'We’re 90% vaccinated and I'm still nervous' – As Delta variant shrouds 2021 college football season, players walk fine line

EVANSTON, Ill. – One of the hallowed traditions of college football summer camp is a gluttonous feast upon its conclusion. Players for generations have replaced the calories shed under the beating sun and celebrated the nearing of kickoff.

At Northwestern, star center Sam Gerak and his teammates are planning some over-indulgence at Portillo’s, the iconic local hot dog restaurant. Gerak rattled off the order he planned on putting in at the close of camp – a double cheeseburger, fries, chili dog and chocolate malt.

While the pandemic disrupted this Northwestern tradition for Gerak and his teammates last season, the excursion in 2021 is befitting of the caution being shown by college football programs as they attempt to regain some semblance of normalcy while respecting the threat of the COVID-19 Delta variant. “We’re thinking about doing it soon,” Gerak said, “but maybe we just won’t eat inside. Maybe we’ll eat in someone’s car.”

Gerak’s potential plan for a scaled-back trip to Portillo’s is indicative of the ambiguity that hangs over college football programs as the 2021 season starts this week. A year after the pandemic canceled and then uncanceled the season in some major conferences and more than 115 regular-season games were canceled or postponed, programs are still operating with an abundance of caution while obeying state, local and campus guidelines.

One year after social activity was basically barred in order to execute a season amid a pandemic, coaches and administrators are facing vexing choices as the Delta variant continues to spread, hospitals in some states are overcrowded and three major college programs – Tulane, Oregon and Oregon State – have required vaccinations or a negative test to attend games.

“I think there's a fine line going from absolute clarity two years ago to everything is a clutter last year, to now you're somewhere in between,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “But I think a lot of that comes down to personal decisions, coaches included.”

EUGENE, OREGON - MAY 01: Robby Ashford #6 of the Oregon Ducks dives to score a touchdown against Bryan Addison #13 of the Oregon Ducks on the final play of the game in the fourth quarter during the Oregon spring game at Autzen Stadium on May 01, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Oregon is requiring that fans who attend its home football games show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Vaccination rates vary by program, and leagues like the ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 have all essentially announced that a team is expected to be given a loss if it needs to forfeit a game because of COVID-19 related issues. The Big Ten and SEC are expected to come out with their plans for forfeited games soon.

How are coaches responding? The answers are varied. While vaccination rates vary by program, there’s still an aura of caution and fluidity surrounding off-field rules for teams and players.

Some schools are essentially still operating in a bubble, asking their players to limit social activity and not put themselves in high-risk situations to protect the team. UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor told Yahoo Sports that his team will operate under essentially the same protocols as last season, as the Roadrunners are staying socially distant to avoid contact tracing, including holding meetings outside. “We’re 90% vaccinated,” Traylor said, “and I’m still nervous.”

At nearly every Football Bowl Subdivision school last fall – at least the ones that played – the college football experience involved little college. Sure, there were Zoom classes and living on or near campus, but the rules were strict on gatherings, social outings and, inherently, dating life.

With that lost year in mind, some coaches are trusting their players, and team leaders, to ensure that they don’t put themselves – and potentially the team – in a high-risk situation.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team will operate under general guidance: “Be smart, be safe and be careful,” he said. “And you have to take it day by day. It’s been a fluid experience. Be flexible. Be patient. Be smart with decision-making. Try and keep your circle as tight as you can.”

Ohio State coach Ryan Day said he’s not going to impose any formal restrictions on his team. Clearly, Day doesn’t want his players out at night in high-risk situations like at bars, which is a generally a uniform view among coaches.

“It's hard, man,” Day said. “I always say this: You only have so many bullets as a coach. And if you're shooting your bullets saying they can't go out to eat with their family and then you try to tell them to do this, do that, before you know it, they stop listening to you. That was so hard about last year, you gotta save bullets because you only get so many of them.”

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin’s announcement that he has COVID-19 has been the sport’s most public reverberation in 2021. (He’s not expected to miss any games.) But considering the swath of NFL teams who’ve experienced COVID-19 issues – Lamar Jackson, the Vikings' quarterbacks room, Laremy Tunsil, Mike Vrabel etc. – there’s inherently going to be issues in college once games begin.

For the college teams that are heavily vaccinated, the risk of losing games appears much less than last year. According to NCAA rules, vaccinated players don’t have to be tested unless they have a close contact with a positive case. Unvaccinated players have to be quarantined according to local guidelines. Those rules can, of course, be tailored to be more stringent by leagues and specific programs.

That doesn’t eliminate risk, as schools are still reeling from the chaos of last season. Kent State played just four games last season of the six scheduled for MAC schools. Ohio and Miami (Ohio) played only three.

With Kent the favorite to win the MAC East, tight end Adam Dulka said the Flashes players are operating with a “risk-management” mindset. He said players are wearing masks indoors because it’s a “small controllable” that could prevent a shutdown.

“I’m sure life will be closer to normal, but at the same time I think there’s kind of a shockwave effect from last year where you remember the feeling of not being able to play, or you remember the feeling of games getting shut down,” Dulka said. “And you’re like, ‘Don’t want that happening again.’”

Kent athletic director Randale Richmond said he’s leaving the rules up to the coaches in his athletic department. He said his job is to challenge the players to be available for their teammates.

“We go with what we have from the CDC and the university that we have for all of our students,” Richmond told Yahoo Sports. “Then after that, I put that leadership on them. What are you going to do to be available? What did you do in the offseason so you could have the greatest season? Are you going to jeopardize all that right here?”

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