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It was never in Naquan Jones’ plans to go home for Thanksgiving.
He already had COVID-19. He lost relatives to it. He did not want to put his grandmother, his niece or anyone else at risk.
The Michigan State football defensive tackle from Evanston, Illinois, hasn’t even seen his family since he reported back to campus in June.
“That'd be selfish for me to be in an environment like this and traveling and playing against other people and then going home,” he said Tuesday.
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That is the precarious predicament college football players are in right now. Their sport is not operating with the same isolated bubbles that have been protecting their professional brethren to compete through a pandemic. Yet at the same time, the college athletes are receiving the benefits of daily testing and care many outside of their world — even many of their peers in other sports on campuses around the Big Ten and country — do not get.
Some football players have opted out of playing due to their concern about the coronavirus, including five of Jones’ teammates.
Some, like Jones and teammate Matt Carrick, have escaped the more serious physical ramifications of COVID-19 and decided to play this fall once the Big Ten decided to resume its initially postponed season.
Teams around the conference — this summer MSU, twice already since September for Wisconsin, last week Maryland, this week Minnesota — have been forced to halt team activities due to outbreaks within their programs. Coaches and staff members continue to get infected along with their players.
Games around the nation are getting called off or postponed weekly and teams that are healthy are getting redirected to other opponents. Family members of the Spartans' players and coaches will no longer be allowed to attend the final two home contests.
These are the sacrifices being made to keep football going this fall.
“Obviously this is not a normal Thanksgiving for us — for anyone — because of the COVID pandemic,” MSU coach Mel Tucker said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. “Behavior modification and doing the things that we need to do, that we know we need to do, to give us the best chance to be safe — we're gonna do those things, and we're gonna follow the CDC recommendations in terms of gatherings and things like that. That's how we'll approach it.
“The sacrifices that our players and our staff have made throughout this time has been tremendous.”
The Spartans (1-3) will host No. 13 Northwestern (5-0), beginning at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Their game at Maryland, which had been scheduled for last Saturday, got canceled due to an outbreak among the Terrapins in which 23 players and seven coaches tested positive for COVID-19 in a two-week window. It was the first game MSU had canceled during the pandemic-shortened season.
“We were paying attention to the news. But at the end of the day, that's still didn't knock us from going out there and going to practice,” tight end Trenton Gillison said. “We had Thursday, Friday and Saturday off, but we still had practice. We're still in there, we're still working, we're still trying to grind and get after it.
“Just because another team with stuff outside of our bubble is happening doesn't mean our bubble stops. We just got a process — it's a process, it's a grind that we go through day in and day out.”
Tucker’s takeover after Mark Dantonio’s retirement in early February has been disrupted along the way by the pandemic, with spring practices wiped out and traditional summer work moved into the virtual realm of video conference calls and film study. Players returned to campus in mid-June and began undergoing weekly COVID-19 testing, enduring a two-week shutdown in late July and early August after positive cases within the program.
“I talked to them in the summer about it not being a sacrifice but being an investment in our team, an investment in yourself individually and investment in our football team,” Tucker said. “There are challenges, and our players and our staff have done a formidable job just really leaning into the new normal with what we've had to deal with every day in terms of trying to train, practice and play and coach in this environment.”
As of Tuesday night, 93 games have around the country have been canceled or postponed since September. And Tucker and his players also realize it might not be the last with less than a month to go from the finish line of the regular season and cases rising around the country.
“It's definitely a strange time, but it's a strange time for everyone,” Jones said. “It's a commitment. Coach Tucker, he always lets us know, 'Don't feel like you're getting put against your will to be here.' If you want to be here, you love playing football. You have to make sacrifices.”
MSU has had senior Jordan Reid, junior Mustafa Khaleefah and true freshmen Justin Stevens, Simeon Barrow and Jasiyah Robinson decide to sit out this fall. The remainder of those on the roster chose to remain active with the protocols set in place by the Big Ten when it brought back fall football Sept. 16.
“We just kind of drew the line to where we got to protect everyone in our bubble, which is the staff, players, training, going down from there and making sure that we're doing the things that we need to do,” Gillison said. “We come in every morning — I gotta come in at 6, 6:15 to make sure that I get a COVID test. And I can't stand them shoving them on my nose, but it's a process that we gotta do right now. It's just the new norm that we got to do with COVID going around.”
Tucker on his weekly radio show Tuesday night called it “a very simple life” for his players — meetings and workouts a few hours a day at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building sandwiched between online classes at their apartments. He admitted social lives are restricted beyond the 100-plus people within the program who get tested regularly.
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“Anyone outside of that group is really outside of our bubble,” Tucker said. “And once you start letting folks inside that bubble, then that’s when we’re all at a greater risk. Our players, they obviously understand that. And it goes the same for the staff. We’re all in the same boat.”
Tucker said he applauds his players for having “bought in to what we told them they need to do” with modifying their social lives and contact with others outside the program.
“It takes what it takes in order to be able to get this done, to be able to work out and lift and run and practice and play. Because everyone that’s here — coaches, staff and players — are here by choice,” Tucker said. “We’ve opted in, because we want to be here and we feel like we want to be part of something that’s greater than ourselves. And we’re willing to assume the risk that comes with it. We’re doing everything we can here with the protocols to mitigate those risks and keep everyone safe.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football: Mel Tucker says team makes sacrifices to play