Whitley: Strange became standard for UF sports thanks to COVID-19

David Whitley
Gator Sports
The virtual Mr. 2 Bits in the return of college football at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as Florida played South Carolina on Oct. 3, 2020, in front of limited attendance due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

A year ago today, almost 1,894 fans showed up to watch a softball game on Florida's campus. They sat next to each other, high-fived when the Gators scored and the only masks in sight belonged to the catchers.

Still, something didn't feel quite right that Wednesday night.

"It was starting to get weird, right before that game," third baseman Charla Echols said.

It was getting weird fast at the SEC basketball tournament in Nashville. Officials announced that night's two opening-round games would be the last ones fans would be allowed to attend.

Athletic directors met the next morning. At Florida's pregame meal, coach Mike White got the news.

The tournament had been canceled. Players went back to their rooms and started packing.

Within hours, the NHL, MLS and PGA Tour suspended their seasons. Major League Baseball called off spring training games. The NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments were canceled.

The next day, 16 Florida head coaches gathered in the south end zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Athletic Director Scott Stricklin told them the SEC had suspended all sports activities.

It was Friday the 13th. In a span of 48 hours, coronavirus had seemingly derailed the entire continent.

"It was all so strange," Stricklin said.

Twelve months later, what was once strange has become normal. Masks, empty stadiums and canceled games are standard sports fare.

There is a light at the end of that tunnel, but the journey there will resonate long after the final vaccine is injected.

At Florida, it began with hundreds of athletes being told the sports they'd played since childhood had suddenly gone poof!

"It was just devastating," said first baseman Kendyl Lindaman.

Her team was 23-4 and eyeing a return to the Women's College World Series. The men's track and field team was in Albuquerque set to go for its third straight NCAA indoor title.

The Gators' gymnastics team was ranked No. 2 and had a meet Friday night against Texas Woman's University. At practice, senior Amelia Hundley knew the end was near.

"We tried to take it in and enjoy every second," she said, "doing the sport I love with the teammates I love."

The baseball team was No. 1 and was set to play Georgia that night. Spring football practice was supposed to start in three days.

Instead, everybody went home and hunkered down. The campus became a ghost town.

The following Monday, the NCAA canceled all spring sports.

Nobody knew when any sport would return, but everybody knew it would eventually happen. Preparing for that became a journey unto itself.

"There was no playbook on how to handle this," Dave Werner said.

He and Stacey Higgins are associate ADs of Sports Health. They headed a task force that had far more questions than answers.

How would athletes be tested? What protocols align with government edicts? How many times could a ball be touched before it would be too germy?

Was it even worth the risk?

"We didn't know what we didn't know," Higgins said.

As the weeks dragged on, medical experts developed a better scouting report on COVID-19.

"We can open up a little bit," Dr. Michael Lauzardo, a UF epidemiologist, said on a task force Zoom call. "There's not a fire-breathing dragon waiting outside your home waiting to devour you."

Stricklin set up a conference call with athletes from the highest-risk sport — football. He told them there was a chance the season would be canceled.

"Can we play in the spring?" quarterback Kyle Trask asked.

That attitude convinced Stricklin that restarting sports was the right thing to do.

"These are athletes, and this is why they came to school," he said. "If it was that important, we had to find a way, if possible in a healthy environment, to allow them to compete."

It wasn't easy, but on June 8 the first football player returned to a new world of screening, testing, seating charts, cleaning protocols and general weirdness.

Seasons, schedules and traditions were altered. No tailgating at football games, and only 17,000 fans? Only 2,200 at basketball games?

No football game against FSU?

It was far from ideal, but at least games were played and memories were made. Like Trask's Heisman Trophy run. Dan Mullen's Pack-the-Stadium meltdown at Texas A&M. Jacob Young's hitting streak.

UF's salvage operation could only do so much, however. The athletic budget is facing a $60 million shortfall for the fiscal year.

Other losses are harder to quantify. Like a new football player not getting a spring practice.

"That really took a toll on me," quarterback Anthony Richardson said. "I wasn't able to learn as much as I needed in that time."

At least he still has time to learn. For members of the class of 2020 who decided not to return, COVID-19 will always be a thief in the night.

"Someday I think it's going to all make sense," Hundley said.

She's now a student coach for the top-ranked gymnastics team, which is scheduled to compete in the SEC Championships next weekend. The men's basketball team is back in Nashville.

"Hopefully, this time I'll be able to catch a game," Stricklin laughed.

As strange as the past year in Gainesville has been, he knows it's all relative. Of 118 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, 2.6 million people have died.

UF had 231 athletes test positive. All were cleared to return to play their sports.

That means more than ever.

"Our team this year is appreciating every moment we get to play," Echols said. "Every practice, or team meeting, we're grateful to be here."

A year after the weirdness set in, that's the one thing that makes sense.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

Whitley