De’Shaan Dixon is used to getting butterflies in his stomach before a football game.
But the ones the Norfolk State senior defensive lineman felt Thursday morning were a little different.
Spartans football coach Latrell Scott had sent out a message to his players, saying they were going to have a Zoom call.
Dixon, who was at work at the time, feared the worst. He had seen the news about other conferences canceling fall football. He hoped the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference wouldn’t be next.
But his fears were confirmed around noon when Scott informed the Spartans that they wouldn’t be playing football this fall.
“He was like, ‘They canceled the season,’” Dixon said Scott told the team. “It was pretty emotional. I almost wanted to cry.”
Dixon, a former Western Branch standout and first-team All-Tidewater selection, said a lot of heads fell after Scott’s announcement, including his.
“It made me very disappointed, but at the same time, I understand why,” he said. “It’s for the safety of everyone. It’s a smart decision to make. I don’t disagree with it. It’s just a tough call. ... It’s tough when you can’t play the sport that you love.”
The MEAC joined the Ivy League, Patriot League and most recently the Colonial Athletic Association to cancel fall football. Hampton University announced earlier in the week that it won’t have football this fall. The Pirates are a member of the Big South Conference, which has not announced plans for fall sports.
Georgetown junior lineman Neal Azar, like Dixon, also got his phone call while at work. Azar, a former Granby standout, is doing an internship with TowneBank Mortgage. He was busy at work when he got a message about an impromptu team meeting in the team’s group chat.
He thought to himself, “The news is about to come out.”
About 40 minutes later, someone put on the team’s group chat a screen shot of one of the releases that the football season was not going to happen in the fall.
The same butterflies that swirled in Dixon’s stomach were now in Azar’s.
“That’s exactly how it felt,” he said. “You realize that it’s really happening.”
Fortunately for Azar and his teammates, the coaches had prepared them for the worst for the last several weeks.
“There were a few options on the table and there was a real possibility that we might not have a season,” he said. “So, when the news did come, we were well-prepared. We knew this was a possibility early on, so we had enough time to prepare for that.”
Still, it didn’t make the news easy to accept.
“I was initially bummed out at first, but like I said before, they prepared us well,” he said. “We knew this was a possibility. The day it happened and the following day, we had a couple of team meetings where they said, ‘Don’t focus on the negative,' but we focused on the positive.”
That’s what Azar plans to do. He’s going to work on his footwork and get faster and stronger. He started seven games in his freshman year at left and right guard. He moved to center last season and started every game. Off the field, he also shined as he earned Georgetown’s Mush Dubofsky Award for outstanding student-athlete and earned his second straight nod to the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll.
He’s unsure when the Hoyas will be allowed back on campus, but he plans to make the most of it by getting ready and spending time with his family.
“Even though it’s not what we wanted, it will work out for the best,” he said. “Everything will turn out all right.”
The Ivy League was the first Division I conference to cancel all fall sports, while the option to play spring football hasn’t been ruled out.
University of Pennsylvania sophomore linebacker Jonathan Melvin was at home when he received the news that there wouldn’t be football this fall.
He said all of the football team was on a group chat because the players heard something could be released on July 8. Once the news was made public, Melvin wasn’t surprised.
“We kind of expected it to happen,” said Melvin, a former Kecoughtan standout. “We were hearing about it, and a lot of people were saying there probably wasn’t going to be a fall season and it might get moved to the spring. But it was a blessing in disguise.”
Melvin said he’s going to use the time to get in even better shape and get stronger. He also wants to know the playbook inside and out to give him a better chance to earn a starting spot.
“I just have to keep working, staying humble and just be thankful for the opportunity that I have right now,” he said. “I just have to take the time to get better and stay ready, so I don’t have to get ready.”
Harvard freshman Tyler Neville also found out on July 8. He found out a short time before he learned he was going to need nose reconstruction surgery because he was only getting about 60% of his oxygen.
“It was a pretty major surgery,” said Neville, who was a standout in football and basketball for Lafayette High.
Overcoming obstacles is nothing new for Neville. He missed his freshman and sophomore seasons of football because of a 13 1/4 u00bd-inch wide by 1-inch metal bar inserted for Sunken Chest Syndrome, which caused his breastbone to put pressure on his heart, lungs and other organs. Simultaneously, he battled Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.
He admits he was bothered by not being able to play this fall but thinks it will work in his favor as he gets adjusted to Ivy League life and recuperates from surgery.
“When I first got the news, I was like, ‘OK, this actually isn’t too bad,‘” said Neville, who leaves for Harvard next month. “I tried to look at the bright side of things. I’ll get to adjust to campus life. What Harvard is doing is that only the freshmen are going to be on campus in the fall. So I’ll get one-on-one meetings with the coaches. I’ll get to meet with them all the time. That’s pretty sweet.”
Byron Perkins is trying to be optimistic, too, for what was supposed to be his first season at Hampton University. The Purdue transfer didn’t see much playing time but was looking forward to seeing a lot of action for the Pirates. That is until he found out the season won’t happen this fall.
Hampton coach Robert Prunty called him while he was grocery-shopping in his hometown of Chicago.
“Coach Prunty called me and said it was looking good on the season,” said Perkins, a defensive back. “It was disappointing, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time I’m still very grateful for the opportunity."
He plans to use this fall to “stay ready, so I won’t have to get ready.” He’s also trying to be optimistic about it because getting disappointed won’t help.
“I’m not going to lie, it hurt because I was so looking forward to it, especially seeing as I wasn’t playing at Purdue,” he said. “At the same time, I looked at the perspective in a different situation. I still have three years of eligibility, and it could be a lot worse compared to somebody else. I’m really grateful for this opportunity at Hampton.”
Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449, email@example.com
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