Second of a four-part series on college athletes in various stages of their COVID-delayed careers waiting on their next move.

Justin Covington was good to talk earlier this week, then pushed it back an hour when he realized he had a conflict. He’d needed to talk to a professor about his home health class, which had focused that day on hospice care, part of Covington’s last class for his Villanova bachelor’s degree in nursing.

A speaker had talked to the class about talking to patients, the challenges for nurses in end-of-life care, the boundaries of life, and the need to not feel like a failure when your care can’t prolong a life.

No wonder Covington can switch gears and offer a little perspective about his life on hold right now.

As a fourth-year junior at Villanova last fall, the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder was leading the NCAA FCS division in rushing when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in October, ending his season. He’s been training for one last go in 2020.

Now? Wait and see. He’s in a particular state of limbo. The Colonial Athletic Association, where Villanova plays its football, has announced there will be no league season because of the coronavirus pandemic, but CAA teams are free to put together a schedule. While some schools are doing just that, Villanova hasn’t decided what it will do. The league has 12 football schools in nine states from Maine to North Carolina. There could be no one-size-fits-all edict.

“It’s not just the players,” Covington said of what goes into bringing sports back amid COVID-19. “It’s the trainers, the staff. There’s a mix of emotions.”

Preseason magazines are coming out, predicting Villanova for the national FCS top 10.

“It kind of stings a little bit,” Covington said. “This team is so good, it’s almost the sad part. We all may not not be able to play together. Obviously, there’s a lot more than football going on.”

Covington would like to prove that his eye-popping early numbers last season could translate to the next level. He’s willing to hold off on more schooling to be a nurse-practitioner if football keeps calling. Until the game he got hurt in, he had played five complete ones and run for 134, 109, 119, 194, 118. Those are historically good numbers. Brian Westbrook-like numbers.

Covington knows some college leagues are looking at moving fall sports to the spring, but he wonders how that could work logistically at Villanova, since lacrosse is usually on the football field, and the weight rooms and other facilities are used by the spring sports. Plus, can you have a spring season followed by a fall season? That’s a lot of football.

“Kind of take it one day at a time,” Covington said of the whole picture.

But he talks about the stakes being important. Let’s say Villanova doesn’t play football this fall, but some FBS leagues give it a go. “There are guys who would look to play somewhere else,” Covington said.

Right now, nobody really knows if anybody is going to play anywhere.

“We’re in this weird middle ground of waiting to see what happens,” Covington said. “We all really want to play together again.”

Covington thinks back to the spring, when everyone was sent home.

“We’ll go home for two weeks, we’ll come back,” he said. “I remember thinking in April or May, ‘We’ll have a season.’”

Justin Covington avoiding Pete Haffner of Lehigh for a long gain last September.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Justin Covington avoiding Pete Haffner of Lehigh for a long gain last September.

When Covington went to Villanova, his mother moved from the Bronx, where he grew up, to Middletown, up the Hudson River. He’s been there this summer. His rehabilitation has gone all right, he said.

“I’ve been able to continue my physical therapy up here,” Covington said.

There have been team Zoom meetings, as you’d expect. In the spring, they were what you’d expect as preparation for a season without a spring practice. Position meetings, etc. As the pandemic wore on, the meetings became a little less X-and-O-oriented, more focused on how everybody was doing.

“We’ve done some cool things, like a team Kahoot!” Covington said of the online multiple-choice game where you can design categories yourself. For the team, they did mascots of different schools and statistics and photos of incoming freshmen: “Name the freshman. Trying to keep it a little fun.”

Playing video games with teammates also counts as team interaction. Maybe the worst hit? When Villanova’s graduation went virtual. Covington was ready to walk in his cap and gown.

“That did affect me more than I thought it would,” Covington said.

Last week’s CAA announcement hit him differently. He has spent a career trying to avoid a hit but also being ready for it when it arrives.

“I almost felt it coming,” Covington said. “Not to say it felt better.”