Parental Roundtable: Being a Florida Gator Parent During a Pandemic

Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

After weeks of speculation, the SEC and the Florida Gators come to week’s end with a better idea of what the upcoming 2020 football season will look like. School’s will have their season reduced to 10 games, they will all be league games and the season itself won’t begin until September 26. And recent reports outline how testing will be done for players and officials in season.

But those are all logistics. What about the details that matter only to a small group of people but for much more important reasons? For each player prepared to strap on a helmet for an unprecedented season, there is a parent, contemplating everything beyond the game.

Yet, how do you know what to ask when the information is shifting faster than you can even form a question? School’s themselves don’t know what’s going on and are drowning in (often conflicting) information. Juggling hundreds of athletes and livelihoods amidst an ever changing, fluid situation. If those that are in charge of million dollar organizations (which SEC football programs are) are currently baffled by the current events, then how much more are the parents?

So while it should be noted that very few in positions of power, if anyone, currently have answers, it should also be noted that it is by their very position that others will look to them, for answers or at the very least, a comfort during an uncertain time.

We spoke with two parents and although this wasn’t intentional, they ironically present two very different points of view.

One lives down the road from their child and therefore the UF campus. He was a former player for the Florida Gators and is still around the program thanks to proximity and familiarity. As a former athlete as well, he has an understanding of what goes into a football program and how guys are cared for in both the best and worst of times. All of those factors shape how he views the Gators handling of his child and the entire roster during this uncertain time. He is Shane Matthews, former Gator quarterback and SEC Player of the Year in 1991 and 1992 and he is the father of current Florida quarterback Luke Matthews.

The other lives in another state, several hours away. She’s far away from her youngest child. Her entire focus is keeping her son and family safe and she doesn’t have the luxury of an inside look at the Gators program. With only a phone call often connecting her to her son as he chases his dream, she’s left to speculate exactly how he and others are being and will be cared for now and in the coming season. Any sort of peace of mind would be welcome. She is JoAnn Humphries, mother of three and mother to Gators defensive lineman Jaelin Humphries.

Scott Stricklin met with local media following the SEC’s recent schedule announcement and addressed this topic as well. His thoughts are included.

*These interviews have been edited for time and content.

On either their biggest worry or biggest hope right now, a little over a month away from kick-off:

SM: “Well, obviously, I hope we play. I think it's important for our country. I mean, obviously, large picture, we don't want to put anybody in danger, but I just think our country needs sports. As a parent, you know, I probably look at it differently because I've actually played and I know what the kids are going through on a daily basis from the care that they get as a student athlete, especially at a place like the University of Florida, you're going to get top notch treatment. So, Dan Mullen, Scott Stricklin, they're not going to put our athletes in danger.

Matthews was SEC POY in 1991 and '92.

“I know that, because I experienced it myself. We have tremendous health care with UF Health, and the training staff. So I guess I look at it differently where some parents who have not walked in that locker room and played and understand exactly what you get as an athlete, how you're taking care of. I know they're safe. So it does not bother me one bit when they're, you know, working out lifting walkthroughs for when practice starts, none of that concerns me at all.

“I guess because I have been in the sports industry my whole life. And it goes back to I know what the training staff does. I know what kind of doctors we have here. I just I don't have much of a concern. I mean, I'm not trying to minimize what's going on. I don't want I don't want it to come across like that at all. Because we know there's a lot of lives that have been lost. And we still don't know if we're gonna play sports or college football. But I just know that, you know, if someone doesn't feel well here, they're gonna make sure he's isolated. To the best care possible.”

Strength and Conditioning Coach Nick Savage has had to readjust the entire offseason workout plan due to COVID-19. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

JH: “The indoor facilities, everything was separated out. Wonderful. It looks great. Like ‘oh my God they’re doing everything right.’ And kudos to Coach Savage because he helped with that, that’s a wonderful thing. But you’re lifting in groups, you’re separate from the entire team but you’re in groups. So let’s say Billy went to Wild Wings the night before and whoever was in there and they were not symptomatic and he came back to the apartment or came back to the meeting and he’s not symptomatic but then he’s positive. What do we do?

