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Stronger Together: Wildcats battle in the face of a global pandemic

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Northwestern athletes, coaches and fans at all stages find resilience amidst the toughest of challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck Northwestern athletics at all its stages. From recruits to current players to former players, Wildcats feel the effects of the virus and suffer its consequences in many ways. But an overwhelming sense of gratitude and resilience emanates from the community as its members battle and persevere through challenges in hopes of restoring some normalcy in the world of sports.

These are a few stories from each stage of Northwestern athletics – a current player, a current coach, a former player/current pro, a committed recruit and fans – as they cope with the pandemic from behind quarantine walls.

Together Apart

For a college athlete at his or her peak, the novel coronavirus brings uncharted territory. This two-month stretch is likely the longest they’ve gone without a ball in their hands since they can remember.

Gyms are closed. Nets are tied. Fields are blocked off.

These are the scenes athletes face nationwide as they attempt to restore some regularity in their lives.

Many city officials have called for the tying of basketball nets in local parks to prevent people from congregating.
via USA Today

But while the pandemic provides such dire challenges for many, it offers unique perspective and appreciation as well – something Ryan Young has seen come to fruition.

Student-athletes spend a lot of time together. Whether it is workouts, practices, games, road trips, meals or even living together, from the moment they step on campus, they are immersed in the team culture with little to no break until graduation.

For the first time since becoming a Wildcat, Young faces separation from his teammates and best friends with Zoom as the only uniting factor. When human contact is limited and times get tough, that desire for communication becomes even stronger, he said.

Young has continued to practice during quarantine at a court near him with his brother Kyle, who also plays basketball at Siena College.

“We’ve been trying to remain in constant communication with each other and not let the distance between us impact the culture and how close we are as a team,” Northwestern basketball’s starting center said.

While Zoom calls seem trivial on the surface, their significance extends far beyond an attempt to lift players’ spirits, especially as college basketball enters its most challenging time with the transfer portal wide open.

After a below-average season, any team fears losing crucial pieces. For the past few years, the transfer portal has plagued Northwestern and perpetuated its rebuilding period. While COVID-19 may provide an easy out for players to transfer, Young said he has watched his teammates grow closer as a result despite the physical distance separating them.

With only two members considering transferring, NU’s core has grown stronger, fighting through the frustration and adversity that currently faces college athletes but remaining hopeful for the future.

“We had somewhat of a strong finish at the end of our season and were coming into our own,” Young said. “We are really eager to get back and start working.”

Attitude of Gratitude

Kate Drohan and her program were robbed.

She was with her team when they heard the season abruptly ended. As a coach, what do you say? What do you say to a room full of eager college students who just want to play? Or to the seniors whose futures were still largely unknown?

“When the season ends normally, there’s definitely an emotional process that you have to go through,” Northwestern’s head softball coach said. “For it to happen so unexpectedly, it really heightened that grief. The emotion I really felt was unfinished business, and that’s a yucky feeling to have.”

Following one of the best seasons in program history in 2019, the Wildcats were poised to come back even stronger in 2020 before the pandemic cut their season short just days ahead of their conference opener.

While the emotional reaction was overwhelming, Drohan saw the bigger picture and within days, was prepared to help her team persevere.

“It was devastating when it happened,” she said. “But then after a couple of days when our team was able to gather some perspective, we understood what was happening on a global stage and pivoted. The last eight weeks have been us trying to engage with them and motivate them.”

Northwestern finished its 2020 season with an 11-12 record overall.

This remote period serves as a chance to extend her teachings beyond the game. While staying in shape and getting reps are always important, Drohan said the mental conditioning relevant to both softball and life have been the focal point of her coaching throughout quarantine.

And while they may not be able to tell their story on the field, Drohan said she and her team look to find ways to make their mark on the world when it needs it most. Through social media posts and Tik Toks, Drohan prioritizes keeping her players involved in the community and the community equally involved in their lives.

“Everyone is searching for that right now – any way to stay connected,” she said. “Any way to continue to tell our story or put a smile on someone’s face. There are moments where it gets tough, and I think our team has really embraced the idea of what can we do to help each other and what can we do to help our community.”

There’s something about the idea of collective suffering that unites a community and makes it stronger together. With the pain that Drohan’s team and the Northwestern athletic world face comes immense appreciation and hope for the future.

“It’s about an attitude of gratitude right now,” Drohan said. “For us to be grateful for the opportunities we do have and to be ready for when our next shot comes.”

Endless Fight

Four months ago, everything was going right for Jordan Thompson. He and his teammates on the Seattle Dragons danced around the locker room to the booming sounds of Yo Gotti, Big Tuck and Lil Baby without a worry in the world, celebrating his first professional sack and the team’s first franchise win.

That was February 15, a day that seems almost foreign given what the world has become. A time before social distancing, before obligatory masks, before Thompson and hundreds of other XFL employees lost their jobs and before the COVID-19 pandemic changed Northwestern athletics and sports as we know it.

“I was heartbroken,” the former Northwestern defensive tackle said, remembering when the pandemic first struck. “All the work and preparation had led to that moment. It was a great opportunity and an awesome thing they had going, and I was sad to see it go away.”

