Athletes across the U.S. have suffered at the hands of the pandemic. Due to the untimely arrival of the COVID-19 virus, athletic seasons were suspended leaving student-athletes wondering “what should I do next?” Back in July of 2020, the Centennial Conference suspended all intercollegiate competition for Fall 2020. The decision left many student-athletes devastated, but there was still a sense of hope as the conference stated they would consider the possibility of shifting certain fall sports to the spring, particularly football. However, all hope was lost on December 10, 2020, when the Centennial Conference announced that all fall and winter sports competition and championships were suspended for the 2020-21 academic year. This decision left senior athletes devastated as they were stripped of their final season for something they simply couldn’t control.
But there was one option for seniors on offer. The NCAA released a statement saying Division III student-athletes will not be charged a year of participation for the 2020-21 season if their team plays half of or less than half of their scheduled games due to COVID-19. This new rule grants students who have participated in 50% or less of the team’s games another year of eligibility to compete at the collegiate level, as long as they are enrolled in one class. The Muhlenberg football team guaranteed seniors an opportunity to practice with the team during the spring semester and compete in a team scrimmage with the possibility of one or two scheduled games against non-conference opponents. “The process to return to play will look different for each student depending on things like what year the student is in and what sport they participate in,” said Assistant Athletic Director Megan Patruno. “What we know for sure is that the NCAA granted waivers for a season of participation and a semester extension for Spring 2020 and for the whole 2020-21 academic year.” The waiver allows student-athletes reinstatement for another year of college athletics due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic. The college also allows students to return for a ninth semester for a reduced cost (non-specified), so long as they are considered full-time students, meaning they take three or more courses. This decision by the NCAA left the student-athletes at a crossroads, they could either run it back and pay for another semester of college or they could hang em up forever.
Muhlenberg’s football team has had a good amount of success in the past four years earning two conference championships and a bowl game trophy, while making back-to-back playoff appearances with deep runs into the playoffs. Despite the recent success however, returning for another year isn’t as simple as it may seem for the graduating class. There are numerous factors that go into the decision such as the financial aspect, post-college opportunities, mental challenges, and of course the chance of injury. Wide receiver Jadin Davis ‘21, Defensive tackle Isaiah Jones ‘21, and free safety Daymon Fleming ‘21 all indicated they weren’t coming back for a fifth year for reasons that somewhat overlapped. Fleming stated a large part of his decision to not come back and play in the spring was a result of not being able to schedule a game with another opponent. Davis said that the lack of guaranteed games and trophies were two of his main reasons for not coming back, while the lack of a “real playable season with tangible accolades” was part of the reason Jones didn’t return.
Life after college was a large factor in the decision making process for these student-athletes as well with most of them worried about jobs and their personal health. “It just didn’t make sense for me to do something that could hurt my professional career post-graduation, especially with no games being played,” said Fleming, who is currently interning at Northwestern Mutual. Jones also mentioned how he has already missed opportunities to gain real on-site experience at a job and he doesn’t wish to waste any more time for a season that won’t amount to something. Davis, on the other hand, was more worried about his personal health stating that he wouldn’t want to risk possibly having another surgery for a year of football that won’t result in a trophy or some sort of closure for his career. Despite their college sports careers coming to an untimely end, each player stated they don’t have any serious regrets despite not being able to formally finish them. Fleming, who was a starter for the Mules last year, is satisfied with his legacy. “My final year starting at safety was on Muhlenberg’s best football team in school history,” said Fleming. “I would do a lot of things to get my last season back, but right now it’s just best to move on.” Davis admits that he will miss playing the sport, but does plan on being involved with the team and around the game he loves. Jones compared the feeling of losing his senior season to “almost completing a 1000 piece puzzle only to find out that the missing piece is you.”
Meanwhile, linebacker Joshua Barnett ‘21 and quarterback Michael Hnatkowsky ‘21, both plan on returning for a fifth year. Some of the main motivating factors for their decision to return was to compete for a championship, finish what they started, and gain a sense of closure by completing their senior season. Last year’s team was the best in school history making it all the way to the final four of the NCAA Division III playoffs and with the addition of the new incoming freshmen class along with the pieces they already have in place, the returning seniors feel pretty confident in the team’s chances to return to the big dance. Both Barnett and Hnatkowsky were intrigued by the idea of competing for a Division III championship and that ultimately motivated them to return. Both Hnatkowsky and Barnett don’t mind being some of the oldest players on the team and oldest people on campus either.
“I don’t think it will be too bad, the team atmosphere will be the same,” said Barnett. “The only thing I’ll really have to adjust to is not knowing more than half of the team at first now that I am one of the few seniors from the class of 2021 that are still playing.” Hnatkowsky had a similar response as well stating his wisdom and experience will allow him to connect with some of the younger players.
“I think it’ll be an awesome experience. Playing football is one of my favorite things today and if I am the oldest on campus I think it will allow me to connect with the younger players and keep this program growing.”
The seniors aren’t the only ones who believe their return will benefit the team. Strength and Conditioning coach Darin Thomas believes bringing back the seniors will benefit the team’s development and help mold the newer players into champions. “The seniors know the ins and outs of the program and would be able to show the young guys what it takes to be a championship caliber team,” stated Thomas. Thomas has been working for Muhlenberg since 2012 and works closely with all athletic teams structuring workouts designed to turn teams into champions. When asked if there would be a major adjustment for the team Thomas spoke about the impact COVID has had on the team outside of the school setting. “The only major adjustment I could think of is getting the athletes used to being in the weight room again. With most gyms being closed due to COVID, we aren’t sure what athletes were able to accomplish while away from campus. We have to get them back in shape before we do any kind of football activities. I tell the athletes all the time, whatever happens out there, happens in here first and it’s more important now than it has ever been,” stated Thomas.
Both seniors seem confident in their future plans as well, with both stating that they aren’t too worried about the job market. Barnett, who is a computer science major, believes that the opportunities will still be there because of the career path he has chosen, so he isn’t too stressed about a lack of potential openings. Hnatkowsky stated that he spoke with a few potential employers about the decision to return and was advised that waiting another year won’t hurt his job prospects. Hnatkowsky’s return will enable him to finish out his senior season and employers are waiting to make new hires. The financial aspect worked out best for both athletes as well with both players being able to return to the college for a reasonable price as well, thanks to the school’s policy regarding students who need a ninth semester. In regards to whether they believe they are making the right decision or not, both players don’t have a single regret. Hnatkowsky and Barnett relish the opportunity to finish what they started and only see a positive outcome from it.