So they said if someone tested positive, they would take care of it as far as treatment and care and they would put them in a private hotel room and make sure they got food delivered three times a day and that’s wonderful, but you’re taking care of it after the fact. How are you taking care of it before it even becomes an issue. And that was the concern and there’s not a clear answer to that.

They said we’ll have more parent meetings where all the parents can be involved, Coach Mullen would reach out more. That Zoom meeting happened on a Wednesday…nothing.

I have to ask my son ‘how do you feel?’ And he’s like ‘mom it’s stressful.’ And I’m like so is there not anything for their mental awareness and well being? It’s a lot going on and even for me at 48, it’s a lot to process. Like, do I go out here and play? I can’t sit out because then I look like I’m selling out. I wanna play but am I gonna be able to play to my full potential because of fear or anxiety about getting the coronavirus. And then on top of all of that, my scholarship’s gonna be in place, but I need to build my brand. That’s the whole point of being where I’m at, doing what I’m doing, is to build my brand.

On precautions put into place that they’ve been made aware of as parents:

SM: “Well, you know, we never went through anything like this obviously. But you know, having my son on the team, I know that they have all these hand washing stations, they get their temperature check. You know, they moved the workout equipment to the indoor [facility] to space kids out.

“Their number one job—anytime you sign a scholarship you're putting your kids, or even if your kid is a walk on, you're believing in that University, that athletic department that head coach, that position coach to do what's best for your kid. And I have the utmost respect for everybody associated with our university and our athletic department, the football program that they're gonna do what's best for our kids. Yes, we all want to play football. I think we will play football. And, you know, who knows how it'll turn out. We may have some stoppage here and there. But you know, kids, it varies in 18 to 22 year olds. You don't want to take it lightly. But many of those kids, we’ve had athletes test positive. We've had professional athletes test positive, it usually does not affect them very much.

JH: They have to eat spread out, tables spread out. Whoever their roommates are, that’s who they’re working out with. Not necessarily based on their position or things of that nature. But it’s more of, whoever’s in your immediate contact. Their training is staggered, starting at 8 o’clock in the morning till late in the day. A certain group goes and then I guess once it’s sanitized and disinfected or whatever, another group goes. But you go with your same group all the time.

On bubbles and testing:

SM: "Football is so different than, well, even baseball and basketball with the NBA is dealing with the bubble. It makes a lot of sense. But there's only, what, 12 or 15 guys on the team? When you look at a college football team—when you cap the scholarship, I mean walk ons—you’re looking at over 100 kids, and you get the support staff and you have to have that amount of kids to practice football.

“So you can't really keep them in a bubble. You probably could have gotten away with that back when I was playing because we all lived in Yon Hall in the football facility underneath the football stadium there. But now kids live off campus. A few freshmen have to live in dorms for their first year. But kids are scattered everywhere. I just don't know if it's possible to put everybody in a bubble when it comes to football.

“I really believe they could have done this back when I played because like I said, every every athlete of every sport, male lived in Yon Hall…I think they probably could have made a bubble for football.”

JH: Just looking at like the NBA—and I know those are professional athletes, but that’s what are sons are aspiring to be. Some of them are there jsut because of the scholarship and they can get their school paid for. Some of them want to go to the next level…

But in the same sense…how do I wanna say this…why aren’t our guys in a bubble? Like they’re able to come home. My son’s own his way home right now. I love for him to come home, but when he returns, they’re not being tested. So that’s a concern. Like even when he comes out, he may go with his girlfriend, I don’t know his every move. So how do I know 85 players—they’re interactions, what are they doing? Are they really staying safe?

And it’s not mandatory at this point that they have to be tested. My son has been, to my knowledge, has been tested once.

*A later text following this interview provided updated information: once players return from this four-day weekend, they will undergo at least once a week COVID-19 testing.

