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James Franklin, Penn State football program take serious precautions against coronavirus

DEREK LEVARSE
(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin yells during an NCAA college football practice, Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, in State College, Pa. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)

For Penn State to play a full football season this fall, it’s going to take some sacrifice.

Helping stop the spread of the coronavirus likely means that players will have to cut down on contact with crowds outside of practices on top of wearing masks when possible.

A handful of programs that have dealt with outbreaks of COVID-19 since resuming on-campus workouts — such as Clemson, LSU and Kansas State — have reportedly traced them back to players attending bars and parties.

“(Coaches) are just preaching to us to do the obvious — don’t put yourself in those situations where you’re putting yourself or your teammates at risk of the virus,” Nittany Lions kicker Jake Pinegar said on a video call with reporters. “Kind of just hanging out, low key. Do what you have to do and stay safe.”

Asking college kids to not act like, well, college kids can be a tough proposition.

But if the message ends up resonating at Penn State, it might be because the head coach is giving up more than most.

Franklin isolated from family: Just like his players, James Franklin will be physically isolated from his family for the foreseeable future. For Franklin, the time apart from his wife, Fumi, and his two daughters, Shola and Addison, will likely be much longer.

That’s out of an abundance of caution for 12-year-old Addison, his youngest daughter, who has sickle cell disease, an auto-immune disorder that would place her at higher risk from the effects of COVID-19.

In interviews that aired this week with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and FOX’s “Big Noon Kickoff” crew, Franklin said that the rest of his family will remain at their second residence in Florida while Franklin runs things for the Lions in Happy Valley.

“As we kept discussing this, my wife felt the best thing to do is just to stay there in Florida,” Franklin said. “Even in town, my daughters come to practice all the time. They come to all the games.

“There’s a lot of tears about me leaving. I’m probably not going to see them until January or February unless things change. But there was a lot of tears. It was hard for me to come back and leave them knowing that we’re going to be apart for such a long time. Thank God for technology, but it’s a tough situation.”

To help protect his daughter, Franklin said his family has “been on total lockdown” in Florida for much of the pandemic, and that both of his daughters will be home-schooled this year as well.

“We’ve been down there really for the last couple of months,” Franklin said. “Literally have not left our property in months. We order our groceries to be delivered. Just wouldn’t leave our residence. We just have to be extra sensitive. We have to be extra careful with her.”

Culture of caution: Penn State can’t completely isolate its players in the same way, so it’s up to Franklin and staffers to oversee a culture of caution after voluntary on-campus workouts began last week.

The university has not released any numbers regarding tests or cases of COVID-19 among players so far. Schools across the country have been split on this since the NCAA permitted players to return at the start of June.

Pinegar said that while he had not seen any of Penn State’s medical data himself, he wasn’t aware of any positive tests among his teammates.

What he could attest to was a very serious tone that has been set in the program to maintain social distancing and hygiene regulations.

“I think that has to do with the coaches, with the medical staff, with our training staff and players just buying in and being smart about it,” Pinegar said. “I know a lot of places players are testing positive. I think with the way things are run at Penn State — workouts, the directions and the steps that players have to take each and every time that they step (into the practice facility) or they’re on campus or at their houses — I think everything that’s set up, is set up to where there’s almost zero risk of getting that.

“I think the players are bought into that as well, which helps. And that has helped no players test positive and everybody be safe and sound so far. I think we’ve just got to continue to do that to stay safe.”

Pinegar said he has only been around a handful of teammates since returning a few weeks ago, as Penn State is keeping workout groups small and separate from each other.

Plans and protocols: To prepare, Franklin said the plans and protocols from different leagues around the world have been studied to see what has been effective in keeping people healthy.

“We’ve been patient,” Franklin said. “We wanted to look at what was going on in other sports, whether it’s Major League Baseball or basketball or football and try to learn from them. Whether it was in Europe and some of the professional leagues, and then some of the colleges came back a little bit earlier than us. We wanted to take the approach that we’re going to learn every day.

“At the end of the day, we’d better be making decisions that are in our players’ best interests from a health and safety perspective, first. But we’re also not naive and don’t think that there’s economic implications to this as well. But we better be going from a health and safety perspective first.”