LINCOLN — Adrian Martinez was supposed to fly back to Nebraska out of Los Angeles International Airport. But the medical experts being used by Nebraska’s football program suggested an airport with less traffic. So Martinez flew out from a different spot.
This was late March, near the first peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and while Martinez was voluntarily choosing to return to Lincoln and NU’s campus, the Husker brass — led by coach Scott Frost and his chief of staff, Gerrod Lambrecht — had already planned, and begun to enact, a way for Martinez to come back safely without putting himself, or the community, in danger.
Martinez flew in and was directed to move quickly through the airport — no bathroom break, touching nothing — to a waiting car that had already been equipped with a divider. From there, he was driven to his home, where Martinez waited until April 3, when Nebraska first administered COVID-19 tests to a core group. Other athletes flying in from out of state were taken to a suite-style dorm on campus and given a room number with a key taped to the door.
Since then, NU has tested more than 250 student-athletes and staff several times. Eight have tested positive, two of whom are in other sports.
Of the six connected to the football program, three — two players and a coach — tested positive upon their arrival. Just three players, over nearly three months, tested positive based on community spread after their arrival.
None of the football players, Frost said, have had symptoms beyond a sore throat, a one-day fever spike or a two-day loss of taste and smell. One player who tested positive, Frost said, was asymptomatic.
Frost said Nebraska had never made a firm decision not to release case numbers, and the decision to announce them Monday was not related to a World-Herald story last week covering their lack of release. Other schools such as Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Iowa have been reporting positive tests, but roughly half of FBS schools, according to an Associated Press survey, have declined.
“We’ve been elbows deep in this situation for a long time,” Frost said in a scout room nestled on the second floor of Memorial Stadium. “As other schools decided to release that information, we’ve been talking for a month (about) doing an interview like this because we want Nebraskans to feel like we did this in a safe way.”
Nebraska’s positive test cases are nowhere near the spikes seen at Clemson (37 positives) or Kansas State, which suspended voluntary workouts for 14 days after 14 players tested positive. While other schools brought back many of their players in a short time frame, Nebraska stretched out its return in waves, starting with the core group in late March. The final wave — mostly walk-ons — won’t arrive until mid-July.
Frost credited Lambrecht, associate director of football operations Andrew Sims, nutrition guru Dave Ellis, strength coach Zach Duval, head trainer Mark Mayer, NU’s administrative leaders and two University of Nebraska Medical Center experts — Dr. Steven Hinrichs and Dr. Scott Koepsell — for their help in administering the plan.
Lambrecht typed up a document full of suggestions, pointers and potential pitfalls that was distributed to the rest of the Big Ten. Nebraska doesn’t know, to what extent, its plan has been followed by other schools.
Frost just knows the plan has been “efficient” for Nebraska. Lambrecht said it was “obvious” that most players would return to Nebraska at some point over the summer regardless of what they were told.
“So the idea that it was managed in a way that protected Nebraska and protected Lincoln was of paramount concern,” Lambrecht said, adding that the safety of the players was equally important.
NU’s staff talks to players repeatedly about their social behavior and the “best, safest, smartest way to conduct themselves,” Lambrecht said. When players returned to the state, they were placed in categories of driving and flying back into the state. If players drove into Nebraska from the north, east or south, Lambrecht said, they were generally asked to fill up their gas tanks before reaching the state line. Driving in from the west, Colorado for instance, was the occasional exception because of the distance.
In their quarantine suites, players had a balcony for fresh air, but they were asked not to leave their rooms. Sims would load up his car with supplies at least once a day — food from Ellis’ grab-and-go system, toiletries, disinfectant — and deliver them to the front doors of the suites for players to collect.
At the outset of the pandemic in March, tests from UNMC were in shorter supply and it took three or four days to receive results, which meant longer quarantines. The longest quarantine, Lambrecht said, was 27 days, involving a player who tested positive upon arrival. Nebraska coaches used FaceTime chats with players dealing with cabin fever.
This approach, spread over late spring and early summer, stands in contrast to most schools, including some in the Big Ten and Oklahoma, which will not bring back the bulk of its team until this week as coronavirus cases spike all over the South and West. Husker football players who live in states like Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Alabama — which combined for more than 10,000 positive tests on Monday — are by and large already back in Lincoln, which reported just 16 positive cases Monday.
Frost said he doesn’t want to critique other schools’ plans but said college football lacks a uniform approach to testing and managing the safety and well-being of players. Every conference, university president, athletic director and coach may have their own perspective, and the pendulum on whether a season can be played or not swings back and forth with regularity. There is not yet a protocol on how teams will test, and then isolate, players once the season begins, and because the U.S. is so vast, a “blanket approach,” Frost said, may not be best.
And while testing is important, Frost said, he laid out a practical scenario in which it becomes clear that an attitude shift related to the virus may be more important than testing.
“If you try to peel back the onion of thinking that testing is going to keep everyone from getting this, you’re lying to yourself,” Frost said.
Based on UNMC expertise, Frost said, the incubation period for the virus is 72 hours before a person would test positive, and it takes 24 hours to get back test results. So if Nebraska tested its players on Wednesday of a game week, the school would know who might have contracted the virus the weekend prior.
“But if they got it on a Monday or Tuesday, it’s not going to come up positive,” Frost said. “They’re still going to class Thursday, they’re going to class Friday morning, and if you have an away game, they’re going to be around bus drivers, flight attendants, hotel people preparing food. To think that testing is going to keep our kids safe is probably a very flawed way of looking at it. We’ve gotten to the point — not our decision, but advice from experts — that the ones we need to be worried about in regards to the age group of people we’re working with, young, healthy kids, is that we need to focus on kids who are symptomatic.”
Sore throats. Fever spikes. Shortness of breath. Identify and isolate those players, Frost said. And Nebraska said it will be “very attentive” toward players with risk factors like sickle-cell trait or asthma.
“If we don’t get there, where we’re able to just play football and take care of kids who are symptomatic — pull them, isolate them, isolate people in direct contact with them and let everybody else go — I think football’s unlikely.”
The mindset surrounding the virus, Frost said, has to change. And there has to be consideration for whether athletes will contract COVID-19 regardless of whether they play football.
“I think that’s an important point,” Frost said. “Whether our kids are playing football games or not, or whether our kids are practicing football or not, they’re at just as high risk — or even a higher risk — of getting it without that structure. That’s another reason we allowed kids to come back — because of the structure and things to do.”
The clock ticks toward the season. Starting July 13, the NCAA will allow coach-supervised workouts. On July 24, the NCAA allows a mini-camp structure in which coaches can work with players 20 hours a week. By then, the sport will either have turned the corner toward a normal season or not.
Nebraska spends much of its time chewing on contingency plans. Frost quipped that “0%” of Big Ten coaches would be in favor of an all-league schedule, but the possibility has been floated. As far as NU knows, all three of its nonconference opponents — Central Michigan, South Dakota State and Cincinnati — plan on playing this season. The Huskers have contracts — which generally do not include out clauses for pandemics — that they want to honor.
Frost, and his staff, are all-in.
“We’re fighting the fight,” he said.