting Sept. 12. The NAIA is allowing each team to play nine games, two fewer than usual, but playoffs won’t be held until spring.
Gillespie said Midland is following GPAC protocols and local health department guidelines to mitigate the COVID-19 risk.
”There doesn’t seem to be any consensus nationally on what the right thing to do is (as far as playing), and you can get a lot of different opinions on that,” Gillespie said. ”It’s not completely safe, and we’re never going to make it completely safe. We’re trying to make it as safe as possible and take an abundance of caution wherever we need to and can.”
Midland football players are required to wear masks indoors. Outdoors, they need to social distance as much as possible when not participating in a drill and use hand sanitizer frequently.
Plexiglass barriers have been installed in the cafeteria and other areas of the athletic facilities. Players shower at their residences instead of in the locker room. There are temperature checks and screening questions every day. Lunches are prepared for takeout. For meals eaten in the cafeteria, players sit 6 feet apart.
The challenge of maintaining the quasi-bubble increases with school starting Thursday. Midland will hold in-person and online classes.
Gillespie said coronavirus testing is done if an athlete shows symptoms. He said there had been a ”handful” of positive tests among more than 200 fall athletes. Jamrog said one football player has opted out because of COVID-19 concerns.
Blum said he and his teammates are grateful to have a fall season to look forward to even if it comes with some minor inconveniences. Only 145 of 765 teams in the NAIA and across three divisions of the NCAA are scheduled to play at least one game this fall (19%). Another 57 junior colleges have moved their seasons to the spring.
”I know there are hundreds of thousands of people across the country not getting to play,” he said. ”That’s been a motto for us this year starting out: Every day is a blessing to be able to play.”
The Warriors enters the season with momentum. They won six straight to end 2019 and are picked third in the GPAC.
”If we got shut down,” Blum said, ”everybody would have been heartbroken.”
Jamrog, beginning his fifth year at Midland, said he would love it if football-starved Huskers fans wanted to adopt his Warriors as their team for 2020 when they kick off 50 miles from Memorial Stadium. More than 100 of his 150 players are from Nebraska. And in a kidding-not-kidding comment, he invited ESPN’s College GameDay show to visit Fremont.
Heedum Field will be limited to 75% capacity. Midland drew about 1,200 fans per game at the 5,000-seat stadium in 2019, meaning there should be plenty of room.
”Hey, Nebraska fans, you guys come out and support us,” tight end Austin Harris said. ”We’re going to be playing ball this fall.”
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