On Saturdays in the fall, Samuel Emilus follows a strict pre-game routine.
The Montreal, Que., native, currently a junior wide receiver at the University of Massachusetts, starts his day with a shower before reading a book. Last year, Emilus’s favourite was The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, written by the late Kobe Bryant.
“I want to approach the game just like him,” Emilus said when speaking about his favourite athlete. “Reading a book from Kobe gives me a boost to focus on the game and being the best I can be.”
Emilus embraces the “Mamba Mentality” as he travels to Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, the football home of the UMass Minutemen. The Canadian spends time with himself, dialling into the mental state required to help his team win.
When it’s time for kickoff, the stadium is at full capacity – 17,000 passionate Minutemen fans pack the confines at 300 Stadium Drive in Hadley, Mass., to support their football team. The school spirit from the stadium is brimming with energy and electricity, whether it’s the Minutemen marching band or the students in the stands.
Emilus feels it, every time he steps on the football field.
In 2020, however, Saturdays will look much different. There will be no pre-game routines. No book reads or tailgates. No chants from the crowd or songs from the band. No opportunities to re-ignite a rivalry, like against Boston College.
Silence. An empty stadium. No football.
Such is the reality of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, taking away fall sports from many athletes across the country.
Including Samuel Emilus.
“Being around the guys, there’s nothing better than Saturday college football,” Emilus said. “I’m going to miss the excitement of playing against another team, thinking they are better than you and proving them wrong.”
The sports world continues to navigate how to return amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Hockey and basketball embraced the “bubble” concept. Baseball teams are playing in their home ballparks (except the Toronto Blue Jays, of course) with their opponents based on geographic location. The NFL kicks off Sept. 10, with stadiums having limited or no fans in attendance.
NCAA football is operating in a much murkier climate than many pro sports. Decisions on whether a season commences or not are up to the conferences, and that has led to some conferences postponing their football seasons while others forge ahead.
On Aug. 5, the University of Connecticut became the first FBS program to cancel all fall sports, citing safety concerns due to COVID-19. The Mid-American Conference (MAC) became the first FBS league to postpone the fall season on Aug. 8. UMass, Emilus’s school, followed suit on Aug. 11, announcing the cancellation of its football season.
These cancellations preceded the Big Ten and Pac-12, two conferences steeped in athletic tradition and success, electing not to play fall sports in 2020. While the players impacted by the postponements and cancellations will be given an additional year of eligibility, the decision is still a tough one for some to come to terms with.
Sydney Brown is entering his junior season at the University of Illinois, one of the member schools in the Big Ten. Born in London, Ont., Brown plays defensive back for the Fighting Illini, where he was second in the Big Ten last season with three interceptions.
The news of no fall season disappointed Brown, who had high expectations entering his junior year.
“To have the season cancelled on a simple decision that could’ve been looked at more, it sucks,” Brown said.
According to Brown, the football players at the University of Illinois were getting tested daily. This included two PCR tests required through Big Ten protocols and saliva tests conducted via the university. When the Big Ten released its schedule on Aug. 5, Brown and his teammates believed they were going to play.
Less than a week later, the season was postponed.
“What bothered me the most was the clarity,” Brown said. “Five days into training camp they release the schedule, then postpone the season. We all thought we were going to play this year. I just wish there was more clarity provided to the players on what was going to happen.”
Cole Harbour, N.S., native Justin Stevens, an incoming freshman offensive lineman for the Michigan State Spartans, had every intention of contributing this season. Training with the team over the summer affirmed why Stevens chose Michigan State, as it’s a program with recent College Football Playoff experience and a winning culture.
While Stevens understands the Big Ten’s decision, he feels that not playing in front of 75,000 people at Spartan Stadium, including the rivalry game against the Michigan Wolverines, is unfortunate.
“I think we were going to shock a lot of people this season,” Stevens said. “I hate talking about it. It’s upsetting that this is the way it is.”
While disappointment and frustration are understandable emotions to the postponement, there are also mixed feelings. Tyris LeBeau, a teammate of Emilus’s who plays linebacker for UMass, doesn’t know a world without playing football. The Montreal native is caught between the desire to play the sport he loves while respecting the university’s decision.
“There are mixed feelings because I’ve been playing football since I was five years old,” LeBeau said. “The decision was out of our hands and based on safety and health, which I understand. But it’s hard not being able to play because of an outside force, not because it’s your choice.”
Many Canadians decide to pursue college football in the United States because of competition and exposure. As Stevens noted, the expectations and standards “slap you in the face,” motivating players to get better. Since Canadian football players garner less attention in high school compared to their American counterparts, they have to work even harder in college so professional scouts notice them.
Despite players working in the gym and studying film to prepare for next year, it doesn’t compare to actual playing reps on the field. With the NFL combine and draft in the spring, having no fall season puts their football dream on pause.
“You can work out all you want, lift all the weights and be the strongest, fastest guy in the world, but if you don’t have the tape of playing football that scouts look at, you aren’t going anywhere,” Brown said. “Tape for any athlete, it’s their resume. Even if your resume is good or bad, the tape this year could change someone’s life forever.”
Not all conferences are postponing football in the fall. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC are the notable leagues electing to play football starting this month.
Matthew Bergeron, a sophomore right tackle hailing from Victoriaville, Que., plays for the Syracuse Orange in the ACC. Their season starts on Sept. 12, as they take on the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Bergeron feels safe at Syracuse, given the school’s health and safety protocols of COVID-19 testing once a week during fall camp and three times per week during the regular season. While he’s grateful to play football in the fall, he wishes there was consistency amongst the Power 5 conferences.
“All the Power 5 [conferences] should have made the same decision,” Bergeron said. “I feel like two conferences down, three playing, some players are going to have more advantages for NFL coaches and scouts compared to others.”
For the Canadian NCAA football players unable to play, the focus now shifts to the classroom, while maintaining top physical fitness so they’re ready for football.
Emilus believes this delay will make him a stronger player mentally, and he’s focused on becoming a leader on the team.
“Having this year back is a blessing in disguise,” Emilus said. “Football is a big part of me so I got to keep working to be a better, all-around player.”
For athletes who are used to being constantly active and playing the sport they love, patience is challenging. However, the physical and mental development these players will undergo during the hiatus make them more motivated than ever for the return of college football, and its traditions, tailgates, marching bands and raucous energy.