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During a pandemic, promoting safety while optimizing performance is a balancing act

Day-to-day logistics have been transformed, and very little is off the table.

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Credit: Northwestern Athletics

There’s hardly a playbook for operating a football program in a pandemic. Nothing is certain, and everything is fluid.

Logistically, every policy is being reviewed and altered, whether it is the practice schedule, weight room protocols, team meeting setups, busing to road games, hotel stays, or providing meals in way that’s nutritionally sufficient to make sure the players are ready for the game.

Head team physician Dr. Jeff Mjaanes and head athletic trainer Kevin Kikugawa give everyone the guidance, and they take it from there. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has sported a face shield during practice, but the Big Ten mandates coaches wear masks on game day. In the spirit of 2020, things may change at any moment.

Credit: Northwestern Athletics

With so many protocols and changes, director of football operations Cody Cejda commended a group of individuals that has worked together to cover just about everything. He, along with director of player development Jacob Schmidt, the aforementioned doctors, team dietitian Peter Ritz, and Matt Flannery and Jay Hooten, who head football performance, meet often to brief Fitz on the day’s developments.

“To be honest, there are just so many moving parts right now,” said Cejda. “Every day, we’re getting updated guidance from the CDC, from the medical subcommittee, and from our sports medicine staff.”

As much as they’ve tried to mirror a normal August preseason, there are significant differences. Only starting September 30, which is when the Big Ten mandated schools have daily antigen testing installed, could teams open camp and practice with pads.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told the media that because camp started during school, there’s a 20 hour per week limit, which makes it tougher to emulate a typical preseason camp. Normally, players can work out and practice for an unlimited amount of hours throughout the day, with some restrictions. Now, coaches and support staff have been forced to identify and prioritize what’s most important.

After practice each day, all 170 members of Northwestern’s Tier One group — which includes players, coaches, and the operations, athletic training, sports nutrition, sports performance, recruiting and equipment staffs — head to Walter Athletics Center for their scheduled COVID-19 testing appointment. The program decided to test players after they’re off the field since Northwestern practices in the morning and players have a larger window of time, as opposed to when they arrive at the facility between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to begin activities before 7 a.m. meetings.

College football programs are notoriously secretive and try to gain any competitive advantage possible, but 2020 is about collaboration, at least off the field. After all, teams can’t play themselves, they need their opponents to be healthy.

Starting it season at the end of October didn’t just buy the Big Ten time to get daily, rapid testing in place. It also allowed it to observe other programs and learn from their successes and mistakes. Notre Dame had 25 positive cases and placed 14 additional players in quarantine after tracing an outbreak to a pregame meal and one player who vomited on the sideline during a game.

Florida reported 23 players and two staffers tested positive last week following its trip to College Station, resulting in the postponement of its game versus LSU, while Baylor had to postpone its October 17 matchup with Oklahoma State after 28 players and 14 staffers tested positive. The Bears’ athletic department believes the outbreak was seeded on a flight to West Virginia after a false negative test.

“We have talked with other schools who have been in season for the last three to five weeks, and we have tried to learn from others and what has went well for them and areas that they think they could have done better and areas they still need to improve on,” Cejda said.

Fitz said he’s closely followed other programs and why they’ve had to postpone games. He said he couldn’t share some of that knowledge but has featured it in ongoing discussions with players, families, coaches and staff so they’re as prepared as possible before the season.

“Everything that’s been going to be tweaked and changed is all for trying to steal a percentage here or percentage there, to try to make sure we keep our guys as healthy and safe as we can,” Fitzgerald said. “When I say percentages, it’s like, ‘Alright, if we’re going to go on the plane, do we really need to keep the middle seat open?’ Well, we recommend that you do, even though we’re all negative on the plane. ‘Should we wear masks when we’re in meetings? Yes.’ So we’re constantly having that type of communication.”

When it comes to business trips, Cejda is tasked with balancing the health needs of the traveling party with the needs of a coach who’s competing to win the Big Ten West with the financial realities of a budget hit by a pandemic.

Fortunately for Northwestern, its longest trip of the season is a flight to Minnesota as the team usually buses anywhere under a five-hour drive. Cejda said they have the flexibility to bus some individuals up to Minneapolis and fly others. Everything else is a bus trip, but they may need twice the normal amount of buses, if not more.

“We can decrease the capacity by roughly 50 percent and try to minimize the amount of food and beverage consumption on a bus,” said Cejda. “Or we can decrease the bus capacity down to 25 percent and ensure appropriate social distancing, and then be able to allow the student athletes and staff members to consume food and beverages on a bus, but then put their masks back on when they’re done eating meals.”

Before both home and away games, Fitz and athletic communications director Paul Kennedy said they will do a lot more of their pre-trip/game prep at Walter Athletics Center. The team will depart for and arrive at hotels later than usual on Fridays to limit time in smaller spaces. NU normally gets to Ryan Field two and a half hours before kickoff, but the buses will pull up on Central Street more like 65 minutes prior to Saturday night’s showdown with the Terrapins.

“We’ve asked families to be very conscious of that [interacting with players],” Fitz said. “Players will be going right from the locker room to the bus, they’ll go right from the locker room to the bus.”

Cejda said they were still working through details of road game itineraries. They’ve got to evaluate everything from serving Friday dinners to evening stretching sessions to COVID testing on the road.

The program has also had to be cognizant of the financial impacts of potentially shifting some rooms from doubles to singles to eliminate roommates. It’s been an act for Cejda and his team to create plans that keep players safe from potential spread of COVID while maintaining cost effectiveness.

At the stadium, former head student manager Rob Shiffer said teams may have to shift the layout of locker rooms since many won’t be large enough to accommodate social distancing guidelines. With the public currently not allowed at Big Ten games and roughly 1,000 family members of players and coaches expected at Ryan Field this Saturday, teams could opt to put some people out in the hallway, like SMU has done with its entire program.

Fitzgerald said Monday that for home games, half of the team will dress in the locker room while half will use the Welsh-Ryan Arena lobby. They plan on setting up a large tent with heaters on a nearby practice field for visiting Maryland.

The word of 2020 is fluid, and protocols are likely to change by the week once the season gets underway. NU, like every other team in the country, is fighting battles both on and off the gridiron, as it tries to rekindle the magic of making a Big Ten Championship game during a pandemic.

“Ultimately, it comes down to all of our social choices and decisions,” said Fitzgerald. “That’s on us as a coaching staff, too. It’s going to really rely on their choices once we get into game day.”

Northwestern football begins its season under the lights at Ryan Field on October 24. To stay updated on all of our football coverage, subscribe to the Inside NUsletter, delivered to your inboxes every Friday. Next week we’ll roll out a comprehensive season preview issue featuring all of our preseason content, game week coverage, features, exclusive articles and guest predictions. Every week thereafter it’ll prepare you for Saturday’s game and more. It’s your one-stop shop for everything Wildcat football.