MOSCOW, Idaho – World War II. Would that be how far back you would have to go to find a year with so many unsettling cross currents as college football teams try to prepare for a season?
While the nation is not mobilizing for war as it did in 1942, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is provoking sharp inquiry into whether playing football is not just feasible but even possible this year.
Layered atop this is an examination of racial injustices sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while in police custody last month in Minneapolis.
Against this backdrop, what does a college football coach tell players? Idaho’s Paul Petrino is relying on empathy, hope and a resolute focus on taking things one day at a time.
While the Vandals, like every other college team, have been forced into on line communications by the coronavirus pandemic, “we’ve had good team meetings the last couple of weeks,” Petrino said.
As the Vandals have sought to discover how social issues affect them, “my biggest job is to be a good listener,” Petrino said.
He knew Black people often had a different experience with law enforcement than did white people. When he coached at Arkansas, a close family friend’s stories brought this home.
“They had to raise their kids and teach them what to do when they were pulled over. We never had to teach our kids,” he said.
But hearing similar versions of such disparity from his current players has been jarring.
“I’ve got to keep listening and help do what we can to help,” Petrino said. “We treat everybody equally on the team. But we can always get better at it.”
As a practical matter, following up on a player’s suggestion, a week ago Idaho coaches led an initiative to ensure the entire team was registered to vote. A former player, Kendrick Trotter, addressed the Vandals in one of their meetings and pushed a message of unity.
“He said it was important we all stuck together,” according to Petrino, “and when we did speak we would be way more powerful if the African American and white players spoke together.”
As the Vandals seek to discover their voice on social issues, they are also simply trying to resume an identity as a football team. Idaho, like many schools, hasn’t been together as a team since winter workouts
The Vandals were preparing for their biggest spring turnout in Petrino’s eight-year tenure with approximately 90 players expected for spring ball. The coronavirus ended that as UI closed its campus at spring break and completed the semester online.
This past week, Idaho brought back 40 players, tested them for COVID-19 and will give them a two-week period of summer workouts. Later this summer it will bring in another group of 32. Walk-ons won’t join the team until the beginning of fall camp in August.
Looming over all this is a sword of uncertainty. In spite of their best efforts, will the Vandals be able to start, let alone complete, the season?
“We’ve just got to go one day at a time,” Petrino said. “We’ll adjust as we need to. But this year is going to be a little different. The immediate goal is to get through the preseason camp and take it from there.”
No matter how events play out, Petrino appreciates that a confluence of issues are making this a year like no other, a year of challenges, to be sure, but perhaps a year highlighted by bonding to overcome them.
“It’s a year of history,” says Petrino. “We all went through 2020. This will be the team that experienced it. Hopefully, it will be one of the closest teams that ever was.”
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