AMES — Matt Campbell hasn’t seen his football players since they left for spring break three weeks ago.
The coronavirus pandemic has all but shut down all in-person meetings and gatherings across the nation. Iowa State’s students were sent home and Campbell, along with every other college coach, was left to coach a team they couldn’t physically be with.
Campbell and his staff had to come up with a plan.
“This has been a brand-new challenge and in a way, you almost tackle it like you’re preparing for a new opponent,” Campbell said. “It starts with a little bit of anxiety but then you sit down and ask yourself, ‘How do we win this challenge? How do we give our kids the best opportunity to thrive through it?’
“The most important thing is you have to find a routine. If you’re sleeping in until 11 a.m. everyday, it’s probably going to be really hard for you to come back and thrive. This all starts with the communication piece — we need to hold people accountable to our standard through communication.”
The Iowa State football staff has used all means of communication from FaceTime to Zoom and Google Docs.
“There are so many ways to teach,” Campbell said. “We’re still continuing their education on nutrition and strength and conditioning and football. Technology has allowed us to connect and teach and be present in their lives even if we can’t physically be there. It also forces accountability on the student-athlete’s end of things.
“But we’re fortunate to have kids that want to find ways to get better. This may be something we can use down the road to continue to get better, which has been exciting.”
Campbell, who has four children, took a page out of their book.
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“My kids are being home-schooled and that’s a great lesson — you can still teach and connect,” said Campbell, who is in charge of his children’s gym class and recess time now. “What I’ve asked our coaches to do is to just be simple. In times of chaos, simplicity becomes the answer — whether that’s football or whether that’s strength and conditioning — we need a sense of simplicity to continue to grow. I think we’ve done a great job of that.”
Campbell is not just referring to football chaos, but, yes, trying to coach and learn football while not being physically together is difficult and probably chaotic. Campbell is referring to real-world chaos.
He said some parents of Iowa State’s players have been laid off and the players have had to find work. Other parents need to keep working but have young children at home now without school, so the players need to take care of their younger siblings while their parents work.
Of course, this is on top of being full-time online students and football players.
Campbell cited redshirt freshman receiver Ezeriah Anderson as someone who got a job at a grocery store in Florida to help his family make ends meet. Sophomore cornerback Kym-Mani King has gone back to his home in Florida as well to help out his family.
Locally, sophomore offensive lineman Trevor Downing and junior defensive end Zach Petersen have gone back to their family’s Iowa farms and started working full time.
Even with all of the adversity his team and players are facing on a day-to-day basis, Campbell is proud of how his team has responded.
The players have set up games of Madden online to play with and against each other to stay connected. Others have done trick-shot challenges — heck, quarterback Brock Purdy and his family made a TikTok dance video.
Anything — even something as simple as a phone call — for the players to stay connected with each other and anything for the coaches to stay connected with the players.
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“We had 123 kids that were going to go through the spring here and now some of them are having to worry about the health and well being of their families or some of them have parents that are really struggling because of what’s going on economically,” Campbell said. “We even had a couple kids where it was safer for them to stay here instead of go home.
“Football has been on the back burner of my mind, in all honesty. I’ve spent less time thinking about football in the last three weeks than I ever have in my life. That’s why I say staying connected daily with all of your players to see what’s going on — because things are changing so rapidly every day — is so important. That’s where we spend our time. We need to make sure we stay present in their lives because these are tough times for 18-to-22-year-olds.”
Campbell recalled a time during his playing days when it felt like, for the first time, his general freedom was stripped from him.
It was Sept. 11, 2001.
“I felt like my freedom was compromised and I wasn’t really sure about what was coming next,” Campbell said. “That was short lived compared to this. At 18-to-22 years old, you think you’re invincible and then all of the sudden, the real world hits and real-life adversity comes our way. Now we have to face that adversity.
“Communication and engagement and caring about other people is really, really important because it’s what we said we were going to do. We need to continue to have that at the forefront of what we do every day.”
So far, Campbell couldn’t be happier with how his staff and his players have handled the situation.
“Adversity shows the gaps that you have or the strengths that you have in your cultural foundation,” Campbell said. “I’ve been really proud of how our kids have continued to find ways to engage with each other. I’ve seen some of the older guys picking up the younger guys over the last couple of weeks. That’s been really rewarding to see.
“It’s been as rewarding as any win we’ve had because this is real life adversity.”