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In the Huddle: How to mentally handle a pandemic-ridden season

Coach and former Mizzou Tiger Terry Dennis explains how players need to keep their minds right in the strangest season we’ll see in our lifetimes.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 12 Eastern Kentucky at West Virginia Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Not that we needed them, but 2020 has not come without challenges. From a global pandemic, to racial dysfunction in the States, to the short-lived, “Murder Hornets,” scare — not to mention unease surrounding this year’s US presidential election — there seems to be only one thing of which we can be certain...

Football is back!

From little league ball to Friday night lights at high schools around the country, football is back for the fall season along with all the cautions that come with the year 2020. With the SEC kicking off its conference-only schedule this weekend, along with the fact that many college football programs are stuck waiting until spring or worse, we’re reminded that new Mizzou Head Football Coach, Eli Drinkwitz’s #NewZou is an honored privilege, not necessarily a right. We also know it’s no certainty nor a guarantee we’ll get through this proposed season without any hiccups. That raises a unique question for Missouri’s coaching staff: how do the Tigers go forth in preparation for what has already shaped up to be the most unusual of seasons in the history of the sport?

Whether you’re a Coronavirus skeptic, or an avid, precautionary mask wearer, the hard fact is that people are dying worldwide. Being given the ability to indulge in the game of football, much less be given the opportunity to watch it play out in front of us is a luxury most dear to citizens here in the western world. The safety of student-athletes and coaches is of the utmost importance. Having gone on a recruiting rampage lately, one must know (or at least assume) that when Coach Drink sits on a recruit’s mother’s couch in Mobile, Al., or Kansas City, Mo., that he’s making a promise to not only return mama’s baby boy as a well-rounded gentleman prepared for the real world, but to do what it takes to protect him while he’s away.

This year poses particular challenges in that area, as the Tigers strap up to begin what many would consider a most unforgiving schedule. So the question still remains: How do the Tigers prepare for a season like this?

Practice and Over-Practice Safety

In years past, coaches using the phrase, “Take care of your bodies,” was 99 percent football-related. This season is different and will undoubtedly be filled with non-football related setbacks. Already, we’ve seen 12 players listed as inactive against Alabama this Saturday due to COVID-19. [editor’s note: the number was later condensed to 7 after five players were cleared.] It’s one thing to take steps in recovering after a difficult week of lifting and practice, then go out and give everything on Saturday against an opponent. It’s a completely different thing to endure those same risks and worry about a threat you can’t see, can’t touch, and sometimes cannot even feel.

For players, particularly in college, the temptation to want to socialize is imminent, especially for freshmen and younger players wanting to experience life amongst their peers. But despite their age, it’s time to step up and make probably the most adult decision they’ve had to make in their short lives. For veteran players and captains, it becomes a huge responsibility to cultivate an atmosphere that encourages things like social distancing, wearing a mask, and making decisions off the field that will protect the team moving forward. One positive test — or even contact with a positive individual — could mean the difference between having your starting quarterback on the field, your back-up running back taking the bus on the road... heck, even your head coach on the sideline!

Former Head Coach Gary Pinkel was able to address the team just a few weeks ago. One of his famous sayings during his tenure was “Over-prepare.” To ensure the safety of the season, and ultimately the safety of players and the people around them, players must overdo safety. Yes, it’s college, and college kids will find a way to mingle. It will happen. God-forbid the virus gets caught walking into Walmart off Broadway. However, it’s crucial in preparing for a season that could get cut short at any moment to not expedite that process.

Just Play Football

Even amidst all the distractions and precautions, football is still here. This virus doesn’t change pre-snap reads; it doesn’t change the “POP” when pads collide; it doesn’t change the size of the field or which jersey the Tigers wear. Getting back to what these players know will effectively establish normalcy amongst the chaos. Players can’t be concerned with who made the trip and who didn’t for either team, whether or not the season will end today or tomorrow, the prevalence/statistics of the virus in each town they play, or how Mom and Dad feel about it back home. Just play football. Prioritize classes, of course, because even though they may look different this year, there is no football without academics.

But ultimately, play football like you always would. Prepare. Execute. Win games. This virus can do a lot of things, but it cannot be the excuse or deciding factor in deciding to show up to play football.

Grow Up

Many spectators and players think that football is a right, both to play and watch. But it’s not — it’s a privilege. Several players, from high school to professional, have made decisions that jeopardized that privilege and got it taken away. They certainly didn’t mean to infect themselves or others. But with the presence of this novel virus, changes need to be made in how players live, move around, interact, and come together.

Much like rules against using drugs within the program, the rules exist to protect the team. Go against the rules, and you’re gone. When egos go against what’s necessary to establish cohesiveness, it causes division. Division won’t win the SEC, much less beat Alabama Week One or the defending national champions in Week Three. The current state of the world, swirling with a global pandemic and racial dysfunction — that certainly isn’t too far from the reach of the University of Missouri itself in recent years — is causing these young men to have to grow up much more quickly. This shouldn’t stand to take away from the fun of being a Division I football player, but it should stand as a clear choice to prioritize what matters, Because that’s what this is all about — priorities. If football is what they want, the players should do what it takes to make it happen without jeopardizing that privilege.

At the end of the day, very few can say they’ve had the chance to do what these young men get to do, and certainly not at the level at which they do it. It’s up to them to keep it that way by doing what they need to do to stay healthy. On the part of us as spectators, support goes a long way in keeping those tired, mentally taxed, physically beat down young men moving forward. Calling the whole COVID-19 scenario “dumb” neither hurts nor helps the cause — it just is the way it is. Let’s hope the way it is doesn’t last more than one season.