At Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis, Brady Feeney is a celebrity. Feeney started on the program’s powerhouse football program as a freshman guard, eventually helping the Cadets to two state championships as a sophomore and junior. He earned a weighted GPA well above a 4.0, was the school’s scholar athlete of the year and even found the time to perfect a brass instrument in the school jazz band. “He’s a killer trumpet player,” says Scott Pingel, Feeney’s former head coach there.
For a big man, Feeney was in top shape, always one of the last in the weight room, and aside from a knee injury his senior season, had no real health complications or underlying issues. That’s why Pingel and others at the school were shocked this week to learn that Feeney had battled significant COVID-19 symptoms after contracting the virus during workouts this summer at Indiana.
He had serious enough breathing problems to warrant a trip to the emergency room. In a post on her Facebook page, his mother, Debbie Rucker, described the ordeal as “14 days of hell.” Her son is still experiencing symptoms, she wrote, and he could suffer from heart-related issues as an after-effect of the disease. His blood work has indicated “additional problems, too.
As college football programs move closer to beginning preseason camp, more college football players are revealing publicly their battle with COVID-19, and though none of them have died or been hospitalized long term, they have grown sick. At least 800 college football players have tested positive for the virus, according to a compilation of numbers either reported by schools or local reporters. The actual number is likely much higher.
On Monday, Arizona receiver Jaden Mitchell wrote that his three-week fight with the virus resulted in a 14-pound weight loss. “This virus is no joke,” he wrote.
LSU defensive end Travez Moore says he lost nearly 30 pounds from contracting the virus, while also losing his sense of smell and taste and “you can barely breath,” he wrote in a tweet.
Meanwhile, no fewer than five Power 5 players have announced that they’re opting out of the 2020 season for health, safety or ethical reasons. At least two of them are high-profile NFL prospects: Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley and Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman.
The hurdles to playing a college football season continue rising. A group of Pac-12 players, using the hashtag #WeAreUnited, are threatening to boycott the season if a list of demands aren’t met, including concerns over playing during a pandemic. Tuesday brought more unionized-type movement in college athletics. Stadium reported that three-fourths of the Idaho football team is against playing this fall. UConn became the first FBS program on Wednesday to cancel its 2020 season. According to both ESPN and the Coloradoan, Colorado State coaches have told players not to report COVID-19 symptoms and threatened players with reduced playing time if they quarantine, though some players have refuted the report.
So where does this leave college football?
For now, it is speeding toward a modified 2020 season. Last Wednesday, the ACC announced its fall football schedule. On Thursday, the SEC approved its own modified slate, and then a day later, the Pac-12 followed suit. The Big 12 released news of its 10-game schedule Monday night, and the Big Ten’s announcement is expected soon. The Group of Five are making their own plans for 2020, each likely playing a somewhat normal conference schedule with a truncated non-conference portion.
Administrators are entering the most pivotal month yet for the future of a season. The real tests are yet to arrive. About midway through the month, nearly all FBS programs will be in the midst of fall camp, and by the end of the month, campuses will be flush with regular students. Some fear the combination could result in spiking virus cases on campuses that have, finally, somewhat contained the disease. “Summer has told us that the bubble works,” says one Group of Five athletic director, referring to the approach taken by the NBA, MLS and other professional leagues. “Our bubble is going to pop when students come back to campus.”
At least 16 FBS programs have paused or suspended workouts this summer because of community or campus outbreaks, and it was revealed Monday night that Rutgers is dealing with an outbreak of at least 30 positive cases from players and staff. The outbreaks alone aren’t as troubling as the athletes who have voiced concerns. They’re revealing serious symptoms of the virus; groups of them are expressing issues in holding a season; and a handful have already announced that they’re bypassing 2020.
Farley made his decision for safety concerns he had about Virginia Tech’s protocols, and Bateman says the uncertainty of the situation led him to do the same. Vanderbilt kicker Oren Milstein announced Tuesday he was bypassing the season for the “ethics of playing during a pandemic,” and Arizona quarterback Kevin Doyle is opting out because of the risk, he wrote in a tweet. The first domino to drop was Illinois running back Ra’Von Bonner, who announced last week that he wouldn’t be playing, in part because he suffers from asthma.
Rucker wrote about her son’s ordeal in a Facebook post that went viral. She declined an interview with SI but told the Indianapolis Star that her son had recovered enough from the virus to return to work with his teammates, as IU officials monitor the after-effects.
In his hometown of St. Louis, Feeney’s battle with COVID-19 has filtered through his old high school. “To the degree from which he was suffering, everyone was shocked,” says Rocky Streb, the athletic director and former wrestling coach at Christian Brothers who has known the Feeney family for years. “The virus is pretty damn serious.”
College administrators are putting themselves in the position of athletes and their families. “People saying that young people aren't at major risk—I'm not into that,” one Power 5 AD told Sports Illustrated. “If it were my son, even if he were asymptomatic, I don't want him going through that and being put at risk. There's too much we don't know about the long-term effects.”
One SEC assistant coach, speaking on anonymity, believes that his players want to play but feels many are scared and concerned. In responding to the wave of recent news, a Pac-12 administrator earlier this week described his feeling on a season as “pessimistic,” despite the many conferences announcing plans to play.
The nationwide spiking of the virus has angered many, including Washington Huskies team doctor Jon Drezner, who sits on the Pac-12 COVID advisory panel. In an interview with SI late last month, Drezner expressed his disappointment in the nation as a whole and how rising cases could torpedo a football season. “As the prevalence rises, it increases the likelihood that student athletes are going to test positive,” he says. “Right now, we are really at a very difficult moment, not just for sports but in our country. I am deeply disturbed that our politicians don’t have the courage to do what’s right and make mandatory mask wearing and, in many cities, shelter-in-place until they have this under control. They are costing human lives.”
Back in St. Louis, Pingel says he’s shared text exchanges with Feeney. For the coach, the entire situation has served as somewhat of a wakeup call.
“It’s just the unknown that scares me the most,” he says. “Brady’s situation has opened my eyes.”
Pat Forde contributed to this report.