On comfort level having UF Health Shands just down the road:

Dr. Peter Indelicato

SM: That's tremendous. I mean, it's one of the best hospitals in the country. Got some great doctors there. And, you know, you as an athlete, you're gonna build relationships with those doctors. Dr. Peter Indelicato, I can't tell you how many times since I've been retired from football since 2006, how many times I've called him. When my son was playing in high school, or, you know, being up there. He was the first guy I'd call him...those guys, you trust how they treated you when you were playing, and whether they're still in practice or not. Those are the guys you call to get advice from as a former player as well."

Related: Dr. Pete's Analysis on 2020 season, a GatorBait Magazine Exclusive

JH: "It was [a comfort] until I read the article about the 18 anesthesiologist that contracted the coronavirus (big laugh).

"But my experience with Shands Hospital has been nothing but good. My son had to have knee surgery right after he got down there. I don’t have any issues with Shands. I think they did a terrific job as far as keeping me updated and informed. If anything ever happened where my son needed care, that would be the go-to place even if he just lived in Florida. That would definitely be a comfort place for me. Being that Shands is just a block away and they’re being very pro-active in trying to figure out what’s next for the guys...the infectious disease doctor that was a part of the Zoom, he was very open with his conversation and this comments whenever he was on the conversation.

On communication with the staff, Coach Mullen, etc.?

Scott Stricklin: “We’ve tried as a department to have some conversation. But most of the really effective conversation is from coach to parent. I was actually on a Zoom call a couple weeks ago with Coach Mullen and all the football parents. It was really kind of fascinating because the parents asked all these questions in the chat room. Dan read every single one of them. He answered them or he had the trainer, the doctor or the strength coach answer every single one them.

“It was really good just because you’ve got to be transparent, you’ve got to be open. We’re taking every step we can to communicate with the parents of our athletes because they’ve entrusted their young people with us. We want to try to tell them everything we know even though there’s a lot we’re figuring out as we go along here.”

Scott Stricklin is one of 14 SEC AD's navigating fall sports through a pandemic. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

SM: “They had a Zoom call with all the parents and allowed parents to ask questions to doctors, coaches, whatever. But they’ve always had great communication, that’s what Vernell Brown does so well. Anytime you have a question, their phones are right there. You can call Dan Mullen directly, you can call the position coach, call the trainer, call Vernell.”

JH: “So Mullen was in [the Zoom call last Wednesday] and then the doctor was in there also. And the doctor gave a lot of feedback. It was open so the parents, they could buzz in with questions or write in questions on the chat. So it was a lot of parents on the phone call along with the players. And it was a sense of urgency but in the same sense it was like, this is still a business, we still gotta do business.

“Outside from [Sports Health Associate Director] Paul [Silvestri] and the D-line coach, Coach [David] Turner, I haven’t had much correspondence with anybody. Maybe because I haven’t reached out to them because those are my go-to people as far as my son, so there hasn’t been a lot of talk other than what’s being published out there and talking to Jaelin and saying ‘hey what’s it like.’

“Paul and the position coach is Coach Turner, I have their cell phone numbers and they’re pretty quick to respond. But this is something that’s truly bigger than them.

“Other than the Zoom conversation that Coach Mullen was involved in, that’s it. There’s been, from my aspect—and I’m one of those parents that definitely calls from my son’s scholarship to ice on his knee to his meal plan, I am that parent that will put myself in front of a freight truck to make sure my son is well. I’ll say ‘ok son did you get everything you need.’ I am that mom and I think every mom, parent is but when you don’t—you say we got open communication and we can call and we can ask questions or whatever; some of these things we shouldn’t have to call about, we shouldn’t have to ask questions about. We should need open dialogue, like ‘hey this is what’s going on.’”

On what it would take to make each feel completely comfortable having their child play this season:

SM: “I've experienced being a college athlete so I understand how well they're taking care of it. That may sound kind of strange, but…they're not gonna put them in any harm, whereas a parent who is living, you know, in Fort Myers or Miami or somewhere who has never experienced what it's like to be a college or pro athlete, I can see their concerns. Obviously, their son is several hours away during this pandemic, you know, is he safe? So I can see them having some concerns, but I do know, I trust Dan Mullen and his staff, the medical staff here and that they're gonna do what's best for players.”

