The most impressive part of Boston College’s football season wasn’t the near-upset the Eagles pulled Saturday at No. 1 Clemson, or the complete transformation of their offense into one of the best passing attacks in the Atlantic Coast Conference, or even the overall rejuvenation of the program under first-year coach Jeff Hafley.
The Eagles have seen their greatest success play out each week as rounds of COVID-19 testing have gone by and the team continues to see not one positive result.
The impact of the pandemic loomed over the Eagles' trip to Death Valley when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence revealed two days before the game that he had tested positive. As a university, Clemson has had 4,786 confirmed cases since June 5, the second-most of any school in the country.
The Eagles returned to Chestnut Hill Saturday night and completed their routine testing Sunday. When the results came back Monday, the roster was once again COVID-free.
Out of 6,500 tests since the team returned in June, just one player has tested positive — and that was during the first week after players arrived.
The magnitude of going this deep into the season without encountering any brushes with a virus that has touched almost every facet of American life isn’t lost on Hafley.
“It is the biggest win, because it shows the world what people can do when they really work at it, stick together, and I think our team is a prime example of that,” Hafley said.
Within the program, there’s a growing sense of pride in seeing the results. Athletic director Pat Kraft likened it to winning the biggest game of the season, in which case the 4-3 Eagles have put together a season-long winning streak.
“It’s definitely not an easy streak to keep,” said defensive lineman Brandon Barlow. "There’s certain responsibilities we’ve got to take as a team, to uphold it to make sure that we stay safe and follow the procedures that are in place now that cause a lot of limits on our lifestyle.
“But we know what we want to do here. We want to play ball. So I just try to go about my day-to-day business and just keep up with what’s going to keep my team safe, me safe, and it’s worked so far for all of us.”
While there is no way to compare the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across schools — not all programs report cases uniformly — BC appears to be a special case.
Dr. Gregory Stewart, co-director of the Sports Medicine Program at Tulane University, attributed BC’s success to several factors, none more important than program-wide buy-in.
“It happens because the players, the staff, the coaches, everybody has made a concerted effort in order to make it work, and a commitment to each other, and a hell of a lot of luck,” Stewart said. "It truly is kind of a combination of those things. You’ve got to want it. Everyone’s got to buy in that this is incredibly important.
“But you’ve also got to be lucky because you’re going to go to the grocery store or you’re going to hug your auntie. So there is some luck that goes along with it. But luck’s not enough. This is a commitment from the individuals, the players, the coaches, everybody.”
Throughout the season, the Eagles could look no further than across the field to see programs dealing with the effects of the virus. Before the Eagles opened the season against Duke, the Blue Devils had two players opt out for COVID-related reasons. As their schedule played out, Texas State, North Carolina, Pitt, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Clemson all had players miss time because of COVID-19.
Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University, said some things are in BC’s control and some aren’t.
“They are on a campus with relatively few people, and that means there’s less chances for their players to come into contact with other people who may be carrying the virus,” Binney said. "They have until recently been in an area where there isn’t a lot of virus in the community. That makes it less likely for anyone to get sick.
"It’s possible, though hard to tell from the outside, that their athletes or staff have been especially careful and conscientious about not putting themselves in high-risk situations, like indoor parties or things like that. So perhaps there is a cultural or programmatic aspect.
“And then the other thing to keep in mind is that they may have simply gotten lucky, and constant vigilance is required. And everybody needs to stay cautious and realize that this could fall apart at any moment, especially as the case numbers seem to be rising in Massachusetts, as they are in many areas of the country.”
Even as the Eagles have tried to conduct business as close to usual as possible, the protocols hover over them — whether it’s Zoom meetings or socially distanced team meetings or strict requirements for flights and hotels. But Barlow said the weight of it all hasn’t disrupted the team’s routine.
“It’s not something that’s like glaringly over, hanging on my shoulders all the time,” Barlow said. “It’s not something I’m thinking about all the time. It’s just something that I’m aware of. And I just tried to go about my business in that type of fashion, where we keep everyone safe.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.