If he wanted to, Renard Bell could make a clean escape from Washington State’s team hotel Saturday night, order a taxi, Uber or Lyft and be on the doorstep of his family’s Los Angeles home in a matter of minutes.
The proximity is what makes it painful for Bell and other members of the Cougar football team who’ll be making a most unusual trip home for WSU’s 4:30 p.m. game against USC at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this Sunday. It isn’t uncommon for college football teams to be fairly shielded from the outside world when they travel to road games, but in 2020 they’re fully isolated.
Normally, Bell and the 22 other Southern California natives on WSU’s roster – those on the travel squad, at least – would’ve spent the week(s) leading up to the USC game bargaining with teammates who aren’t using their ticket allotment to score as many player passes as possible for family members and friends. No need this year with almost every school in the Pac-12 banning fan attendance in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s going to suck not being able to see my family and my friends,” Bell said. “But it’s something that we have to do right now, because 2020 caused a lot of unfortunate circumstances. Even though I’m not going to be able to see them, I know they’re going to be there in spirit.”
Bell, who’s currently the Pac-12 leader in receiving yards per game (109), won’t be able to see his parents and siblings screaming and pumping their fists from the bleachers of the Coliseum, but he’ll do his best to visualize their reactions after making a big play.
“They’re like five minutes away, too, so I’ll be able to hear them in my head while I’m playing so it’s going to be okay,” Bell said.
Between the walkthroughs, team meals, meetings and study hall hours that consume the day leading up to the game, it’s customary for programs to carve out time for players to meet with family members at the team hotel. When the game is over, players often get a few more minutes of face time with family members before piling onto the team bus.
The Cougars have also forfeited those luxuries in 2020.
“It sucks, I haven’t seen my family in a little while,” said linebacker Dillon Sherman, a Mission Viejo native. “They’re going to be there in support, watching TV 45 minutes, an hour away. I had friends earlier in the year like, ‘I can’t wait til you come to SC,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, so excited.’ Then COVID happened, kind of had to tell them, there’s not going to be anybody in the stands. It does suck, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do no matter who’s in the stadium.”
WSU’s two-deep is lined with players from the Los Angeles metropolitan area/Southern California. Along with Bell and Sherman, the group includes WR Jamire Calvin (Pasadena), LT Liam Ryan (Chino Hills), LB Jahad Woods (San Diego), LB Travion Brown (Moreno Valley), edge Brennan Jackson (Temecula), DT Ahmir Crowder (Los Angeles), CB George Hicks III (San Bernardino), WR Joey Hobert (Ladera Ranch), N Halid Djibril (Los Angeles) and long snapper Simon Samarzich (Upland).
Even with the recent NCAA bylaw allowing seniors to return next season, a handful of the players listed above may be making their final trip to Southern California this Sunday. If the Pac-12 scheduling rotation returns to its normal state in 2021, the Cougars won’t be playing a game in the Los Angeles area unless they make the Rose Bowl or LA Bowl at SoFi Stadium.
“It’s bittersweet,” Woods said. “I love California, I love Southern California, I love playing down there. It’s unfortunate I can’t play in front of my family, but I know they’re going to be at home supporting and watching. It’s always cool to play in that stadium in particular. All those fans, they’re passionate fans and I remember the last time we played there, coming out of the tunnel and they’re all booing and you can hear what they’re saying.
“I like that feeling, I like being hated. So yeah, it’s bittersweet for sure.”
With all the commotion that comes with playing inside the trenches, Ryan, a third-year starter on the offensive line, isn’t normally fazed by the crowd and therefore isn’t bothered by the lack of one in 2020. Like the rest of his fellow Southern Californians, Ryan would like to catch up with family members and friends he hasn’t seen since the summer, but he’s been able to maintain perspective through a challenging season.
“Played two games already without any fans, it’s going to be the same,” Ryan said. “Football’s football once you step in between those lines. It’s going to get physical. Fans or without fans, I don’t really care. Just want to play the game I love and do whatever it takes to play. That’s why I think a lot of us wanted to play this season.”
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