By: Mike Ferguson, Contributing Writer.
Winter Haven - The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the United States and the world.
That is also true for the sports world. Since the second week in March, major college sports, as well as the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball, have all come to a grinding halt. The virus has created a realm of uncertainty for professional and college athletes alike, including those from Polk County.
Jack Twyford is set to enter his sophomore season as an offensive lineman at Yale University. The Winter Haven High School graduate said it wasn’t long after the Ivy League canceled its basketball tournament that he realized how serious the virus was.
“I remember people getting pretty mad about the basketball decision,” Twyford recalled. “The (Centers for Disease Control) said we were 14 days behind Italy’s model for a pandemic outbreak. That’s when I knew this was serious.”
Brendan Gant, a former safety at Kathleen High School in Lakeland, will be a sophomore for Florida State in the fall. Gant said the impact was unexpected.
“We didn’t expect it to happen,” Gant said. “But our coaches prepared us for whatever.”
Persevering Through Adversity
Both Twyford and Gant were hoping to take on bigger roles for their football programs. For both, spring practice was canceled.
Twyford was on spring break when he received the news that there would be no spring football. Yale was scheduled to begin its spring immediately after spring break. Twyford appeared in two games for the Bulldogs in 2019 and looking to push for more reps as a sophomore and perhaps a starting spot.
“I’m definitely confident in myself and my abilities,” Twyford said. “Spring was a chance to really prove myself to my coaches. You can never have enough reps in practice.”
As for Gant and the Seminoles, spring practice had already gotten underway when it was canceled. Gant played all 13 games at FSU in 2019 as a freshman but was used often at linebacker. For 2020, he had planned to return to his natural position of safety and perhaps work his way into the starting lineup.
"Coming into the spring and getting back into the groove of playing safety was important for me,” Gant said. “I was expecting to take on a bigger role. It was tough.”
Fans often forget about the “student” portion of what it means to be a student-athlete. With the coronavirus outbreak, changes have not only had to be made to football regiments but academic ones.
Gant noted that most of his scheduled classes were already online. Since he arrived in Tallahassee from Lakeland, Gant said he’s taken school every bit as important as football. Forced to do more on his own, Gant has tried to stick to his normal class and study schedule.
“I try to keep the times the same,” he said. “I just made (academics) my main priority. You just have to focus in a little more.”
During this time of uncertainty, Gant remains in Tallahassee. Twyford, however, has gone from New Haven back to his home in Winter Haven.
Classes at Yale, he said, have gone away from letter grades for the spring semester and are now strictly pass/fail. Twyford said he’s unsure of how summer courses will be affected.
“Three or four of my classes were lectures,” Twyford said. “I have a pretty obtuse schedule.”
Team Activities and Staying in Football Shape
Although FSU players and staff have been practicing social distancing, Gant said they can work in very small groups to stay in shape. With a first-year head coach in Mike Norvell, Gant added that players and coaches are doing what they can to meet regularly.
“Our coaches have been preparing us for moments of adversity since they got here,” Gant said. “We want to be a player-led team, so we’re pushing each other to stay on top of stretches and exercises. With a new staff and a new scheme, we have to stay on top of things. We’re trying to keep everything the same as much as we can.”
Gant added that under the current situation, it will be on the players as individuals to work hard and improve.
“I just feel like this is the year of the athlete itself,” he said. “There are no excuses really.”
Being away from campus and with gyms closed back home, Twyford said he’s just using what’s available to him to stay in football shape.
“I have a weight set in my garage – a power rack,” he said. “I sometimes have to get creative to find a way to work the muscles. There’s a certain degree of creativity that goes into it.
“I’m taking it as an extended vacation, only I have to do my schoolwork and work out,” Twyford added. “I’m cherishing the time with my family.”
Will There Be Football in 2020?
With the COVID-19 pandemic having caused the NCAA to end spring and unfinished winter sports, there are questions whether or not fall sports, like football, will take place. Among the items on the table are the prospects of playing in empty stadiums or pushing the season back to later in the fall or the spring.
“I didn’t know it would be to this scale,” Twyford said. “I thought I’d be back in Connecticut by April. If we’re allowed to go up in the summer, I plan to take classes and work out with the team.”
Both Gant and Twyford seemed optimistic about football in the fall.
“I know this situation is serious,” Gant said. “I just feel like, at the same time, we can’t keep the world on lock forever.”
As far as empty stadiums go, Twyford joked that wouldn’t be much different for many Yale games.
“It’s my best guess that we’ll have football in the fall,” he said. “If you’ve ever been to a game outside of Harvard-Yale, we play pretty much without crowds.”
About the Author: Mike Ferguson currently serves as the public information officer at the Haines City Police Department. Mike earned his bachelor's degree from Florida State University in 2009. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Davenport, Florida with their two children.