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Return to football press conference notes

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Following the Big Ten’s reinstatement of the fall football season, Fitz, Jim Phillips and head team physician Jeff Mjaanes spoke to the media.

Western Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Upon the announcement of the Big Ten football season’s return on October 23 and October 24, Northwestern athletic director Dr. Jim Phillips, head football coach Pat Fitzgerald and team physician Dr. Jeff Mjaanes met with the media via Zoom on Wednesday afternoon. Here’s what they had to say:

Athletic director Jim Phillips

Opening statement: “We’re excited for our student athletes, coaches, and staff. I know how anxious they’ve been to start our season, especially since our postponement announcement on August 11. The decision was very directly driven by our medical subcommittee and our medical experts across the Big Ten...I want to reiterate that this is a first step. We have a lot of work to do between now and kickoff, on October 23 and October 24, but I’m proud of how we’ve come together in a difficult time...and that we’ve been driven by the medical experts. We said we were going to, and that’s where we find ourselves today.”

On athletes being tested more than the student body: “That was a decision that was made not with a lot of dialogue or reflection. This is something that the Big Ten is administering. We’re one of the institutions in the Big Ten...This was a conference-wide decision. In the end, you just try to make the best decision.”

On making a decision about other fall sports: “Within a few days, if not next week, we have to get our arms around what we’re going to do with other fall sports. That decision is forthcoming.”

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald

Opening statement: “I’m excited to be back on the field with our guys preparing for a game. The health of our athletes has always been our number one priority. We really want to thank Jim and Morty for their leadership roles in the conference and for the hard work and dedication the subcommittee...and everyone here locally, and it starts with Jeff Mjaanes. I want to thank Doc and Kevin Kikugawa for their relentless approach for how we’ve gone over protocols here. From my perspective, health and safety will continue to be the number one priority of things we do here at Northwestern and I feel that we could be in the best hands we could possibly be with Doc and his staff and Kevin and his staff.”

On receiving the news: “We got the heads up this morning that the news would be coming. The guys were absolutely ecstatic. They were fired up. Especially for our seniors, I’m ecstatic that they have the opportunity, if they so choose, to play.”

On reacting to the news: “The guys were stoked. The guys who wanted to play I think have asked the right questions. Their families, they’ve asked the right questions. It was imperative that those answers are put in place. From my perspective, this has just been a process of, once we got shut down, giving our guys the opportunity to step back, exhale and reevaluate a lot of things and slowly bring them back.”

On addressing player opt-outs: “I haven’t had direct conversations with a lot of guys. Now that we know that we’re playing, I’m assuming across the Big Ten, there will be those types of conversations, I would assume with the players and their parents first. Typically as the head coach you’re the last guy to know. At a certain point through our protocol, if another guy opts out will make those announcements.”

On consuming sports without college football: “I watched youth flag football more than anything else. I’m a football fan before I’m a coach.”

On players’ mental health: “This has been a rollercoaster for our student-athletes...for everyone in the Chicagoland area and the country...Our guys have been terrific making great social decisions and my hope is that they continue to do that and be leaders on our campus. From a mental health standpoint, we’ve been able to allocate our resources...We’ve tried to stay in constant contact with the guys and our coaching staff. It’s really hard for the guys in isolation and quarantine. We’ve got an all-hands-on-deck mentality.”

On preparing for the upcoming season: “You start from the game and work your way back. At a certain point, we’ll hit a little mental wall, a little physical fatigue. We’ll adjust and react to that accordingly. We will crawl, walk, run, then sprint.”

On when they’re back to practicing: “Tomorrow morning, 8 am.”

On talking to players’ families: “It’s been frequent: Every single milestone, we ramped up workouts, Dr. Mjaanes and Dr. Phillips have led Zoom calls with their families starting in late May, early June. We’ll be doing something probably Friday, Saturday, Sunday...We hope to get a lot of questions over the next 72 hours answered by the Big Ten.”

We really took a week off between the postponement and kinda starting work outs back. It gave the chance for some guys to go home, some just got back this week. Some were working out at home and getting plans from our strength staff, so yeah I really do think we’re in good shape. We’re very pleased where our conditioning level for this five-week segment, but we’ll take it day by day.”

Dr. Jeff Mjaanes

On games being canceled: “The answer lies within the public health department, given that this is a public health crisis. There’s really no set number. In the Big Ten’s agreement we do talk about a five percent test positivity rate and a seven percent population positivity rate of 7.5 percent as a limit where we’d probably want to shut things down for a brief period. As far as for a game being cancelled, it would come down to multiple factors, the number of positive cases on a team, number of positive cases in the population, campus, and local community.”

On testing protocol: “For us, the game changer was that there were significant advancements in testing, primarily antigen testing. Antigen testing detects certain proteins in the virus and can actually detect a level of virus that is thought to be the below the level of infectivity. You're basically catching a positive before it’s contagious. That’s a huge breakthrough. We can identify people before they are infectious, maintaining the health and sanctity of the team.”

On addressing myocarditis: “We had a couple of Big Ten institutions which struggled to get cardiac MRI, which is one of the mainstays of the evaluation in order to truly rule out the possibility of myocarditis in an athlete. Now with the fact that we’ve been able to secure some workarounds where every institution could have access to cardiac MRI, that’s a game changer. We’ve already been doing some cardiac MRIs on our student-athletes, and the plan is to do those through Northwestern Medicine. We’ll get it done close to home.”

On subcommittee meetings: “The meetings were never contentious. Everyone came in with the exact same approach of how do we make this work for the safest path forward for football. We all felt that it was possible, but we needed some key elements in place: one of those was the testing, the other is the cardiac MRI. The last piece is contact tracing, which is something that still needs to be figured out to some degree, but we think that with daily antigen testing, if you’re able to remove them, it almost completely eliminates the need for contract tracing. In the end, it was completely unanimous that we should proceed with this.”