No area of society has gone untouched by the novel coronavirus pandemic, including sports. After every level of athletics was rocked by the virus and forced to shut down in the spring, professional leagues have figured out ways to return to their fields of play in as safe a manner as possible. Meanwhile, decisions are still being made on the collegiate, high school and youth levels about when and how sports will return.
In our Playing Through COVID series, NBC Sports Washington will tell the story of those decisions and how they impact the people involved, including athletes, coaches, parents and more.
For many student athletes of the DMV playing high school football is more than a game. It is a chance for young men to use their athletic abilities to create opportunities for themselves that they may not have otherwise been privy to. Excelling on the field, coupled with academic achievement, opens the door to earning a college scholarship; an accomplishment that could change the course of life for not only the student, but also the student’s family, for generations to follow.
Being recruited is a process and the more “looks” a student athlete gets, the better their chances of earning an offer. In a typical year, recruits have several opportunities to impress college coaches, but 2020 has been anything but typical. The coronavirus pandemic led to an NCAA dead period that has been extended until at least Aug. 31, thereby preventing college coaches and prospects from traveling to see one another in person. It also caused the cancellation of exposure camps that would have been held in the spring and early summer. Now, as coronavirus cases rise, school systems and state athletic associations have been forced to make difficult decisions in relation to fall sports in order to protect students and their respective communities.
Numerous states across the country have postponed football until 2021; Washington, D.C. and Virginia are among them. Maryland also postponed football, though no official reschedule dates have been announced by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Montgomery County Public Schools had previously announced the cancellation of fall and winter athletics, which if it stands, will lessen the opportunities needed for many student athletes to earn those elusive college scholarships.
Though John Kelley, head coach of Quince Orchard High School, agrees with the need to limit the risk of the virus spreading, he fears the unintended consequences students may face without sports.
“I get trying to do the best possible thing to keep people safe, because that’s the right decision, but when you tell a kid they can’t play, you’re canceling their hopes,” Kelley said. “There are a lot of kids who wake up every day who are like, ‘Alright man, football, let’s go. I’m ready to ball out,’ and that’s their thing. When you take that away from them, that’s demoralizing.”
Kelley’s concerns go beyond X’s and O’s. He fears that if student athletes are ultimately not able to compete this season, it could damage their chances of earning a scholarship and ultimately have a negative effect on their ability to win in life.
“We have tons of kids in our program who have been behind a D-I kid [on the depth chart], but they’re a pretty good player themselves, and it just takes them getting on the field to get a scholarship and change their life,” Kelley said. “We have four to five kids every single year that that happens to and now we’re gonna tell them their family’s family could be changed because of this [season cancellation]. If you go to school, you change your life and you’re going to change your family’s life as well, with a college education.”
The recruitment game is a ticking clock and does not stop even in the midst of a pandemic. College coaches are tasked with the responsibility of filling out their rosters, and with limited opportunities and less time, Adam Friedman of RIVALS, believes upperclassmen who were not already being heavily recruited, could find themselves in a challenging situation.
“The recruiting process is going to be very difficult for players who have not yet been offered, or don’t have all of the scholarship offers that they would like,” Friedman said. “It’s going to put them in a difficult spot because a lot of these teams are already filling up their recruiting classes so they can move on to the next year. So, they’re in a less than ideal situation heading into what could be a pivotal year for them.”
While every class will feel the effect of the lack of opportunity, Friedman says those in 2021 are in a particularly precarious position.
“The seniors that are still looking for offers are hurt the most by this because there are always late bloomers and right now those guys aren’t able to show off their growth in the way they usually are,” Friedman said. “We always find a couple of big-time players in their senior season -- guys who grow leaps and bounds from the end of their junior year -- and that’s what college coaches are looking for to help push them over the edge and get that offer.”
One such senior is Walter Johnson’s Jose Cabrera III. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound wide receiver caught 42 passes for 665 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He attracted interest from college programs but was counting on building upon his success to earn a scholarship this year.
“Honestly, I always try to keep a positive outlook on everything and remind myself that all of this is just temporary, but this stuff has kind of brought me down,” Cabrera said. “Seeing my opportunities to really go out and showcase my ability have gone away more and more day-by-day is just hard. Now, I’m just hopeful that I’ll get another opportunity to be able to get the looks I need to make it to the next level.”
Cabrera views football as a vehicle to get to college and earn a degree. His family has served as a constant support system, helping him get this far. He knows how much it would mean to them if he were to get offered.
“My mother is a single mother. She had me when she was 18, and for her to see her son earn a scholarship and possibly go to college for free would probably be the biggest thing that’s ever happened in her life,” Cabrera said. “My grandfather as well, I want to make him proud. Playing this game is my way of thanking him for always being there for me and practicing with me. I just know I have to find a way to make my dreams a reality, not only for me but them too.”
In the potential absence of a season, Cabrera and other uncommitted student athletes are finding other ways to get noticed. In this digital era, virtual exposure has become a powerful tool for recruits. Social media allows them to connect with college coaches from afar. Having their height and weight measured on video and posting training sessions, drills and workouts on Twitter has proven to be effective in getting the attention of college recruiters.
In addition to sharing their own content, Friedman says it is imperative student athletes and their parents form working relationships with unbiased professionals who can help corroborate their progression.
“These players should be taking advantage of every opportunity to get in front of reporters, media members and scouts as much as they possibly can right now. They have to be doing everything they can to raise their profile and show off their development,” Friedman said.
“Since we didn’t have the spring evaluation period, college coaches were not and likely will not be able to get back out on the road anytime soon, so the only way for these coaches to get a third-party view of these players is for them to perform at camp events or workouts. They need to get out to events and get their verified times and get positive performances on tape to show college coaches so they can be re-evaluated. If you’re a borderline player, that’s very important.”
Earning a scholarship is challenging in its own regard, doing so during a pandemic creates an entirely new set of obstacles. But with the understanding that going to college can change one’s life, student athletes such as Cabrera appear determined to find a way.
“This is not what I imagined my senior year would be, but I know I have to do what I have to do. I have goals and every intention of accomplishing them,” Cabrera said.
Presently, the DCSAA and VHSL have adjusted their calendar for traditional winter sports to begin mid-December with fall sports to follow in February and spring season to follow. MPSAA has only announced that sports are postponed the first two quarters of the school year.