The return of Morehouse football

ATLANTA – Ambition meets precision on the Morehouse College campus. People knowingly travel to and from their destinations with multi-c...


ATLANTA – Ambition meets precision on the Morehouse College campus.

People knowingly travel to and from their destinations with multi-colored masks draping their faces. A security guard stops the cars as they enter campus, nestled in the heart of Atlanta, waving some after a quick conversation and carefully questioning others.

In a conference room at Forbes Arena, where the basketball team play, Morehouse football coach Rich Freeman spoke of how much that has changed in the past 15 months since his department athletics became the first among colleges to offer football scholarships to cancel fall sports in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been a major adjustment period for us,” said Freeman, whose team returned for the 2021 season.

When Morehouse, one of the nation’s most acclaimed historically black colleges, decided to skip the 2020 campaign, football players used the abrupt switch to video conferencing as a first forum to reflect on their lost year and to share their worries about their future within and beyond. their sport.

They returned for spring training in February with severe health restrictions and limitations on how they could play. The athletes were tested for the virus twice a week during the summer, and for their first team meetings, the coaches divided the players into groups in several rooms because the whole team could not come together at the interior. The older players were challenged to rebuild the camaraderie and welcome the freshmen, who were new, and the sophomores, who had missed what was to be their first season.

The players were just happy to meet again. Eventually, all were vaccinated.

“A lot of guys were losing their minds and I understood where they were coming from,” said quarterback Mike Sims, who missed a season for the first time since he was 6 years old.

Sims was set to graduate this year in May, but delayed his plans when the 2020 season was canceled. He said he felt it was his role, in part, to help keep his teammates calm and to reflect on circumstances beyond football.

“Of course kids, we’re not really trying to hear that,” Sims said in an interview as he sat next to Freeman and Curtis Campbell, Morehouse’s athletic director. “Sure, we just can’t wait to play, but sometimes it’s a situation, especially like Covid, it’s bigger than just having fun.”

Above the college decision-making was the disproportionate devastation the coronavirus has had on black people, who, compared to whites in the United States, are almost three times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 and twice as likely to die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some members of the team immediately understood this reality. Sims had anticipated the cancellation, so when it actually happened, he called Freeman a day later to tell his coach he was planning to go back to school.

Last year, the NCAA granted all fall sports athletes an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic’s impact on college sports. Morehouse, who plays in Division II, also vowed that he would allow every athlete on his football team to keep their purse, which Freeman said has helped allay the anguish of affected players and their parents. .

“It softened the blow a lot,” Freeman said. “We were able to refocus our energy on, ‘Hey listen, you have an extra year to raise that GPA, to try to see if there are some things you could do to help yourself in terms of internships, with your career after you signed up. the campus.’ He added: “It was the silver lining. We had a few guys who were able to do certain things to better position themselves after graduation. “

When David A. Thomas, the president of Morehouse College, chose to cancel the season, he thought that somewhere a school should be the first to make the sacrifice. Morehouse, he decided, would be the one.

“We had to deal with the disappointment of our athletes, who still want to play, the disappointment of our alumni and our boosters, and even to be in conflict with other schools in our conference who wanted to play,” he said. Thomas said in a telephone interview. . “It was also a time when I decided Morehouse should and could show leadership.”

The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the league in which Morehouse plays and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, whose full members are made up of HBCUs, suspended their fall sports for 2020 less than a month after Morehouse took over. her decision.

Most other conferences and programs have advanced with their college football seasons despite the positive cases. The Southwestern Athletic Conference, whose member schools include Jackson State and Grambling State, has moved its fall football season to spring 2021.

In the Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 postponed their seasons until later in the fall. The Southeastern Conference only played a conference program. Almost all of them have organized matches with few or no fans in attendance.

The coronavirus has particularly detrimental effect on historically black colleges. Many of them receive less public funds than majority white schools. Some faced financial hardship even before the pandemic began, including decrease in enrollments during the 2018-19 academic year. With the coronavirus forcing universities across the country to engage in online learning, many HBCUs have had to raise additional funds to provide their students with the resources they need to travel. For Morehouse, this included sending Internet hotspots to students who needed them.

“We found that for a lot of our students, they were trying to learn online on their cell phones because that’s how they connect to the internet,” Thomas said. “When they were on campus, they could go to our computer labs and study center when they really needed a full screen and a set of tools. “

Morehouse also faced many financial implications from his lost 2020 football season. The college awards about $ 2 million a year in football scholarships and has had to forgo income that would have been generated from non-conference games – about $ 500,000, Thomas said. He also missed alumni fundraising related to the football program and its games, he said.

His main concern was to find a way to ensure the safety of his students.

When Thomas phoned Freeman, who had been Morehouse’s coach since 2007, with the news of the cancellation, Freeman spent little time discussing what would be lost. His priority was to make sure his 18-22-year-olds understood why football, which had consumed most of their lives, was being taken away from them. And he should break the news by video call before such meetings become commonplace in school and in the life of the company.

“It was the tough piece,” Freeman said. “Sometimes you would like to provide information in person. Whenever you are facing a loss, making a phone call to tell someone that they are going to suffer a loss is sometimes difficult because you don’t have that personal touch.

A few players needed extra help, and Freeman recalled the phone calls he would receive asking him what would happen next.

“We have very few young men on our team who see football as their only option. Very little, ”Freeman said. He added: “We have a few young men, a handful, who have come to school and are watching the sport like, ‘That’s all I can do. “That’s not the answer. It’s not the truth. The truth is that you won’t always be able to run fast and jump high. The truth is that the good Lord puts something within you to do for others, and it’s not necessarily just playing a football game.

As players returned to the field this fall, some continued to seek Freeman’s advice. Some have asked their families and their academic advisers. Others have turned to Morehouse’s sports chaplain, A. Van Smith, whom they call Uncle Van.

Smith can be seen roaming the sidelines of the team during games, shouting things like “Good game, nephew” when a player does something extraordinary.

“A group of winners,” he said proudly on Saturday as Morehouse played Edward Waters of Jacksonville, Fla.

It was Morehouse’s second home game of the season, at Lakewood Stadium, the team’s temporary home while their stadium is under construction.

Morehouse never led the game. His offense came in and out of sync, and the team only managed 13 points. But his fans stayed the whole game, shouting, singing, celebrating.

Morehouse fell to 0-5 and signs of the lost year persist. But at least the players are back. At least they’re in competition.

“It just adds to the college experience of getting back to football,” said Morehouse graduate Tim Turner as he watched the game. “Getting back to sport, having something in return, where you can come together. “

He paused as Edward Waters scored a touchdown. He continued, “It looks like we’re going to be 0-5 right now, but it’s still a good thing. I think people need this. They need to be around each other. This isolation over the past year could not have been easy for these children. “

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