In any sport, at any level, coaches love talking about adversity. It’s one of their favorite things to do and - behind the scenes - most of us media types get in some good tongue-in-cheek joking about how often the topic comes up.
But the adversity is real this season.
No matter the sport, athletes are still over a month away from dealing with a crucial injury, a bad call or a late deficit. This time around, the adversity is everyday life and how it has changed since March.
The entire sports world collectively hit the brakes in March as the COVID-19 pandemic forced nearly every relevant professional and collegiate outfit to shut down within a week. Rumors swirled and negotiations churned early in the summer as teams and leagues tried to find a way back onto the field while keeping safety paramount.
Professional baseball, basketball and hockey have been operating - with varied success - for a couple of weeks, but the return to mainstream sports now finds its way to Statesboro as Friday saw the opening of fall camp for the Georgia Southern football team.
To the Eagles’ credit, everything seems to have gone as well as possible in the tip-toeing back to competition. Georgia Southern football players began arriving to campus in staggered waves in early June. All were tested and quarantined before resuming heavily monitored weight training and conditioning.
Friday morning offered a bit of normalcy as the Eagles conducted their first practice of fall camp, but the adversity looms as heavy as ever.
Over the last two weeks, Power 5 conferences have all but eliminated non-conference games for the season, costing Georgia Southern a date with Mississippi and - just as importantly - a game check for nearly $1.5 million. A pushback to the start of any sanctioned Mountain West Conference events has canceled the scheduled Sept. 5 season opener at Boise State and the Football Championship Subdivision seems to be on the verge of not playing any football this fall, putting a Sept. 12 date vs. Campbell in doubt.
For all the familiarity of getting to participate in a ‘normal’ team practice on Friday, there’s no way that the Georgia Southern players and coaches aren’t aware of the massive changes that are occurring to a season they still hope to play.
Throughout the shutdown of organized team activities, plenty of thought was given to how players would stay in shape without scheduled workouts and - for many - without the benefit of an adequate option for weightlifting. A quick glance at some Georgia Southern players on Friday showed that those concerns were all for naught as a new roster and simple visuals showed that many kay players have added muscle while following training regimens remotely.
Players have handled physical challenges of the quarantine well, but the real obstacle seems to be how they will handle the mental hurdles.
Georgia Southern will almost assuredly be playing 10 or fewer games this season. On top of that, every practice and game will be altered from the norm in many ways as precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 won’t be lifted anytime soon.
There will be true freshmen beginning the next step in their careers in very strange circumstances, older players who are forced to change routines just as they had fallen into a groove and seniors who are trying to perform their best in their final year, all the while peering over their shoulders at the spectre of another virus outbreak and a total shutdown that could stop the 2020 season at any moment.
For what it’s worth, none of that possible doom and gloom was evident on the faces of players and coaches at Paulson Stadium on Friday. Everyone on the field was just happy to be back - at least for a day - to something that seemed normal.
Forcing normality when your surroundings are anything but normal is a good strategy for handling adversity.
Hopefully that will stick for a while for the Eagles and the rest of FBS football.