By John Antonik
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia football players used to wear a plain, drab, gray t-shirt with the word TEAM in navy blue emblazoned across the front.
It symbolized the importance of a greater good – a cause much more important than one’s self.
Everyone has heard the old saying there is no I in team , and that really caries extra meaning today with the world still trying to come to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The places where “we” instead of “I” are embraced seem to be handling the pandemic much more effectively here in the United States and throughout the world.
Mountaineer coach Neal Brown understands that “we” is really the only way college football teams are going to successfully navigate the most hazardous season since 1918 when the last pandemic hit the world.
West Virginia University has already undergone extraordinary measures to get its employees and students back to campus in the safest manner possible.
Testing has been done.
Each employee and student was also required to take an online educational course on the virus before being allowed to return to campus, and wellness checks are being administered daily through the University email system.
WVU is also dealing swiftly and assertively with issues involving house parties and large gatherings beyond the allowable number issued by the local health department.
Still, how effectively Mountaineer football can weather this virus is going to come down to a matter of personal choice – who is willing to value “we” more than “I” until this thing passes?
The Cleveland Indians have already demonstrated that extreme measures might be necessary. Last week, the Indians demoted starting pitchers Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger for breaking team virus protocols. They have since been optioned to Cleveland’s alternate training site in Eastlake, Ohio, and must stay there for a minimum of 10 days.
It remains to be seen if they will be able to regain the trust of their organization in order return to the team.
It will have to be this way for the Mountaineer football team as well.
Brown said during a Wednesday afternoon video conference with media that successfully getting through this season is really going to boil down to a matter of trust.
If the players can act responsibly, the season will be completed successfully. If they can’t, there will be problems.
“It’s a right to be on a football team, and you can lose that right,” Brown said. “Now, the trust within teammate to teammate is so important, and when these students are coming back, you saw some of the reports of the house parties and the things like that. Our guys have got to be smart because anytime they choose to do something then they’re (potentially) bringing that back to their team.”
In the case of the Indians, they were dealing with adults who failed to make adult decisions. Brown is dealing with 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds, many of whom are still learning how to become adults.
“You are asking them to make mature decisions and a lot of these guys are not to that point in their lives, so you’re trying to coach them and you really try to get the veterans help them understand why it’s so important,” he admitted.
Brown said he preaches to his team COVID-19-related issues virtually every day he’s with them. He gives them examples and sends them articles about the virus.
He demands they wear masks whenever they are around each other, and every single team activity is done with an emphasis on minimizing the risk of spreading the virus. He has established a practice environment where there is virtually no interaction indoors where the virus has a much greater chance of spreading.
That’s remarkable, when you really think about it.
As a result, the football complex is probably the safest place for a player to be right now.
But when they leave, that’s when personal responsibility takes over and “we” has to take precedence over “I.”
“If it gets to a point where we have guys that are repeat offenders or can’t follow the protocols then they can’t be a part of this,” Brown admitted. “We are going to make those decisions week to week and as long as we continue to stay relatively virus-free then we will continue to add players to our roster because we need them from a practice standpoint.”
Consequently, Brown said he can envision more players than ever seeing action this year. And having these split-squad practices to minimize player contact has actually allowed more of his guys to get practice reps during preseason training camp than ever before.
It may not always be good on good, but it’s still individual reps nonetheless.
“I just think the way the year is going to be structured, more young people will play than ever,” Brown concluded.
West Virginia is scheduled to have a recovery day today and will resume split-squad practice work on Friday leading into Saturday morning’s practice inside the stadium.