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ROWLAND: Over course of one week, three also-ran programs rocked college football world

KYLE ROWLAND
The (Toledo) Blade (TNS)
Indiana University lineman Brady Feeney has waged a life-threatening battle against the coroavirus.

Indiana, Connecticut, and Northern Illinois register only as a faint flickering light in the college football galaxy.

IU and UConn are basketball schools, accounting for nine national championships, while NIU, a Mid-American Conference heavyweight, is paid little attention because of its status as a low-level Group of Five program.

Over a seven-day span in early August, however, those three programs, neglected by the college football establishment, set in motion a course that sent the 2020 season into a tailspin.

The Rucker story: “Here is our story,” Debbie Rucker, the mother of Indiana freshman offensive lineman Brady Feeney, wrote in an impassioned Facebook post Aug. 1.

For 317 words, Rucker sounded the alarm on football in the coronavirus era, acting as the Bennet Omalu of the coronavirus. Feeney tested positive for the coronavirus in July and his symptoms worsened, requiring a trip to the emergency room after complications breathing. Feeney is still struggling and exhibiting tell-tale signs of myocarditis, a heart condition some doctors believe is linked to coronavirus.

“Here was a kid in perfect health, great physical condition and, due to the virus, ended up going to the ER because of breathing issues,” Rucker wrote. “Now we are dealing with possible heart issues! He is still experiencing additional symptoms, and his blood work is indicating additional problems. Bottom line, even if your son’s schools do everything right to protect them, they CAN’T PROTECT THEM!!”

Feeney’s status was bad enough that Indiana paid for Rucker to travel from the family home in Missouri to Bloomington to be with him as he recovered. She said her intent was not to play the role of alarmist but to simply illustrate the difficulties that can arise in football players who test positive.

Rucker defended IU, saying the school followed all safety protocols and provided proper care for her son. Her main message is that it’s difficult for football to be played in a safe manner, and that everyone should wear masks.

“I am asking each of my friends as a request from my HEART, PLEASE take this serious and wear a mask, exercise social distancing, and realize by wearing a mask you could be helping protect those that you love!” Rucker wrote.

“I pray my son recovers from this horrible virus and can lead a healthy normal life!! Football does not really matter when your child’s health is in jeopardy!! Think about it!!! My heart is hurting and I pray for all of these kids and for the people making the decisions about the season!!!”

UConn's role: Three days after Rucker’s post, UConn became the first FBS program to cancel the 2020 season, citing advice from state and public health officials and input from players.

‘The safety challenges created by COVID-19 place our football student-athletes at an unacceptable level of risk,” UConn athletic director Dave Benedict said.

The decision was significant news, but didn’t garner top-of-the-fold headlines because of UConn’s place in the college football hierarchy. It did, however, catch the eye of administrators who knew tough decisions involving their own programs were on the horizon.

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall yells to a player on the field during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Central Florida on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in East Hartford, Conn. UCF won 56-17. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)

What made the situation at UConn unique, according to the New York Times, is that players approached coach Randy Edsall and told they Susquehannock High School graduate they didn’t believe playing in 2020 would be safe. And that came after zero positive tests for a month.

“Let me just say one thing,” Edsall said, “If I was a head coach in a conference, at a Power Five conference or a Group of Five conference, I would be saying the same thing. I’d be doing the same thing. Because these young men’s lives are more important than money. They’re more important than money. I’m just glad we made the right decision.”

Northern Illinois AD: An interested observer was located 980 miles to the west in DeKalb, Ill.

Sean Frazier

Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier was adamantly opposed to playing football in the fall, developing a coalition in the MAC that reportedly included Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen, and laid out why a season was untenable.

Frazier, a football lifer who played at Alabama, coached at Maine, and worked his way up the administration food chain, tussled with his emotions, ranging from dejected to committed. When all the information was presented, he knew what the proper decision was.

“For us to dismiss the science and dismiss what’s currently going on would be irresponsible of me and my leadership,” Frazier said. “I can’t look myself in the mirror and do that.”

The MAC’s conclusion, especially when the finances are examined, was equal parts obvious and stunning. Yes, the economics didn’t add up. But the boldness of becoming the first FBS conference to say no to a fall season was staggering. In the immediate aftermath, whether it was previously planned or a reaction, the Big Ten told its teams not to have full-contact practices.

The next day, Sunday, Aug. 9, word began circulating that an announcement regarding the Big Ten’s decision was imminent and that the 125-year conference would not be playing football in the fall for the first time in its existence. By Tuesday, the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Mountain West had all followed the MAC.

“I was definitely out there a bit aggressive in the last few months about shifting and looking at a spring season,” Frazier said. “But that’s really more about having some personal knowledge firsthand with my family with COVID, watching this disease, watching this virus. And then saying, ‘You know what, I’m a father. I’m not going to put my son in harm’s way.’ I’m certainly not going to put the sons and daughters that I serve out there.”

For one week, three programs that draw scant attention became a central focus of college football, contributing to a season that won’t soon be replicated.