Small College Sports

'It's heartbreaking': Inside the decision to cancel Grinnell College's football season

Current players want more support from administration, Pioneers expect to field a team in 2020

David Taylor, Grinnell College
David Taylor, Grinnell College

GRINNELL — David Taylor never expected to play college football after walking away from the sport after his sophomore year at Mount Vernon.

When he applied to Grinnell College and mentioned his interest in a local rugby team, his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame garnered the attention of the athletics department and Pioneers football coach Jeff Pedersen.

Taylor was contacted about an opportunity to rekindle his love for football that was sparked by playing as a youth and watching University of Iowa games until the fire was doused Tuesday.

For more than three years, the senior wide receiver lived that boyhood dream of playing college football for Grinnell until a player vote and the administration’s decision resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the season.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Taylor said in an interview with The Gazette. “Even though I wasn’t necessarily expecting to play here and I had no idea what the condition of the team was when I came, it’s something that you pour your heart and soul into.

“Being on the football field during practice and games and during the offseason, you’re just grinding. You’re trying to get yourself better, you’re trying to get the team better. You’re out there fighting on the gridiron with your brothers. It takes a lot of time and energy and because of that you care a lot about it.”

It’s important to note Grinnell is not forfeiting the rest of the season. It will finish 0-3 and its regular scheduled opponents, like Cornell College, will not receive victories.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“We are canceling our competitive season,” Grinnell Athletics Director Andy Hamilton said. “We are told these are no-contests, not forfeiture.”

Taylor’s brief football resurrection produced 1,379 receiving yards, 108 career receptions and eight touchdowns. He scored half those TDs as a freshman, catching 31 passes for 525 yards in his first season back. His best season came as a sophomore, amassing career highs in catches (48) and yards (578).

“I’m not really sure what happened,” Taylor said. “I sort of just found a rhythm and it worked. The coaching staff helped catch me up to speed.”

This season, Taylor managed just 55 yards and six catches for a team that scored just three points in as many games and ended without a victory. Taylor was named a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, awarded to the college football player that best exemplifies the traits of a student-athlete through academic success, football performance and leadership.

“I can honestly say without football Grinnell would not be the experience that I had wanted out of college,” said Taylor, an Economics and Theatre and Dance double major concentrating in Global Development studies. “I showed up and had an immediate family. The people I have met and experiences that I have been able to have that stemmed from football have led me to grow a lot as a person. I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to play.

“This relates back to our current situation in the fact that although my experience was changed for the better because of football I don’t want future players, my younger teammates, really my younger family, to go through the same experience I went through at Grinnell. I want them to have a much better experience than I had.”

The Pioneers struggled through the first three games, battling low numbers caused by injuries. Grinnell opened the season with 39 players, including three deemed out for the season before the first official practice. Two more players were lost during camp and another in the season-opening 28-0 loss to Lawrence.

Grinnell dressed just 31 for the 44-0 defeat at Lake Forest and with three injuries in last Saturday’s 42-3 loss to Macalester, the Pioneers were down to a mere 28 healthy players with upcoming opponents whose rosters total about 100 or more.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“It was a tough decision to make in that we would have preferred to continue playing and have a full, competitive season, on one hand,” Hamilton said. “On the other hand, it was a pretty easy decision to make when you consider all the facts and the health and safety of our student athletes.”

Both Taylor and Hamilton noted players approached coaches and members of the athletics department after the Lake Forest game on Sept. 14. Administrators shared their concern and monitored the football team’s situation, according to Hamilton.

Forcing players to play both ways for an entire game six to seven weeks was not seriously considered.

“So that was a real guiding force from the administration side,” Hamilton said. “The research out there shows that playing both ways makes players susceptible to injury because of fatigue and we had stated that to our players and public.

“In our original statement on Tuesday, we didn’t acknowledge the fact that the students had a vote and they were involved. We regret that.”

Taylor met with other seniors Sunday morning, deciding to hold a team meeting later that day. They met with coaches to share their opinions on the upcoming week and the remainder of the season. Taylor said coaches were empathetic and supported the team meeting.

“They understood that we were concerned for the team and we should figure where the team went (going forward),” Taylor said. “They probably didn’t have this idea that this would come to a close of the season and, to be honest, not all of the seniors did either. We were just expecting a discussion from the team to figure out where we’re going to go.”

Hamilton said Grinnell has had fewer than 40 players in seven of the last 30 years, including the last four. The Pioneers had more than 50 six times during that stretch. The remaining 17 years have been between 40 and 50.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Taylor said players decided to take a stand for the improvement of the program. He said the program is underfunded and deserves more support from the institution. Taylor said Grinnell needs to analyze its recruiting, admittance, retention and the resources in regard to its football team, especially compared to other schools in the Midwest Conference.

“The biggest thing we want to see come out of this is Grinnell College putting in the time and effort as an institution to support the team in similar ways that our peer schools do,” Taylor said. “Like University of Chicago, which has a team much bigger than ours and is much more competitive who uphold their academic standards.”

Hamilton said Grinnell plans to field a team next season. Coaches are already working on recruiting for next season and have more time to devote without the regular season time demands. More than 30 Pioneers could return for next season and 15 to 20 incoming athletes could give them more depth than the last four seasons.

Grinnell has added two full-time coaching positions since 2016.

“The answer is no,” Hamilton said about Grinnell changing academic standards to help expand the roster. “We need to find more academically qualified students so that we’re working with a larger group of admitted students. Some of that process and work will be enabled by enhanced staffing.”

Taylor is optimistic about apparent staff meetings. He said he has heard they are addressing the next steps, an action plan and the future of the program. Taylor wants the cycle of struggle to end.

“I would like to think they aren’t putting on a show for us,” Taylor said. “I would like to think this is the catalyst that is necessary for change.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.