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Coronavirus and College Football

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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There are no easy answers, but all of the questions must be asked.

What does college football mean to me? It's a story that goes back as far as my memories. It's also a story shared by so many.

Right, wrong or indifferent, college football seasons shape my personal timeline like growth marks on a pantry door. Much of my frame of reference came from what I experienced on weekends every fall. Jumping aisle-to-aisle through stadium seating, my parents fading into a backdrop of bright colors, was my first taste of freedom. The up-tempo offense, Charlie Ward to Joe Hamilton, was my first love. When family used to ask my brother and I what we wanted for Christmas, a bowl win was our eager response. When people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had to fight the urge to say "a season ticket holder".

Call it blasphemy if you will, but, as important as Sundays were, Saturday, literally and figuratively, came first.

My first teenage road trip was to an out-of-state college football game. My first all-nighter came by way of staying up with a friend in his small Honda in a McDonald's parking lot, determined not to go to sleep or leave our spot as ESPN College GameDay approached. My first selfie, and I'm still not quite sure if I was more proud of my sweetheart or the setting, was with my future wife as we smiled in the stands; that was also my first act of treason as I first declined an opportunity to attend the game with a close friend, only to then go with my girlfriend. Fittingly, my team lost.

My daughter's first game featured two Heisman Trophy winners. Still learning about the four seasons in pre-K, my son's introduction to fall came at a scrimmage in the spring.

I've been lost and shirtless on a frigid late November night in Columbia. I've seen rolls fly sky-high in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry -- in Athens, interestingly, not on the Plains; that said, I have sipped lemonade at Toomer's Corner. I've run down the famed The Hill at Clemson, but also slid down another on an empty pizza box in Statesboro. I've seen my mother try to fight a grown man in the Orange Bowl and my father tear up over Army-Navy. I was at Lamar Jackson's first 300-yard passing game and the final outing of Michael Vick's college career. I attended Mark Richt's first game and Bobby Bowden's last.

While my goals have changed over time, the goalposts, save 1996 when second-ranked Florida State upended top-ranked Florida and they finally settled somewhere on Tennessee Street, have not.

Former Gator All-American Ben Troupe lived with my parents for a few months. Former Seminole star Dexter Carter calls my mom "mom". Together, my mother and father once watched a bowl game in the stands right alongside Georgia Tech great Roddy Jones; my dad swears he knew he would be a great analyst right then. My mom dated an Auburn lineman in college and had her knee broken in a flag football game by another future SEC standout. My dad once spoke to Chris Hatcher's team at Samford. We've watched Alabama play from the "football room" with the late Crimson Tide great Ray Ogden.

Born on a military base overseas and promptly put in a Georgia Bulldog shirt right away, my life has been marked by hashmarks. In a way, even death has been, too. When my beloved grandmother passed, I drove to Gainesville at her children's request to get some authentic team garb. She had to be buried in true orange and blue.

College football, as is the case for countless, is my family tradition. It's difficult to describe all that it means to me and us. 

I say all of that only to say that I'm really concerned over what lies ahead for the game that has captivated me for a generation. I'm worried; not for the sport, but for those who play it. The coronavirus continues to overwhelm and it's impossible for me to look ahead and not feel extremely anxious. Obviously, we all are aware of the striking complexities on the horizon, the potential of overwhelming economic losses and opportunity costs that can't be recovered. Sadly, the memories the players could miss. The potential impact of disruption is simply too much to list. I'm also aware that really smart people are making these really tough decisions. And at least from my observances, the majority of student-athletes appear eager to compete.

Through all of this, I hope the players remain front and center. It goes without saying that administrators of various types have clear jobs to do, but the perspective of the student-athletes must be paramount as college football attempts to navigate through this uncertainty. Proper representation has been, is and will continue to be critical. While medical guidance absolutely and unquestionably has to lead the way as college football moves forward, the input of those who make the game what it is, the players, shouldn't be too far behind.

The leadership on the rosters of college athletic teams is truly inspiring. Amidst all of the talking about these young men and what could be for this season, lets all be sure to be listening to them as well.

I love the bands, but it's the band of brothers, with college football, that really draws me in. These are, of course, people, not just players. We all need to make a concerted effort to look past the gladiator image that helmets and shoulder pads can sometimes bring. The pomp and circumstance, too. For all of the advancements made in recent years, a different kind of player safety must now be comprehensively considered and implemented. Every option should be in-play, postponement or complete cancellation if need be. Programs are each responding to daily developments. The Ivy League first announced it would not have fall sports and a number of other leagues have followed suit. Neither the Big Ten or Pac-12 will play non-conference games. Other ideas and reports are swirling. 

This is a very fluid and very serious process, one that looks to be getting worse in many ways and one that deserves the utmost respect. There are no easy answers, but all of the questions must be asked.

From fans to the media, it's natural and easy for all of us to sometimes wonder about college football's future in faceless, abstract terms. While nobody can predict the future, we can prepare for it. And do so on a personal level. Even as emotions from the past stir with another pre-season approaching, the focus simply must be on the present.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports