Playing Through A Pandemic

In a sign of the times, running back Devyn Ford rushed for a touchdown in an empty stadium during Penn State’s 23-7 win at Rutgers last Saturday. It was the first game back for Ford since he missed a game after a death in his family, the latest example of how many players and coaches have made sacrifices and overcome adversity this season. (Photo by Penn State Athletics)

Everyone involved with Penn State football has made sacrifices to ensure this season could be played. Having that opportunity was (and is) critically important to all the players, especially the seniors.

After the fall season was postponed, and then restarted, defensive coordinator Brent Pry was asked if he could tell whether or not the uncertainty was taking an emotional toll on the players.

“Shoot, man, it was wearing on everyone,” he said, laughing a bit, perhaps out of relief that there’d be games. And there have been games. Penn State, in fact, is one of a handful of teams in the Big Ten that has played its entire abbreviated schedule, a testament to how well everyone in the program has adapted and adhered to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Beyond all the challenges that the team is dealing with that are somewhat typical across the country — and believe me, I know using the word “typical” in reference to 2020 sounds bizarre — the Nittany Lions have also dealt with players facing false positive tests during the week, not having all coaches available at each practice, and not enjoying the usual Senior Day recognitions.

At Penn State, families are allowed to be in the stadium but can’t be on the field to share the usual hugs with their sons before the game. It’s a moment that moms, dads, brothers, and sisters have looked forward to for four or five years, and now it’s not going to happen in the way they were hoping.

There has also been heartbreak, as emerging sophomore running back Devyn Ford missed the game against Michigan because of a death in his family. He returned last weekend to help Penn State earn a 23-7 victory at Rutgers, rushing for 65 yards and a touchdown.

“I mean, it’s just like family,” Ford said Saturday after the game, describing what it was like returning to the Penn State football program and receiving feedback from his teammates and coaches.

“They were around me, just consoling me, giving me that love, and I definitely needed it at that time. Everyone faces adversity, so you’ve just got to keep pushing. But it was definitely helpful for them to put their arm around me and be the brothers that they are and be the coaches and the men that they are, actually care for somebody else. It was good.”

Other players have seen COVID-19 hit their families, with running back Noah Cain sharing earlier this fall that multiple family members contracted and overcame the virus. James Franklin said there are other examples of players and people in the program going through adversity behind the scenes. He’s understandably reluctant about sharing details, deferring instead to the players themselves to share what they’re comfortable with. The main point being that what happens on the field each Saturday is usually the result of a lot of unseen work and overcoming challenges that don’t always become common knowledge.

Add in Journey Brown medically retiring for a health-related issue separate from COVID, Cain and Pat Freiermuth suffering season-ending injuries, other players getting hurt, knowing every week that your game might be canceled, and it’s been a lot. And it’s been a lot to endure under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, faced now with the rest of the student body having already returned home in time for the Thanksgiving holiday and upcoming winter break.

James Franklin has coached this season without the in-person support of his wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, as his family is staying out of town because Addison has sickle cell disease, which has her more susceptible to COVID-19. This week, Franklin said: “I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.” (Photo by Steve Manuel)

“A lot of these families and a lot of these young men are having to do this on their own without the normal support that they normally would be able to get or provide,” Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “The team’s been really good about it. All the way back to the beginning of the season with us losing players, there’s been a lot of emotional swings that the team has had to handle, and in a lot of ways, I’m really proud of them.”

Later on, Franklin was asked if all the sacrifices made by everyone have been worth it to play this season. It was a simple and straight-forward inquiry. And also complicated. And ultimately, perhaps impossible to answer.

“That’s a good question,” Franklin said, hesitating a bit before beginning his response.

Sometimes, a moment or two of silence says a lot.

“Right now, in the heat of it all, it’s hard to answer that,” Franklin said. “Because to me, I’m not just looking at football, I’m looking at the whole picture. When all these decisions were made, it was hard to predict on how this was going to play out. I mean, you look at the Big Ten in general, you look at the records in the Big Ten, there’s been a few programs who have been able to do it, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a year like this in the Big Ten from a competitive standpoint, pretty much across the board.”

“It’s hard to predict, and to be honest with you, I think we’re still in a position where it’s hard to predict what the future holds, when this is going to end, when is this going to change, when are we going to get back to normal. … It’s been tough, I will tell you this, I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters.”

Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addison, are staying out of town during the season because Addison has sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that has her more susceptible to COVID-19. Franklin would love to find a way to have his family visit him in State College, though as he said, that’s especially difficult because there isn’t a nearby medical center that can handle sickle cell.

That’s Franklin’s personal story, he said, and there are as many as 150 others in the program. His message was it’s not about him, it’s about the team. Sometimes fans hear about some of those other stories. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, the stories are still there. And they matter.

“Although we haven’t had the success on the field this year that we want … I also think there’s been some really good examples as well of this team sticking together, of this team battling back at a time when other programs aren’t; with guys opting out and those types of things and our guys haven’t done that, they’ve continued to battle,” Franklin said.

“There’s been some cracks that have been exposed through this pandemic, but there’s also been tremendous resiliency. I know this sounds strange, and I don’t want this to be misinterpreted, but I’m also proud of that. I’m also proud of how we have battled a lot of adversity and a lot of challenges.”

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