Long Shadow of COVID

Reporting by Diane Roberts

Edited for web by Joe Harman


COVID-19 changed everything for everyone, in a myriad of ways. Like college football as a whole, it was an on-again, off-again affair for the service academies.


The pandemic forced the Army Black Knights to reschedule 9 of its 12 games. Gone was a game against powerhouse Oklahoma. Instead, teams like Abilene Christian and Mercer helped fill up the schedule.


“It’s been quite a journey,” Army Athletics Director Mike Buddie remembered, “We originally scheduled games and then we replaced them, and then the teams we replaced them with dropped out, and we just kept back-filling and back-filling and back-filling.”


In Annapolis, caution ruled the day for the Naval Academy’s team. Practices were held in the summer, but with no contact because of the corona-virus. That meant no tackling by players before the first game.


Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo summed up the challenges this way, “This year you have to have a COVID-19 plan and a football plan. And this year, your COVID-19 plan has to be better than you football plan.”


And for the Midshipmen, the Game 1 results were . . . disastrous.


“There’s nobody to blame but myself,” Niumatalolo commented after a record 55-3 home loss to BYU on September 7th. “That game was one-thousand percent my fault. I erred on the side of trying to keep our guys safe with COVID-19 . . . but we weren’t ready to play. We weren’t prepared and that was my fault.”


Amid the daily challenges of the 2020 season, there was some good news, like when Air Force learned they’d at least play Army and Navy, meaning a chance for the Commander In Chief’s Trophy. The Falcons didn’t actually play a game, and barely practiced, until a month into the season.


Game 1 didn’t come until October 7th, and it was against Navy. Air Force took advantage of the extra time off and blew Navy out of the water, 40 -- 7.


The challenges of a football season during a pandemic changed everything about how the teams prepared, it upended the schedules and forced players and staffs to be ready to stay fluid and be ready to move in any direction -- figuratively and literally.


“We would all like to playing football as we normally do, but the COVID [situation] doesn’t allow that,” Air Force Director of Athletics, Nathan Pine said, “We’re going to have to keep safety in mind and it will look different.”


Air Force head football coach Troy Calhoun agreed, “It is quite different that way. Yeah . . . it is different.”


Meanwhile, at West Point, the Army Black Knights balanced keeping players safe but also making sure they could play football every week.


“There’s a lot of protocols that are in place for us,” Army head coach Jeff Monken said before the season opener versus Middle Tennessee State, “but . . . really what we’re doing to prepare our players is very much like a normal season.”


Despite trying to keep things feeling like a normal season, it didn’t always work out that way. Games were canceled or postponed, and even the storied service academy rivalry games took a hit. A COVID-19 outbreak at the Air Force Academy forced the Air Force-Army game to be delayed by 6 weeks. Then, the famed Army-Navy game had to be relocated from it’s usual venue in Philadelphia to Michie Stadium at West Point.


“This season and this year have been a challenge for every human being on the planet, and our guys have had those challenges too,” said Monken. While, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun put it this way, “ . . . any amount of football we were able to squeeze in during these months was really, really good. In life, things never go exactly perfect of exactly as planned.”


When the turbulent season finally came to an end, the Air Force Falcons played only six games, finishing .500, while the Navy Midshipmen had a down year, winning just three of their ten games, and losing their last five -- including to Army.


For the Army Black Knights, after cobbling together a schedule when ten opponents dropped out due to the pandemic, they finished the year 9 -- 3, winning all eight games at home and earning a berth in a bowl game.


But, after such an ordeal of a football season in a pandemic, the crowning achievement for Army was beating Air Force and Navy to claim the Commander In Chief’s Trophy, their third in four years.


And when it was all said and done, Coach Monken reflected fondly on his team that met challenges no one saw coming, “There is a spirit in this team, and our love for each other and this brotherhood, that is uncommon. This isn’t the most talented team I’ve ever been a part of, but this is the best team that I’ve ever been a part of.”


A season of challenges overcome, that’s the military academy way.