Now cooped up in his childhood home in Ohio, Thompson has only the memories of his ‘last dance’ to remind him of the simpler times before coronavirus struck.

“Everyone had their problems and things they were going through,” he said. “But once we were in the locker room, we were all boys. We all were just there for each other, and that was awesome.”

Losing his job in the XFL and the ensuing pandemic capped off a whirlwind of a year for Thompson, who graduated Northwestern a year ago next week. After receiving his diploma, the former Wildcat entered the 2019 NFL Draft and ultimately signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. Soon after, he was waived by the Colts, then signed by the 49ers and then cut again.

The XFL soon became his saving grace, as the Dragons offered the young defensive lineman a chance to improve his game on his journey to Sundays. His experience was short-lived, though, as the coronavirus brought the league to a permanent screeching halt after just five weeks of play.

“It happened pretty fast and caught people off guard,” he said. “No one wants to fire a bunch of people fighting and scratching for their dreams, but life happens.”

The Dragons posted a 1-4 record in the 2020 season, and Thompson finished his XFL career with 14 total tackles and a sack.
via @just_jordaann on Instagram

Among the devastating shock and frustration, Thompson found a silver lining as he fights for a spot on an NFL roster again this coming year. With the extra time, he can prepare for his upcoming workouts with the Lions and the Browns and reach the storybook ending he has chased this past year. For him, the XFL was just one special chapter in that book.

“I think in any other situation where [coronavirus] doesn’t happen, I’d bet the league would make it and be a thing for a while,” he said. “Who knows, maybe in another 20 or 30 years down the line they’ll try again. Third time’s the charm.”

Lack of Control

Had it not been for COVID, Peter Skoronski would have attended his senior prom this spring. He would be walking across the stage at Maine South High School this month. The crown jewel of NU’s 2020 recruiting class would be taking his first steps on campus as a student-athlete in a matter of weeks.

Instead, he’s stuck inside his home in Park Ridge, Illinois, just hoping his college experience won’t be tainted by the virus.

Not only were Northwestern’s past and present impacted by this virus, but as its effects bleed into the summer, rising NU stars begin to see the early parts of their careers in jeopardy.

In December, the four-star recruit chose Northwestern over top programs like Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State, becoming the best offensive line commit in school history. When Skoronski made this life-changing decision, coronavirus wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Now, he relies on phone calls and Zoom to build some sort of camaraderie with his future teammates as the viable practice days before the fall season begin to fade.

The questions flooding the program’s future extend beyond its incoming freshman class, as future recruiting classes make life-altering decisions without being able to visit the school in person.

“Around this time last year, I was really trying to figure things out and talking to coaches and going on visits, so I can’t imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t do that right now,” Skoronski said.

Somehow, the schools have prevailed. On May 1, 329 commits from the class of 2021 had verbally committed to Power Five schools, nearly a 100 percent increase from the 175 high schoolers who did so the year before. While this statistic is promising for the schools’ future, those inside college football anticipate new challenges and issues for coaches who strive to revive their programs after the momentary halt.

“There’s no question schools are putting more pressure on student-athletes,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You are going to see a large number of de-commitments when this ends, no doubt.”

Ultimately, the coronavirus results in a lack of control and frustrating sense of uncertainty for athletes and coaches. But in the meantime, especially for the freshman, coaches say they aim to control what they can and prepare their players psychologically to bounce back when the time comes.

“The team is doing a really great job of communicating and getting more of the mental side down of football,” Skoronski said. “The more we’re able to get that down now while we can’t be practicing and working out as much, I think that’s just going to help us when football comes back.”

A New Normal

The effects of this virus on Northwestern athletics extend beyond those who regularly enter Walter Athletics Center. A community of fans, spanning the nation and the world, long for the return of sports and a sense of normalcy.

For Sam Walter, Erik Schousboe and John Lacombe, the distance isn’t abnormal.

After graduating Northwestern in the early 2000s and becoming friends over their shared experiences in the marching band, WNUR and Norris University Center, the three went their separate ways but continually produced episodes of their West Lot Pirates podcast.

“You would almost think that distance would’ve caused this thing to fall apart,” Schousboe said. “But I think it’s done the opposite.”

A similar story reigns true amidst the pandemic. Fans and alumni on a global scale reunite over their shared love of Northwestern sports – in a time when live sports don’t exist.

“If you are a Northwestern football fan, this was a really depressing season followed with what is generally a really depressing time for the world right now,” Lacombe said. “The week that Caleb Tiernan and Mac Uihlein signed was a moment of positivity in this world for a Northwestern football fan that had a tidal wave of negativity. When those signings happened you almost step back and say, ‘Wow. This is the power that college football has.’ Two high school kids that have four stars next to each of their names can sign and bring a boost of positivity that none of us have had in a very long time.”

Ironically, sports, even when they aren’t around, remain the factor that unites us all during this time of pain, loss and uncertainty. They remind us that all these struggles and frustrations are temporary, and that normalcy will return again. Ultimately, they reinforce the notion that we’re stronger together, even when we’re apart, and in the end we will persevere.