Kent State football players push for fall season

Coach Sean Lewis posted this statement urging the MAC to reconsider the postponement of the fall football season to the spring, Sept. 17.

When Kent State’s football team became one of the first Division I programs to cancel their spring practices out of precaution for the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty loomed around Dix Stadium.

“The welfare of our student-athletes is always at the forefront of what we do as a program,” head coach Sean Lewis said in March. 

But with the Big Ten changing course and backpedaling their decision to cancel the fall season with an estimated October start date, some on Kent State’s football team, and throughout the Mid-American Conference, are pushing to do the same.

A talented Flashes roster returned to practice riding a wave of momentum after winning the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl, Kent’s first bowl win in the 99-year history of the program.

“When Coach Lewis told us we weren’t going to be finishing out spring ball, there was a lot of uncertainty,” redshirt junior receiver Isaac Vance said. “There was a sense of sadness.”

In July, the MAC cancelled its fall football season by a unanimous vote of University presidents, making the decision to attempt to play football in the spring semester instead.

Vance said the team’s mindset and focus immediately shifted to winning a MAC championship in the spring. 

But some current and former players say there are issues with that time frame.

Matt Bahr, a Kent State alumnus and former Flashes linebacker, notes that the spring timetable could interfere with players’ opportunities to play professional football.

“There’s guys that have the talent to play in the NFL in the MAC; we’ve seen it with guys like [Julian] Edelman and Josh Cribbs,” Bahr said. “We’re definitely missing out on an opportunity to find one of those guys from Kent State or another MAC school.”

Bahr, who was a part of last season’s bowl win, believes that the Flashes returned players with NFL-caliber talent. Even with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility, both Bahr and Vance say they fear a spring season will interfere with their teammates’ timeline to prepare for the NFL.

“If we play in the spring, that’s going to be challenging for them to explain to the guys in our conference. ‘Sorry, you’re playing a game while everyone else is at the NFL Combine,’” Vance said. 

At the beginning of the 2019 NFL season, there were 70 former MAC players on active NFL rosters. Last season, Dustin Crum finished second in the nation in deep ball accuracy rate, just seven percentage points behind LSU’s Joe Burrow, according to Pro Football Focus. A solid senior season from Crum could help him boost himself into a late-round selection. 

Currently, two Kent State alumni have positions on active NFL rosters: Edelman with the New England Patriots and Brian Winters with the Buffalo Bills, and former Kent State player and CFL Most Outstanding Rookie Nate Holley is on the Miami Dolphins practice squad.

According to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, MAC presidents met on Saturday to review a possible fall football season. The meeting was finalized with no conclusion but the presidents will meet again next week.

On Thursday afternoon, Vance tweeted an open letter to Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher from the Kent State University football players. “LET US PLAY!” the statement ended.

Players went through each position group to make sure the team unanimously wanted a fall season, Vance said. Once that was confirmed, the leaders of the team crafted the statement they felt was most accurate and would get their message across.

“I sent that tweet out because I feel like we need a voice. We want to play football this fall,” Vance said. “Seeing the Big Ten players using their voice to be heard gave us the ability to do the same.”

Coach Lewis also tweeted a statement of support of a fall season, stating that Ohio high school football is allowed to play on Fridays, and soon, Ohio State football would return on Saturdays with the NFL already hosting games in Ohio with fans in attendance.

“Our players want to play,” Lewis said in his tweet. “They have earned the right to play and I feel we must exhaust all options for them to do so. Let them play!”

According to Vance, being permitted back on campus and in the team’s facilities since August has prepared the Flashes for a safe restart of a fall season. Vance details these practices are unlike any other football season he has ever prepared for because of the Flashes Safe Seven protocols that the team is following. 

A video surfaced in August of the team receiving their bowl rings. Some players were spotted not socially distanced or wearing masks throughout the ceremony. 

“Going forward, we must be better, we must hold each other accountable, to ensure we set a strong example for our community,” Lewis told KentWired in a statement.

While working out, the team wears masks and gloves to reduce exposure, and equipment is continually being sprayed down with disinfectant. The training and weight room has been moved from Kent State’s field house to the indoor track, with machines and weight racks scattered far apart to maintain social distancing while lifting.

“Probably one of the biggest weight rooms in Division I at the moment,” Vance joked of seeing everything spread around the track.

On Thursday, the same day the player statement was released, Portage County was raised to Red Alert Level 3 risk, indicating high levels of spread and risk of exposure of COVID-19. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine placed some blame for the spike in cases on off-campus gatherings. Kent State’s football team, which says it is following the guidelines, has not needed to shut down due to positive COVID-19 cases in their locker room.

“For us as a family, we just try to control what we can control and move on each day as it presents itself,” Vance said.

Despite Saturday’s meeting concluding with no final decision, the voices of MAC student-athletes and coaches are beginning to be heard. They want to play.

“I just hope that the people that are in positions of power to make this happen take an opportunity to listen to our players and coaches,” Bahr said. “They want a shot at it so I think we need to give them a chance to do it.”

Nicholas Pedone is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected]

SUPPORT STUDENT MEDIA 

Hi, I’m Lauren Sasala, a senior journalism student from Toledo. I’m also the editor in chief of The Kent Stater and KentWired this semester. My staff and I are committed to bringing you the most important news about Kent State and the Kent community. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate.