Iowa Football

With Iowa football season finally here, daily testing and 'doing the right thing' can help it endure

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz wears a face mask as he listens to linebacker Djimon Colbert during a news conference at Ki
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz wears a face mask as he listens to linebacker Djimon Colbert during a news conference at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, July 16, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — You want to know how this really works. Of course you do.

So let Jack Heflin give you the specifics.

“We have to do a (health) survey on a team app every single morning before we come to the building,” Heflin began. “Then we get our temperature taken.”

This is just the beginning of what the defensive tackle and every player, coach and other personnel within the Iowa football program do on a daily basis during this surreal and delayed COVID-19 season.

“We get tested every single day right after practice,” Heflin continued. “Then we have night meetings. Go straight home (from there) and go to bed. All the food we have at the facility, we don’t have to go anywhere to get food. It’s all here.”

So, in summary, this is Heflin’s day. This is virtually everyone’s day.

“Come here in the morning, practice, have meetings, eat breakfast, go home, come back, get tested, go back home and then come here for night meetings. Eat dinner and go home,” Heflin said. “I don’t go anywhere but the football facility and my house. That’s what my roommates do, too.”

If they want to play football, that’s what they’ve all got to do. Lay very, very low.

Iowa begins its potential nine-game trek Saturday at Purdue (2:40 p.m. on BTN). It’s the latest start to a football season at the school since 1891, the first time the Hawkeyes have begun a season with a Big Ten opponent since 1980.

This is nine straight weeks of games, with no byes. At least that’s what everyone hopes.

COVID-19 might have other ideas. No one knows how this actually will turn out.

No one.

“I think for all of us, not only in sports, but just in life, it’s been an interesting path for sure, a strange path,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And the bottom line is as we move forward, it’s going to stay abnormal for sure, and everybody is going to have to just stay very vigilant in the program and outside, and we’re all going to have to continue to adjust and adapt as we move along. That’s certainly been a big part of the last several weeks and several months. I don’t see that changing a lot.”

“Obviously that’s a concern to all players and coaches, knowing we don’t have a bye week,” said Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann. “At the same time, I think that’s going to make the players and coaches, all the teams, hopefully, just focus more on minimizing what they are doing in public, who they are exposing themselves to. Just making sure they do everything to make sure they don’t jeopardize themselves or the program. Having to sit out ... I know we’ve talked about we don’t want to be the program that causes a game not to happen.”

There have games postponed or canceled every week since college football kicked off in early September. Florida’s program has been indefinitely shutdown because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm tested positive this week and is in isolation at his home. He is one of eight FBS head coaches known to have publicly contracted the virus.

“That’s the one thing about it that has put a stranglehold on all of us, how easily it does spread,” Brohm said. “When you talk about masks, when you talk about keeping social distanced, when you talk about making sure you are careful where you go and who you are around, the amount of people, when you’re careful about doing that especially indoors, I think outdoors is a little safer. You have to take those precautions. Until a vaccine comes available, we are kind of stuck in this predicament. Each person needs to do their part.”

Coaches abide by CDC guidelines when it comes to returning to their teams: at least a 10-day isolation period and making sure symptoms, if any, have improved. Players in the Big Ten who test positive are out for three weeks.

The ability to test every day was what persuaded the conference to commit to a truncated season after initially canceling it in August. Teams began those daily rapid antigen tests Sept. 30.

If someone tests positive, as Brohm did over the weekend, a follow-up PCR test is administered to confirm the original test. The PCR tests are the “brain scratchers,” as people call them, testing swabs inserted to the very back of the nasal cavity.

“I think certainly we’re all learning daily and continue to learn daily, but just my brief knowledge of this whole thing looking across the country, I don’t think anybody has got a better system in place right now, including in the NFL, than what we have,” Ferentz said. “To me, it’s been the game changer that’s allowed us to start practice. I think it was on Sept. 30 when we started testing. It’s what allowed us to start practicing, to limit the contact tracing issues that were causing so many problems and so many challenges. That’s been a big game changer, and it took a long while for us to get there. It was a long bumpy road to get there, but, to me, at least it has allowed us to have a chance to go forward.”

Iowa weekly releases the number of coronavirus tests administered in its athletics program and the number of positive results. Since fall football practice began, the number of positives have decreased.

Ferentz said that is not a coincidence.

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“We’ve had our share of numbers, and I won’t get too specific, but we’ve had our share,” he said. “The one thing I would share with you and talk freely about this is I think when we got the news on Aug. 11 (of a season cancellation), I thought our players dropped their guard, and maybe we did as coaches, as well. But I think a lot of it is a mental attitude. It’s not that you’re going to out-tough the virus. I don’t mean it in that regard ... What I’m talking about is just being smart about what you do. Again, nobody is immune from this, but I think all of us can try to do some things to give ourselves a chance to be somewhat protected or at least minimize the risk.”

“As a team, I don’t think we really have to discuss it that much ... because the season is so important to us, being able to play football,” Heflin said. “We’ve had it taken away twice now. Just the fact that this year we’ve put so much work in, things have been on and off so much, the guys know the importance of getting every Saturday and keeping the COVID numbers low. Doing the right thing, washing your hands, social distancing, wearing a mask, staying out of crowded places. We’re not like every other college student where we can go downtown and be OK. We miss three weeks of football, possibly four, when you think about it. We have a lot more to lose than the average student. Not that they don’t have anything to lose, it’s just that we have big goals this year.”

While we’re at it, give a humongous shoutout to the training staffs at each of these schools. At least at Iowa, trainers are the ones administering coronavirus tests, finding out the results and communicating regularly with every player, coach and program personnel member.

That’s on top of their normal duties.

“Our jobs have definitely doubled, as far as workload and kind of what we’ve been responsible for,” said Kammy Powell, Iowa’s head football trainer and Associate Director of Athletic Training Services. “They have been using all of the athletic trainers to do all the testing of our athletes, so we had to train to do that. Just keeping track, tracking everybody and making sure you are staying on top of people (is difficult).

“We are all about their health and safety, right, so we want to make sure we are taking care of them the best we can. We want to make sure we are keeping in contact with them all the time. We’re getting results all times of night. It has kind of been a 24-hour-a-day job with that. It’s just making sure we are taking care of our athletes. Most of us, that’s what we love to do.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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