The Northern Illinois University football team was in the middle of its second day of preseason practice Saturday morning when news broke that the Mid-American Conference would be the first Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) league to postpone the 2020 football season.
The timing of the mid-morning announcement hit perfectly for the Huskies. The news broke just as the team, which is practicing in two separate groups this preseason, was transitioning from one group to the next, allowing head coach Thomas Hammock to relay the MAC’s decision to the entire team at the same time.
NIU players said they were not surprised by the news, because both Hammock and Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics Sean Frazier took time during the week to speak to them regarding the possible scenarios for the season prior to the opening of camp on Friday.
“I don’t want to say I was disappointed, because we were prepared,” said junior safety Dillon Thomas. “Still, it is kind of shocking because we’ve never seen anything like it. Coach Hammock and [athletic director] Coach Frazier told us that [potentially moving to spring] was a possibility. I’ve got to look at it positively and try to get our bodies right and give us time to be better as a team.”
Hammock said he believes in having open and honest communication with his team, and the importance of that has been emphasized over the last several weeks and months.
“We’ve been transparent,” Hammock said. “There wasn’t shock, we’ve given them scenarios and alternatives and talked openly about those. We had a couple of team meetings early in the week where I spoke to them and Sean [Frazier] spoke to them about these are some of the scenarios that may come about over the next couple of days.”
Senior offensive lineman Brayden Patton said NIU’s commitment to player health and well-being is not new and expressed his support for the decision not to play this fall.
“Our coaches, our athletic department, our president – they focus on player safety,” Patton said. “This decision by the MAC is the right thing to do, and I believe that, even being the competitor I am and how much I want to play. I truly believe this is what’s right. It’s obviously disappointing as a player, you want to play, but this [potential move to spring] is the best option for us as student-athletes. There are too many unknowns right now with the virus.”
When practice resumed Sunday morning with the players continuing to work in helmets and shorts, Hammock saw the same energy and commitment to improving on the practice field.
“We had a good practice, and I think we have a good plan [for the preseason]” he said. “Our administration has done an excellent job all summer with the procedures and the protocols to make sure our young men are safe. We’ve been at this for six weeks [since players returned for voluntary workouts in June] and we have a lot of information of ways that we can navigate and do the right things to keep our young men safe this preseason.”
Both Patton and Thomas said they feel the protocols in place around the Yordon Center have created an environment where student-athletes can improve and play while remaining healthy.
“We feel good about the measures the school has taken,” Patton said. “We have a good bubble going and the coaches are giving us information every day. We don’t know exactly what will happen, it’s definitely a different type of season, but I feel really good.”
“Since June when we got here, and this whole summer, we’ve done a good job,” Thomas said. “We have created a bubble, and even bubbles inside of the bubble. When we’re doing walk-throughs, when we’re lifting, when we’re practicing, we’ve done a good job of limiting our interactions.
“Getting back on the field has been big for us. We were gone for four to five months, and it made everyone realize how much we missed [football]. Even though the season is moved to spring, it’s good to be back out here on the field with our teammates.”