Thinking back to the nights he spent waiting to hear from doctors that all the tests came back clear — not just for football, but across the athletic department — Eagles first-year athletic director Patrick Kraft admitted that the stress was high.
“It really is a roller coaster,” Kraft said. “You wait every night to get that [text] . . .. These guys were getting tested three times a week, and get up early before a road trip. And it did become — it has still become with all of our other sports — where do we go? What’s the number? Who’s positive? And then who’s contacted? It’s exhausting. It really is. Let’s just be honest, it’s a very is an exhausting process.”
When the Eagles got back to Boston, having avoided the pitfalls of the pandemic that had plagued so many other programs around the country, there was a sense of relief and accomplishment.
There was also still the lingering question about whether the Eagles would be willing to play one more game — a bowl game — if the opportunity arose.
Hafley had already established that winning six games in a season unlike any other was an accomplishment for a program trying to establish a foundation in its first year under new leadership.
But when it came time to decide whether it was prudent to ask players to remain bubbled on campus for three more weeks, miss the holiday, and once again go through the protocols just to travel for a bowl game — particularly when a handful of bowls affiliated with the Atlantic Coast Conference have already been canceled — Hafley said he had to check the team’s temperature.
He called the team’s leadership council together to ask if it was something they wanted to do.
“I wanted them to let me know how they felt,” Hafley said. “And then I told them to kind of see how the team feels. And then we brought them together again. And it was a team decision, everybody’s decision, but, but I wanted it to come from the team. That was very important to me.”
Ultimately, players decided the best decision was to opt out of a bowl game. The decision was supported by Hafley and Kraft.
“This was not made lightly,” Kraft said. “Everybody in this building, everyone who’s a part of this program and our department, we’re all competitors. And we wanted to make sure that they took the time and we communicated. This is all built on trust. We talked about family all the time and we’re going to do it all together, and I’m really proud of them for doing something that, others might not make that call, for making the decision that’s right for their own well-being and their teammates.”
Under normal circumstances, the Eagles’ six wins would have made them bowl eligible for the sixth time in eight years. With COVID, the NCAA made provisions before the season to grant bowl eligibility to every team. As it stands, with more postponements and cancellations cropping up as the virus surges, it’s unlikely the Eagles will be the only team to forgo the traditional postseason experience. The Fenway Bowl, the Holiday Bowl, the Pinstripe Bowl, the Quick Lane Bowl, and the Sun Bowl — all ACC-affiliated bowls — announced they would not be hosting their games this season. Hafley said he wanted to team to decide before the selection process started.
“We didn’t want anybody to pick us for a bowl game and do an injustice and then say, no, we’re not coming,” Hafley said. “And this is no disrespect to any bowls. It’s just that had nothing to do with it.”
Hafley said he asked linebacker Max Richardson inform the team the decision.
“When Max told the team that they’re going home to see their families, it was like an uproar of excitement,” Hafley said. “It was kind of emotional for me, because, at that moment, I knew that 100 percent this is the right decision.”
The bowl experience has been unusual for the Eagles the past two years. In 2018, they went to Dallas for the First Responders Bowl only to have the game canceled due to lightning. Last year, they went to Alabama for the Birmingham Bowl and sat through another storm that delayed the game for nearly two hours.
“I think the past two years we’ve had a bit of a bad taste in our mouth about how the bowl games have gone about,” Richardson said. “Last year was delayed almost two hours and the year prior [the game] was canceled. But this year, especially just being what it was, had the most effect on our decision for this bowl game. And considering everything and everybody’s feelings, it was really a team decision. As a team, we came to our senses on this one.”
Richardson decided last year to return for a fifth year with the chance to raise his profile as an NFL draft prospect. He never expected he would play his final season under these circumstances, but he put the year in perspective.
“This was not the year I was expecting when I signed up for [it], but I am so grateful for everything that’s happened,” he said. “And although the pandemic was difficult at times, I think we all have to appreciate what it helped us do, or what came out of it.”
The Eagles tested again Sunday and Wednesday with no positives and it brought a season-long commitment full-circle for offensive lineman Alec Lindstrom. Passing on a bowl game to be able to regain some of the time lost in the bubble was a reward many players looked forward to.
“You can tell from the whole year everybody was sacrificing, and you saw it in the COVID results,” Lindstrom said. “To just stay at home away from your family, away from your parents can be a lot. Some guys are from California, and they haven’t seen their mom or dad in four or five months. You could tell guys it’s mentally exhausting going from June to December without seeing your family and just kind of grinding, and then the whole COVID aspect added on to it. It’s a lot mentally on a person.”
Hafley said it didn’t make sense to have players stay through possibly the new year, take a break for two weeks at most, then return for next season.
“Truthfully, in my opinion, that also plays into this,” Hafley said. “They’re going to need to go home, take a deep breath, re-energize, and get ready to do it again. And if we push them through the 30th, or the 28th, or January 2 or 3 and told them go take 10 days off and do it again, I think mentally, they would have no chance.”
The end to a strange season may be sudden and somewhat anticlimactic, but in the end, they agreed it was right.
“I think the closure is in how we handled the overall situation,” Richardson said. ” Because in June, we didn’t know whether we would be able to play one game or not. So playing 11, I think, is a bit of closure in itself.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at [email protected].