The NFL might have managed to pull off an entire season, but for the teams, their players and coaches, there were several unique challenges that they faced every day, some of which provided angst for everyone involved.
Judge described to Bob Papa and Charlie Weis of SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday the challenges the pandemic created within the Giants locker room and how the team stuck together to overcome them.
One of the biggest challenges Judge said existed was that the health and safety protocols of maintaining social distancing, avoiding crowd rooms, and even hanging out during downtime or after work, went against every basic team building principle Judge believes in.
"You get into training camp and look, the first thing you want to do as a coach to try to establish and build a culture is get all the players together, right? Like you want to have him in a locker room, hanging out, talking to them. You want to have him in the cafeteria, hanging out, talking together. You want to make sure that they're able to go ahead and break it down at the end of practice and talk," Judge said.
"And then the first thing you're telling them is, 'All right, no one go near each other, you know, sit six feet apart.' All of a sudden you've got these tracers on. They blink when they get too close. And you know, five, six times in a meeting you're stopping and everyone move away from each other know, quit shifting your chairs, quit wiggling, quit leaning to the right, whatever it may be. So you're kind of going against everything that your instinct tells you to help build a team and bring them closer."
Despite the challenges, Judge and his staff found a way to create bonding opportunities that included playing video games during the off-season and group chats after the workday.
Neither might have been the ideal way of building unity, but the tactics worked well enough in uniting the players who were able to weather the storm of a sluggish start to their season.
Beyond that, Judge told Papa and Weis there were other challenges created by the COVID-19 protocols, such as the isolation and anxiety that some experienced in knowing that after the workday was done, all they could do was return to their apartment or hotel room alone.
"Put yourself from the standpoint of you're young, single guy, you're 23, 24 years old, all right, you don't have a wife and kids. There's no one with you up here, but you leave work, and technically you basically are told you have to go sit in your apartment alone. And you're, you're getting out of here, call it, you know, 4:30, 5:00 in the afternoon, and then just gonna sit there all night by yourself," he said.
Judge said the coaches tried to help fill the void by giving players extra film to watch, but even that had its limits.
"That's the thing is they're not going to go home and watch tape nonstop. That's not realistic. But what you worry about is when all these guys are left alone at specific points, how's that affecting some of them?
"There were a number of guys on our team that throughout the year, really struggled with that. We had a guy who wouldn't leave our locker room, who would stay in our building until at 9:30 at night, and just keep finding things to do because he couldn't stand going home and being alone. So any interaction he had, whether it was with the custodial crew or equip managers or coach, maybe walk down the hallway--he was just finding some kind of interaction throughout the day."
That toll on mental health is bad enough but add to that the fear of contracting the virus and the unknown effect it might have on an otherwise healthy and in-shape athlete or coach, and the mental stress was ratcheted even more, according to Judge.
"You talked about the testing protocols, which it wasn't the hardest thing. .. But there were times where there was a lot of anxiety in the building with guys who, you know, 'Am I sick? Am I gonna be positive?' ... You know--things that were never issues before, and all of a sudden we have to send them home. Then you have a building full of guy saying, well, shoot, I've been sitting next to that guy getting dressed in my locker for the last, you know, how many weeks, you know, I've, I've been exposed to him. So there was an anxiety that came with that."
Even practices created stressful moments if someone misplaced his contact tracer, which would send just about everyone scrambling to find the misplaced device. And Judge revealed that the KN95 masks that were mandated during flights made breathing difficult for the players, especially on long cross-country flights in which several of them would de-board the plane with migraines.
Despite everything, the Giants had very few COVID-19 cases hit their locker room, unlike teams like the Titans, Ravens, and Browns, who seemed to be dealing with the virus in weekly clumps rather than isolated incidents. And given how close the Giants became as a team in Judge's first year certainly speaks to how resilient the players, coaches, and staff were in overcoming the constant stream of curveballs thrown at them by the pandemic.
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