Friday morning, the last local college football team left preparing for a season was behind a fence at 11th and Diamond Streets. Competing with a SEPTA bus turning on Diamond and an elevator services truck rolling by, you could hear the faint, familiar sounds of football.
“Up the middle!”
“Let’s go ... Let’s go!”
Just after 8 in the morning, roughly half of Temple’s football team was inside there on the field. By 9 a.m., the other half began lining up on the sidewalk outside the front gate. Pandemic football.
In addition to following city guidelines, splitting Temple’s team in half for practice sessions serves a couple of purposes. You can space out the workouts easier, and if there is a positive test, it would theoretically affect less of the team.
A wide receiver rolled up on his skateboard, wearing a mask. A staffer got his temperature taken just inside the gate.
“98.7,” he reported.
A different staffer came out, yelled down the line.
“If you did not do the health program, make sure you do it right now!”
A daily online health survey. Pandemic football, 2020.
Will the Owls get to an opening kickoff? They can’t know. Even the date of the opening kickoff kept changing, as nonconference games fell off the schedule. Now, Temple is down to its American Athletic Conference games, so unless they add a nonconference game, the opener would be Sept. 26, at Navy.
Have there been positive COVID-19 results for athletes? “Under 10″ is the answer, according to multiple sources. Multiple football players have tested positive, the Temple sources said, but everyone is back practicing, although several football players from Europe are still in quarantine since returning to Philadelphia.
“The most recent test — a lot of tests, no positives,’' one source said. “The one we just took.”
Nobody is resting easy. Rod Carey, talking on the phone Friday afternoon, explained that he was having his first- and second-teamers practicing in the first shift and then his third- and fourth-teamers, mostly because the third- and fourth-teamers are generally the younger players living on campus, and the dorms are about to get a lot more populated.
“I never thought I’d be thinking about things this way,” Carey said.
In the smaller groups, its position groups working among themselves, not offense against defense yet. They have a plan in place to be ready for an opener, but it’s a far different plan from usual.
Maybe the only good news for younger players is they are getting a little extra attention from their coaches in that second practice. There is a chance to impress, Carey said.
Right now, the indoor portion of the football facility is still closed. Fran Dunphy, now Temple’s interim athletic director, said there is a premium on finding outdoor spaces that can be used for strength and conditioning. Usually, spring sports would start training right away when students come back in the next week. Temple has had to say: slow down.
“A concern came up that that wasn’t fair,” Dunphy said. “Now, I want to say to those coaches, throw fair out the window. There’s nothing fair about COVID.”
He gets where the coaches are coming from. No workouts can be jarring.
“We’re always concerned with the mental piece of this,” Dunphy said. “It’s a tremendous change. That’s what I worry about the most.”
If the city says you can’t have gatherings of more than 25 people inside, and lightning hits the area, the women’s soccer team can’t simply practice indoors. It has to cancel.
Dunphy made it clear that Temple also is studying the wider landscape.
“I’m just very proud of our president and how he has handled the whole thing,’' Dunphy said, referring to Temple president Richard Englert. " He was on a [AAC] Zoom call and he brought up the concerns of those conferences that aren’t playing and why they aren’t playing and let’s really investigate that totally. He raised that question, let’s make sure we’re taking into consideration every detail.”
Dunphy, standing on the sidewalk on Diamond Street, said the issue of myocarditis is taken seriously, that any athlete who tests positive has gone to a cardiologist, has to be cleared just on heart issues in order to return to play.
When you look at the geography of it, the AAC is an interesting league. You could conceivably see why Central Florida and South Florida, for instance, would look around and say, “Gators and ‘Noles and ‘Canes are playing, we’ll play.” Houston and SMU might do the same: “Longhorns are playing, Aggies are playing.”
Meanwhile, schools such as Temple and Navy have different cohorts. Penn State and Maryland aren’t playing. (What would the Vegas odds have been on Penn State’s shutting it down ahead of Temple?)
What’s Dunphy’s degree of confidence or skepticism that they’re going to have a fall season?
“The hope is that we can, but we have to be prepared that something would change our minds,” Dunphy said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. We’re moving full speed ahead.”
If the first football game now is scheduled for over a month away, “in my mind, that’s a positive,” Dunphy said. “Just because we have time to evaluate every detail of how we’re doing things, how the testing is going, all of that. We’re not rushing into anything. At the same time, Coach Carey wants to have his team prepared to play.”
What puts Carey in a good mood?
“Being on the field,” Temple’s head coach said, since that means he isn’t on a phone call or Zoom call talking about protocols and other matters that wouldn’t have been on his radar in the past. Carey quickly added that all that is important. But with the facility basically closed except for those exact practice times, “you miss being around the players.”
When Friday’s first session ended, those players walked out, each holding a plastic bag with his food for the rest of the day. (Some linemen’s bags looked impressively full.) Meetings would happen later, but by Zoom. Welcome to Pandemic football.
Carey may have put it best.