Home for the holiday, Sooners must            remain virus-aware just a little longer

College football's built-in grind is one thing, but with no family interaction and under pandemic rules since June, players' mental health has moved into the bowl discussion
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It’s Christmas morning. 

College football players around the nation are waking up to the smells of Mom’s bacon and Dad’s coffee, the sounds of little brothers and sisters jumping for joy, of presents being unwrapped and old stories being told.

Many — including the Oklahoma Sooners and Florida Gators, in the pristine North Texas confines of AT&T Stadium on Wednesday — have a game to play.

Lincoln Riley preps the offense in AT&T Stadium

Lincoln Riley preps the offense in AT&T Stadium

After four months of campus quarantine, of virus diligence, mask-wearing, avoiding crowds, hand-washing — OU players were given a few days off to go ho-ho-home and spend the holidays with family.

It was a decision not made lightly by head coach Lincoln Riley.

“I just tried to weigh everything at this point,” Riley said this week. “But we just couldn't get past the fact our guys hadn't been home, most of them, since June or July, and quite a few even well before that. And so it was just very important to us for our guys to have an opportunity to be with their families over Christmas.”

Florida coach Dan Mullen announced earlier in the week he’d do the same thing. Riley followed suit.

It seems entirely likely, then, that the Cotton Bowl rosters will be exposed to the virus here and there. Some players may get sick. Some may come back and test positive. And those who do won’t play.

Initial fears are that the Cotton Bowl — already little more than a glorious and prestigious exhibition game — might not be played.

But College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock allayed those fears when he told ESPN’s Heather Dinich, “We are planning to play the games when they're scheduled. We've said all along that we will be ready for any circumstance, and we will. But if one or both teams are not available and have to postpone a bowl game or the championship game, we will do it."

COVID be damned, bowl games can wait — it’s Christmas.

“They'll get a couple of days there, Christmas and Christmas Eve,” Riley said, “and then we'll get the guys back here and get a couple good days of prep in and head to Arlington.”

Riley said this is about more than just holiday sentimentality.

“Where these players are at mentally is not normal,” he said. “And how could it be? I mean, lives of everyone have been turned upside down and changed in so many drastic ways. It's just — the challenges have been so unique and so difficult this year that I always try to guard myself and try to educate our guys. I always believe you don't make a big decision in an emotional time.

“And I think we're seeing a little bit of a result of that across the country, of guys that are in a different frame of mind and need to get away and need breaks and need a chance to kind of catch their breath. They need to see their families.”

Oklahoma’s players are certainly on board. From Creed Humphrey going home to nearby Shawnee to Spencer Rattler (Phoenix), Jeremiah Hall (North Carolina) and Rhamondre Stevenson (Las Vegas), these guys were sent home in March, reported back to campus in late June and haven’t been back since.

“Everybody is excited to go see their family, be home for the holidays, get away from football for a few days,” Stevenson said.

What few interactions they’ve had with family after games have been painfully brief.

“I think it's really important,” Humphrey said. “Most people haven't seen their families since June. So, of course, I think it's important for them to go see their families during the holidays. I don't see a problem with it. We have to make sure everybody's being smart and safe whenever they do go home, but I don't see an issue with it. And I think people will make the right decisions.”

Said Hall, “I don't get to see my family back home very often. But on the other side of it, you've got to acknowledge the COVID part. We've got to make sure that guys are responsible. We've got to continue to wear masks.”

OU has been among the most diligent and responsible teams in college football this season. The Sooners only had one game postponed because of COVID (West Virginia — once because of WVU, once because of OU). Hall said OU had its best COVID numbers of the year for last week’s Big 12 title game against Iowa State.

“So we've got to maintain that standard when we go home to make sure we're able to compete when we come back,” Hall said. “So I'm happy. I'm excited. I'm glad that Coach Riley acknowledges that being with our family during the holidays is something important to him as well as us. So I think we'll go back home, get refreshed, and come back ready to play.”

The cold reality of life in 2020 means the holidays will be different. Grandma might want to see your face, but for her sake and your team’s, better to keep the masks on.

“We're going to have to be really diligent with wearing masks for sure and try to be isolated as much as possible during that time,” Humphrey said. “You know, try to stay socially distanced whenever you are with family, things like that.”

“Well, my mom, she's in the medical field, so I'm going to be able to hug her a lot,” Stevenson said. “She gets tested just as often as us. It's going to be hard. Just being around them, that's going to be enough, especially not being able to go home for the X amount of months we weren't able to. So I'm excited.”

Rattler had a season worthy of All-Big 12 accolades. He won Most Outstanding Player of the Big 12 Championship Game. He’d like to have another good performance in Arlington next week but, with everyone going home for the holiday, there’s a lot that has to happen first.

“It’s a blessing that we get to go home and see our families for a couple days for Christmas and just get some time off to get away from football and just be with your families for the holidays for sure,” Rattler said. “I'd be lying if I said it was easy being up here, not being able to go home since June, July-ish. It was definitely a grind this year, especially with this year being how it was, this whole 2020 pandemic, all the social injustice stuff going on, and just the mental wear and tear on it.

“And then plus the physical wear and tear on your body practicing and working out every day and playing games. But it's what we signed up for. So it's nothing that we didn't expect coming into it. This is our job. And we have things we have to execute. We've still got a game in front of us with Florida, and we're not done until this next game.”

“Yeah,” said Humphrey, “this year has just been so different. We've had to stay isolated this whole season, haven't been able to be around people, things like that, haven't been able to see family. So that definitely weighs heavy on you. You're not used to that.

“Being, in a lot of cases, 18-, 19-year-old kids who don't get to see family all of a sudden at all, don't get to be around friends, have to wear a mask if they're around anybody on the team, things like that, it definitely weighs heavy on you. So getting this two-day break to go home and see family is a huge deal for us.”

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