JH: More accountability? It’s not UF’s fault, it’s not the coaches fault that we’re in this pandemic, I get that. More transparency. Or more willingness to reach out to the parents and involve them. Ask them what can we do for your child. I know there’s regulations and there are stipulations as far as what they can and can not do. But as far as their physical attributes, their mental awareness and just social interactions, like, how much are you making it your responsibility to make sure these young men—since we’re talking about football—are more than ok?

When it comes to the 2020 season, Matthews and Humphries are also in different situations as far as the game on the field. Humphries has a chance to start or be at least a solid No. 2 on the defensive line. Matthews, like his father, could climb the depth chart in a monumental rise but will likely be behind Kyle Trask, Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. As such, concerns over the coming 10 games—or possibly even a cancelled or opted out season—are understandably different.

SM: “I don't even want to think about that. Honestly, it’s because, you know, we're talking sports here. But But sports are what? These kids that's their life. That was their dream. their dream was to go play major college football in a place like Florida, and play, you know, play for championships. But their ultimate great dream is to get to the next level and try to do it professionally. And you only have a short period of time and your college experience is like no other. I would trade my 14 years of the NFL to be able to play. You know, a total of five years in five or six years in college. It was just the bond you build with your teammates. The you're playing for your university. It's not a business like it is in professional sports. I can't imagine a season getting canceled.

Can Kyle Trask still have his dream season? Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

“They gotta decide, okay, do those kids, the Kyle Trask’s of the world, who just had a phenomenal year, just came on the scene, has a bright future and he has another great year who knows what that may lead to his professional career? Does he get another year to come back and play college football or what happens to a guy like you? You know, so there's so much uncertainty out there, but I just—not even just college guys. I mean, I feel horrible for high school kids. I mean, think about the high school athletes not to find four or five stars and offers, but you always have those diamonds in the rough that have a tremendous senior year that you're getting a scholarship to your could be Division Two, but that's a way that he's leaving his college paid for. I hate it for for all these athletes.”

And as for his own son Luke being prepared for a season when the depth chart could be crucial, “I mean, I think the track record of Brian Johnson and Dan Mullen in developing their quarterbacks—they have pretty good track record, but yeah, you bring up a great point. What happens if the quarterback room gets sick? Right? There could be some crazy stuff happened this football season if it's played.

JH: “Me and [Jaelin] are gonna talk about it when he gets here. Probably talk about it some [Friday] and talk about it while he’s here and just get a better understanding of what’s going on from his perspective, if he’s ok with it. And normally, if I’m set to pull the trigger, he’s more than ok with that. He says ‘mom you’ve never told me anything wrong, I’m confident in your decision.’

I want my son to know, I’m never gonna put you in harm’s way. And I’m never gonna allow to be in a situation if I can protect you. I’m never gonna allow that to happen.

He’s wanted to play since day one since he’s been down there because he feels like he has to prove something. But now it’s a little different because it’s like ‘mom, football is about money.’ And so we know that before we got down there. We know—we’re thankful for the scholarship and we’re thankful for the opportunity but we’ve gotta look beyond money and just value people and humanity at some point. Enough is enough. We’re just gonna have to be awakened like, this is bigger than me, this is bigger than my community and we’re just gonna have to stand together.

I just bought Gator gear. I’ve got my sneakers, I’ve got all my stuff and I was ready for the season. I still, I’m still a Gator mom. I’m gonna always be my son’s mother, no matter what tomorrow brings, I’m always gonna be his mom and with that being said, I’m always gonna be proactive in his life. I’m gonna make sure that he’s more than ok.

There is no one kind of football player, each are unique in their own way. In the same way, there is no one kind of football parent. Each and every one have experiences and perspectives that shape their mindset of a situation. The question should be raised though, in the midst of a pandemic when worry is high, shouldn’t all be given the same level of comfort? Regardless, each do all have one thing in common. The health and safety of their child…and the ability to watch their dreams come true.

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