As Boston College football players returned to Chestnut Hill this week for the start of voluntary workouts, college programs around the country dealt with striking numbers of players and staff members testing positive for COVID-19.
When the NCAA decided to lift its May 31 moratorium on on-campus activities for football and basketball teams, there was a sense among many that it was safe to proceed. For BC coach Jeff Hafley, seeing the number of confirmed cases around the country was an inevitable reality.
“I think it’s going to happen,” Hafley said. “I think you’re going to see it across all college campuses. We’re going to have ups and downs and we’re probably going to have weeks where some kids do get it and we’re going to have to deal with it and we’re going to try to have to learn from it and do the best that we can.
“But I would not say that I’m shocked. You get a bunch of kids coming in from all different areas, really not knowing where they’ve been, who they’ve been around, and as you’ve seen, you can be asymptomatic and still have it.
“So nothing would really shock me at this point. I believe that. But we’re doing everything we can to minimize all those risks.”
BC players wore masks and gloves as they moved back on campus. The plan is to go through an eight-day quarantine period and begin testing after that. Hafley said every player on the roster reported. He refrained from saying whether any players had tested positive since the start of the pandemic.
To help ease any concerns, the team held a Zoom meeting for players and families and went through a manual put together to outline protocols for the road ahead.
Hafley, who was hired in December, had led the Eagles through just a handful of spring practices before the NCAA suspended sports in March. He wasn’t sure when or if football would return.
“Truthfully, when this all started, I don’t know if any of us thought we’d be back in this situation,” he said.
Now that they are, safety is paramount.
“I think it’s a huge step, and I’m very grateful for the support here at the school to get our guys back and not rush into it and to ensure that the safety of our players and the health of our players is the most important thing,” Hafley said.
While the NCAA allowed activities to resume at the start of the month, the Atlantic Coast Conference left the decision up to its individual schools. Louisville was the first to return, on June 8. BC decided to reopen later to make sure the proper resources were in place.
“The school looked into a lot of different things,” Hafley said. “When would our medical people be ready? When would the school facilities be ready? And we really believed we picked a good time. Because if we get through this quarantine, if we get through July 1, it gives us two months to get right."
Given the likelihood of players testing positive, Hafley offered more details about the protocol.
“These players, they’ll be taken care of,” he said. “They’ll continue to be in quarantine, where they’ll be treated and they’ll make sure they’re looked out for. We’ll have to separate them from the rest of the team to make sure that that’s isolated.”
In the early stages, the Eagles are still maintaining some of the approach they used during the quarantine. Team meetings are held via Zoom. “We’re going to continue to do that until we feel it’s necessary to meet with them in person, because I do think we’ve learned over the course of this period we can do a lot through Zoom.”
Staff members wear masks throughout the building, and meetings are held in an auditorium rather than an office for more distancing.
Considerations have to be made about quarantining players in a way that would keep an entire position group from being compromised.
“There’s a lot of different theories about that,” said Hafley. “Do you keep all the O-linemen separate so if one O-lineman gets it, the rest of the O-linemen don’t get it? So we’ve taken some precautions with that. We haven’t gone to the extreme yet, because really in this quarantine period we haven’t had to do that because all the guys are going to be alone.
“But when we do start to break into smaller groups, we definitely have thought about that.”
Looking ahead somewhat, Hafley said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the shape in which his players returned, but still cautioned that a slow approach is essential in ensuring players aren’t risking injuries after such a long layoff.
“Taking the COVID aside, If we rush into this thing and physically do it wrong, we’re going to get more injuries than we’ve seen,” said Hafley. “I think [strength and conditioning coach Phil] Matusz and his staff developing a plan to get them ready in steps — don’t rush into this thing — that all goes back to making sure our players are safe.
“If that means pushing the football aspect back to get them more ready physically the right way, then we’ll push the football back and we’ll do less X’s and O’s.”
Still, as the Eagles take the first steps toward a new normal, Hafley acknowledged that everything is still very much subject to change.
“I think all the medical people have been working together, and I think this is the start,” Hafley said. “Will there be ups and downs? Sure. There’s no book, guys.
“Kind of like I explained to the team, this has never really happened in the history of college football. So every day I wake up and something new will happen. And it’ll be something that maybe we can do a little bit better.
“And maybe we can look to the teams that have already been through this a little bit longer and somewhat learn from what they’ve been doing.
“But we all have to be encouraged right now because we’re here and we’re back. If we weren’t and no one was back right now, I’d feel a little worried.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.