ATLANTA — Ambition meets precision on the campus of Morehouse College.
People trek knowingly to and from their destinations with multicolored masks draping their faces. A security guard halts cars as they enter the campus, nestled in the heart of Atlanta, waving some through after a quick conversation and carefully quizzing others.
In a conference room at Forbes Arena, where the basketball team plays, Morehouse’s football coach, Rich Freeman, recounted how much had changed over the past 15 months, since his athletic department became the first among colleges that offer football scholarships to cancel fall sports in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a major adjustment period for us,” said Freeman, whose team returned for the 2021 season.
When Morehouse, one of the country’s most acclaimed historically Black colleges, decided to skip the 2020 campaign, the football players used the abrupt shift to videoconferencing as an early forum to reflect on their lost year, and to share worries about their futures within and beyond their sport.
They returned for spring practice in February with significant health restrictions and limitations on how much they could play. The athletes were tested for the virus twice a week during the summer, and for their earliest team meetings, coaches split players into groups in multiple rooms because the entire team could not gather indoors. Older players were challenged to rebuild camaraderie and to welcome the freshmen, who were new, and the sophomores, who had missed out on what was expected to be their first season.
Players were just glad to be back together. Eventually, all were vaccinated.
“A lot of guys were losing their minds, and I understood where they were coming from,” said quarterback Mike Sims, who missed a season for the first time since he was 6.
Sims was on a pace to graduate this year in May but delayed his plans when the 2020 season was canceled. He said he felt it was his role, in part, to help keep his teammates calm and to think about the circumstances beyond football.
“Of course, kids, we’re not really trying to hear that,” Sims said in an interview while sitting next to Freeman and Curtis Campbell, Morehouse’s athletic director. “Of course, we’re just itching to play, but sometimes it’s a situation, especially like Covid, it’s bigger than just having fun.”
Looming over the college’s decision making was the disproportionate devastation the coronavirus has had on Black people, who compared with white people in the United States are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 and twice as likely to die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some members of the team understood that reality right away. Sims had anticipated the cancellation, so when it actually happened he called Freeman a day later to tell his coach that he planned to return to school.
Last year, the N.C.A.A. granted all fall sports athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic’s impact on college sports. Morehouse, which plays in Division II, also promised that it would allow every athlete on its football team to retain his scholarship, which, Freeman said, helped to quell the angst of concerned players and their parents.
“That eased the blow a lot,” Freeman said. “We were able to refocus our energy to, ‘Hey, look, you got an extra year to boost that G.P.A., to try to see if you could do some things to help you in terms of internships, with your careers after you matriculate off the campus.’” He added: “That was the silver lining. We had a few guys that were able to do some things to better position themselves when they graduate.”
When David A. Thomas, the president of Morehouse College, chose to cancel the season, he reasoned that somewhere, one school would have to be the first to make the sacrifice. Morehouse, he decided, would be the one.
“We needed to do that in the face of disappointing our athletes, who always want to play, disappointing our alumni and boosters, and even being in conflict with other schools in our conference that did want to play,” Thomas said in a phone interview. “It was also a moment where I decided Morehouse should and could provide leadership.”
The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the league Morehouse plays in, and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, whose full membership is made up of H.B.C.U.s, suspended their fall sports for 2020 less than a month after Morehouse made its decision.
Most other conferences and programs went forward with their college football seasons despite positive cases. The Southwestern Athletic Conference, whose member schools include Jackson State and Grambling State, moved its fall football season to spring 2021.
In the Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 delayed their seasons to later in the fall. The Southeastern Conference played only a conference schedule. Nearly all of them held games with few or no fans in attendance.
The coronavirus has had a particularly adverse effect on historically Black colleges. Many of them receive less state funding than white-majority schools. Some faced financial struggles even before the start of the pandemic, including dips in enrollment during the 2018-19 academic year. With the coronavirus forcing universities nationwide into online learning, many H.B.C.U.s had to raise additional funding to get their students the resources they needed to shift. For Morehouse, that included sending internet hot spots to students who needed them.
“We discovered that for many of our students, they were trying to do online learning on their cellphones because that’s the way they were connecting to the internet,” Thomas said. “When they were on campus, they could go to our computer labs and study center when they really needed a full screen and set of tools.”
Morehouse also faced a host of financial implications from its lost 2020 football season. The college awards about $2 million per year in football scholarships and had to forgo income that would have come from out-of-conference games — about $500,000, Thomas said. It also missed out on alumni fund-raising that was tied to the football program and its games, he said.
His main concern throughout was to find a way to keep his students safe.
When Thomas phoned Freeman, who has been the Morehouse coach since 2007, with the news about the cancellation, Freeman spent little time harping on what would be lost. His priority became making sure his 18- to 22-year-old players understood why football, which had consumed most of their lives, was being taken away from them. And he would have to deliver the news on a video call before such meetings were commonplace in school and corporate life.
“That was the tough piece,” Freeman said. “Sometimes you’d like to deliver information in person. Any time you’re dealing with loss, a phone call to tell someone that they’re going to experience loss, sometimes it’s tough because you don’t have that personal touch.”
A few players needed extra help, and Freeman remembered the phone calls he would get asking what would happen next.
“We have very few young men on our team that view the sport of football as their only option. Very few,” Freeman said. He added: “We do have a couple of young men, a handful, that came to school and look at the sport as, ‘This is all I can do.’ That’s not the answer. That’s not the truth. The truth is, you’re not going to always be able to run fast and jump high. The truth is, the good Lord puts something inside of you to do for others, and it’s not necessarily just playing a football game.”
As the players returned to the field this fall, some continued to seek advice from Freeman. Some asked their families and academic advisers. Others turned to Morehouse’s sports chaplain, A. Van Smith, whom they call Uncle Van.
Smith can be seen roaming the team’s sideline during games, shouting things like, “Good play, nephew,” when a player does something extraordinary.
“A group of overcomers,” he said proudly on Saturday as Morehouse played Edward Waters of Jacksonville, Fla.
It was Morehouse’s second home game of the season, at Lakewood Stadium, the team’s temporary home as its stadium undergoes construction.
Morehouse never led in the game. Its offense went in and out of sync, and the team managed only 13 points. But its fans remained for the whole game, shouting, singing, celebrating.
Morehouse fell to 0-5, and signs of the lost year linger. But at least the players are back. At least they’re competing.
“It adds to the college experience to have football back,” Tim Turner, a Morehouse graduate, said while watching the game. “To have sports back, to have anything back, where you can gather together.”
He paused as Edward Waters scored a touchdown. He continued: “It looks like we’re going to be 0-5 right now, but it still is something good. I think the people need this. They need to be around each other. That isolation over the last year, it couldn’t have been easy for these kids.”