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Penn State football’s first road trip during the pandemic brings challenges and cautious optimism

The routine that the Nittany Lions have for a normal road trip has changed. So has the custom of parents and family visiting the players, as interactions will not be allowed.

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth, here leaping over two Memphis defensive backs in last December's Cotton Bowl, says he is confident that the Nittany Lions will continue to make sacrifices to stay safe in their hopes of playing a full 2020 season.
Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth, here leaping over two Memphis defensive backs in last December's Cotton Bowl, says he is confident that the Nittany Lions will continue to make sacrifices to stay safe in their hopes of playing a full 2020 season.Read moreRon Jenkins / AP

When Penn State football’s traveling party of players, coaches and staff depart Friday from State College Airport for its long-awaited 2020 season-opening game at Indiana, it literally will be a trip into the unknown.

This isn’t any normal road journey. This is the first time traveling in the age of a pandemic. Gone for about 36 hours is the safety of the campus bubble, and exchanging sweat and spit with your own teammates. This is a trip to unfamiliar territory against opposing players who hopefully are as diligent protecting themselves against the coronavirus as you are.

“It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about it,” coach James Franklin said. “We’ve done a good job with our bubble in Happy Valley, knock on wood, and we’ve got to continue to do it. The week’s not over, we’ve got to do it all week long. But there are going to be some new elements added to our routine by going on the road.”

Routines have changed. No eating is allowed on planes or buses so everyone can keep their masks on. The Nittany Lions are staying at a larger hotel closer to Indianapolis, about 55 miles from IU’s Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, with more space for meals and team meetings. Each player has his own room.

A custom for game weekends has been players being able to see their parents and other family members the night before the game at the hotel and on their way out after the game. This season, however, no visitors will be allowed at the hotel, and postgame visits will be limited, Franklin said.

» READ MORE: Penn State’s athletic department says its latest report shows only one positive case of COVID-19 in tests of 1,241 athletes

“We’re going to try to limit the interactions as much as we possibly can,” he said. “I know there are some schools that are literally putting barriers up to keep people as far away as possible. So we’ll see. We’re hoping to do it through education and we’re hoping to do it through conversations and making people as aware of it as we possibly can. But it’s not going to be perfect. We’re trying to just control as many variables as we can.”

Franklin said home games will be different “where we’re trying to really emphasize as much as we possibly can the social distancing and the masks.”

He said another concern was with players who weren’t making the trip to Indiana, “that they’re going to have to be disciplined and sacrifice that weekend so when we come back, that we don’t have any issues with the non-travel.”

» READ MORE: Journey Brown may miss the 2020 season for medical reasons, but James Franklin is keeping the door open

Defensive end Shaka Toney, a redshirt senior who calls himself “a big family person,” loves the tradition of his family members who “pile in one or two cars” and make the trips from West Philadelphia to Happy Valley, and fly to road games when they can. He also is friendly with many families of his teammates.

It’s all different this year.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to get to do that anymore,” the Imhotep Charter graduate said Wednesday. “So that’s probably the main tradition that can bother me, just not having that family atmosphere on a Friday, having to stay in my room and not being able to socialize as much as we’re all used to. I think that was the biggest hurt for me, is not being able to catch up with my family in person.”

The state of Indiana, which currently has a mask mandate, is on Pennsylvania’s quarantine list. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine called Penn State’s trip, followed by playing Ohio State at home the following week, “a real challenge” from a public health standpoint.

» READ MORE: What Penn State’s roster looks like going into the season opener vs. Indiana

The Pennsylvania Department of Health would like people who travel to any state on the list to quarantine for 14 days after returning, but a spokesperson said the restrictions are a “recommendation,” which is how Franklin understands it with his players being tested daily under Big Ten protocols.

“Very few people are getting tested every single day and living in the type of bubble that we are trying to live in,” he said. “So the way I understand it, the rules are more big-picture and they are recommendations for the average citizen, not for people that are under the policies and procedures we are with everyday testing.”

Tight end Pat Freiermuth said the Nittany Lions have sacrificed to be able to play football this season and is confident they will continue.

“This team is taking great pride in not going out and not doing things that we normally can do during a season,” he said. “With stuff we can’t do this year as a team, we’ve done a great job. So I think if we continue to follow the protocols and not get lazy and continue to stay on top of things, then we’re going to be in a great place.”