COLUMBUS — Ohio State football is officially on the shelf.
The program paused all team activities and canceled its game against Illinois that was set for Saturday after an uptick in COVID-19 cases this week, the first problems the Buckeyes have run into during this challenging season.
The athletic department at Ohio State and the football program had taken an extreme level of pride of keeping the virus out of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. But once it entered, it spread.
“The athletes and staff have done an unbelievable job,” Dr. James Borchers, the Ohio State sports medicine doctor leading the effort for the program, said on Saturday. “We have essentially had no cases of COVID-19 until this week. Earlier in the week this week, we did experience small numbers of cases that then increased, and as of [Friday], pushed us over a threshold of our population-positivity rate, one of the metrics from the Big Ten, into an area where we felt like we needed to pause.”
So, the program has shut the doors at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for the time being with no set return date. This is what the Buckeyes have to deal with now. The focus is not on football at the moment. It’s on the safety of the players and staff inside the building. And the entire athletic department seems to be tackling this head-on.
“This is our reality,” athletic director Gene Smith said. “We’re struggling as a community to stop the spread of COVID-19, and we’re operating in a very challenging environment. So having definitive guidance as we go through this process is always challenging. So we’re learning a great deal as we go through this environment.”
Smith, Borchers and Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, who tested positive for the virus this week and wasn’t planning on making the trip to Illinois anyway, met with the media to break down the developments of the outbreak within the program. Lettermen Row has What We Learned as the Buckeyes are officially on pause.
No return date set for Ohio State activities
While the Buckeyes won’t travel to play at Illinois this weekend, they didn’t rule out the possibility of playing at Michigan State next Saturday. Programs in the Big Ten that have shut down — Wisconsin and Maryland — both wound up missing two games.
But the Buckeyes feel like the possibility of returning to the athletic facility in the coming days is possible of testing results come back negative and the proper protocols are followed.
“It’s kind of fluid, frankly,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to go day-by-day, see where we are today and test again tomorrow, see what we have with tests tomorrow. So it’s going to be day-to-day. I wish I could say it’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, but I really can’t. We’re going to have to [be patient], because there’s too much uncertainty here. We’re just going to have to look at each day and see what we got.”
Ryan Day believes it is possible to practice Thursday, go through a walk-through on Friday and be ready to play by next Saturday. That means the game at Michigan State is not off the table — yet.
Buckeyes could have played at Illinois
The first canceled game for the Buckeyes this season came two weeks ago when Maryland had to put its program on pause for two weeks following an uptick in cases. The Buckeyes weren’t the problem.
But now, the roles are reversed, and the athletic department, medical staff and football program had to pull the plug on the game this weekend against Illinois despite not meeting the game-cancelation threshold.
“We’re making a decision, not just based upon the thresholds, but based upon what we see,” Smith said. “We’re seeing, in our particular case, it’s kind of a community type of spread. We didn’t see spikes in specific areas. Could we have played? Sure. Was it the right thing to play? No. And so the standards that the standards define are guideposts.”
It was a tough decision, certainly, but one that the Buckeyes are comfortable with given the rise in cases within the program and the guidelines set by the Big Ten.
Ryan Day, Buckeyes dealing with emotional week
During the week of Thanksgiving, members of the football program could not travel to be with their families while trying to stay clean and away from the virus. But this week, the pandemic made its way into the program anyway, causing the shutdown.
It’s been a hard week for the Buckeyes, who now have to sit and watch other programs play while they are on the sideline. It’s especially hard for Day and the players who tested positive, followed every protocol and still couldn’t escape the spread of the virus.
“I’m resting comfortably,” Day said. “I have an extremely heavy heart, though. The sacrifices have been made by so many, and the anxiety over months and months and months of every day getting test results back to make sure that the entire program is safe. Then to experience it this week, Thanksgiving week? I can’t sit here and tell you anything other than it’s really, really hard.
“But like I told the team, it’s just another opportunity to get through some adversity, work through adversity and learn more about yourselves. That’s the only way that I can describe and put a positive spin on it right now because is isn’t fun.”