Carlson: Spring football in Oklahoma? It never meant more than it does for state's lone HBCU
Henry Mitchell looked around last Saturday afternoon and saw familiar sights.
An emerald-green football field with white-painted lines. Two teams in helmets and pads, uniforms and cleats. Coaches wearing headsets. Officials throwing flags. Even fans sitting in the stands.
It sure looked like a normal football game — but it didn’t feel that way to Mitchell.
“It was definitely different,” he said with a chuckle. “Not used to playing a football game in the spring.”
Welcome to small-college football, pandemic style.
Mitchell and his Langston teammates are among a group of the country’s smallest colleges playing football this spring. While major-college programs muscled on through the fall, largely because of the money they stood to make and the money they had available to do frequent COVID testing, the NAIA moved its football championship to the spring. Some of its programs had an abbreviated fall season, but some had none at all.
Langston was among the latter.
But last Saturday, the Lions returned to action. They went to Glendale, Ariz., to face Arizona Christian and open a truncated five-game schedule.
It had been 462 days since Langston last played.
“At the beginning of the game, I had those butterflies like we were walking out there again for my first time,” said Langston coach Quinton Morgan, who is in his fifth season as the Lions' head coach. “I’m like, ‘Why am I feeling like this?’
“It was that layoff.”
All that time off built the anticipation and the excitement.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before,” Morgan said.
There was a point last year when Morgan and his team didn’t know when they would get back on the field. That’s because Langston decided in early July to suspend all athletics for the entirety of the fall semester, and when Oklahoma’s only historically Black university did so, the NAIA still planned on fall football.
Might Langston go almost two years without a football game?
Athletic director Donnita Rogers knew that was a possibility, and if that happened, the results might be dire. But at the time, she believed the results of playing sports in the fall might be dire, too. Deadly, even.
Rogers thinks back to those early months of the pandemic, how everything seemed so scary. She’d go to Walmart, then go home and immediately wash everything she had been wearing.
So little was known about COVID.
“And I think that’s what ultimately just really scared not only our president but our executive policy group,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re not sure what we’re facing here, and if we can protect our student-athletes, coaches and staff, we’re going to err on the side of caution.”
Langston allowed athletes to lift, run, condition and even do skill development as long as they limited the size of the group and followed safety guidelines.
Still, instead of gearing up for fall practices, football downshifted. There was sadness. Frustration. Concern.
But there was also relief.
“When our administration decided not to play, I was all for it because this is an opponent that no one can see,” Morgan said. “It wouldn’t be fair to put these kids out there at that point in time. It wouldn’t be fair to put these kids out there at risk.”
Rogers, too, respected the decision.
“It was just hard,” she said. “I’ve been playing sports since third grade, and it was the first time in my life when it was just … crickets.”
But throughout the fall, there were unfortunate reminders that putting sports on hold was the right move. Numerous people in the Langston community caught COVID. Others lost family members to the virus.
Mitchell was one whose family was touched by COVID, so even when the NAIA moved its championship to the spring and Langston started making plans for football’s resumption, he worried. Sure, the senior offensive lineman loved getting a practice schedule and seeing games on the calendar.
“Another part of me was kind of nervous, not knowing what could happen, not knowing how we will be protected or anything like that,” he said.
Even though the NAIA encourages but does not require testing, Langston tests players and coaches regularly. It's how they learned Morgan was positive for COVID, even though he wasn't showing any symptoms. His diagnosis came only a week after players returned to campus for the spring semester. They had only begun strength and conditioning work when all football activities had to be suspended for several days.
Then after practicing for only a week or so, an arctic blast brought bitter wind chills and snow.
That limited practicing before the opener concerned Morgan.
Rogers had concerns, too, but hers were more about traveling to Arizona. Langston isn’t like major-college programs that charter planes; the Lions fly commercial.
“They were gloved up during the security check, had the N90 mask on” she said. “We did most of our stuff either catering or brought to the hotel. So we’ve done everything that we could do on our side.
“But we know that COVID’s kind of crazy.”
Waiting for test results this week has been tough. Supporters and alums are excited about Langston’s home football game Saturday afternoon, its first in 499 days, but everyone knows a positive COVID test or two could change everything.
But the players and coaches are trying to put worries aside. They’ve got a football game to win.
Entering this season, Langston had gone 38-8 under Morgan’s leadership. It had won or shared the last three Sooner Athletic Conference crowns. Losing 27-10 to Arizona Christian last week didn’t sit well with anyone in the program.
“Me personally, I’m a sore loser,” Mitchell said. “I’m always wanting to be better than I was yesterday.”
And yet, there is a sense of gratitude mixed with that competitiveness. An appreciation for football no matter the time of year, for again being on that emerald-green field with the white-painted lines again.
“We’re just blessed to be at this point,” Morgan said. “We’re just grateful to wake up each day, and we’re trying to get the best out of it.”
Spring football has never meant so much.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
Langston plays its home opener at 2 p.m. Saturday against Southwestern Assemblies of God (Texas). With a forecast calling for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s, football fans might want to get a spring fix. Here’s what you need to know if you plan to go:
Pandemic protocols: Masks that cover nose and mouth worn at all times in the stadium. Practice social distancing in stands and concourses. All protocols and other game-day information can be found at www.langstonsports.com.