Voluntary workouts for Missouri football resume Monday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world.
Most Tigers, however, are expected back in Columbia by Saturday morning.
MU head coach Eliah Drinkwitz declined Thursday to comment on specific personnel who would attend the workouts, but with a new coach and seven new full-time assistants taking charge of the program, this presents an important time of cohesion.
One question is paramount: How will MU athletics keep student-athletes safe during the COVID-19-impacted training?
“I want to make it clear I'm not a doctor, nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn last night,” Drinkwitz said during a Zoom call with reporters. “I'm a football coach. I’ll always defer to No. 1, MU Health (Care), and then No. 2, to our administration and what our response and appropriate response will be with COVID-19. ... We have immunologists, we have epidemiologists, we have doctors. We have all kinds of people that are looking out for the best interests of our student-athletes.
“We do have a plan in place, staff or student, if there were to be a positive test, we have an action plan for them, we have an action plan if there's somebody that has symptoms. We have followed county and (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.”
Every returning football player will be tested for the coronavirus upon their arrival in Columbia. Drinkwitz said daily temperature checks will be conducted. There will be symptom checks from active monitoring of all players.
“I feel great about it,” Drinkwitz said. “Obviously, this is an unknown and there's going to be different things that come up and we've tried to plan for every contingency.
“Whatever happens, we will work through it. And the best thing we've got going for us is we’ve got MU Health 800 yards away, run by Jonathan Curtright, who's done an outstanding job as the CEO. He's got some of the best doctors in the world and so they'll be safe and strong. And I feel like this is the best place for all of our players.”
Drinkwitz indicated no date has been set by the Southeastern Conference or NCAA for when practices beyond voluntary workouts will be allowed to begin.
Football is one of three sports returning to campus for voluntary workouts Monday, alongside men’s basketball and women’s basketball.
The rest of Missouri athletics will be allowed to resume in-person voluntary workouts in Columbia at a staggered pace over the following month.
“I personally feel safe coming back,” Missouri junior linebacker Nick Bolton said. “I feel like it’s the safest place for me. I'd be able to work out, still be ready for the fall, but also in a safe environment where we can't necessarily worry about getting sick. ... I feel like we’re in good hands. They’re very safe, very precautious of whatever they’re doing. And as a whole, I think our whole team is bought into what we’ve got going on.”
During the pandemic, Drinkwitz said Missouri restricted access to weight rooms and locker rooms so they are clean and ready for student-athletes to return.
In-person teammate interactions have been limited to slow the spread of COVID-19, and while voluntary workouts will take place, the number of players who will reside off-campus has been lowered as well.
“I have complete confidence in our training staff and our medical staff that they're going to have everything prepared and good for us to come back on Monday,” Missouri defensive end Chris Turner said. “And even (Thursday), we started screens and stuff, just to make sure that we know the process of safely coming in and out of the building and doing everything we can to keep everybody safe and making sure if anything does happen that we're separated or it’s handled the right way.”
All football true freshmen who move to Columbia for the voluntary workouts will help in reducing populations in weight rooms by sticking together. Under normal circumstances, they would be mixed in with veteran Tigers.
Should voluntary workouts not cause a spike in coronavirus cases, additional relaxing of social distancing guidelines could be taken by the school at local and national health officials’ discretion.
Even if one MU football player tests positive for COVID-19, both Drinkwitz and Bolton don’t believe it derails the entire voluntary workout regimen.
“I'll still be confident. You can get sick from public facilities or being out in the community. That doesn't really affect how we go about our business,” Bolton said. “If you get sick, of course, we'll make sure that he's going to be cared for safely. ... So I would make sure his family understands what's going on and everything, just being there for my brother when he needs me.
“We have precautions of just trying to stay in the house, trying to keep the team-first mindset going forward to try to prevent that. And so I think that's going to help us. I don't really see people going out of town, coming back and bringing COVID back and forth to the University of Missouri. So I feel like we should be pretty safe here.”
While the Tiger football and basketball teams will be the guinea pigs for the rest of student-athletes in how they return to campus facilities, the time away has only made this reunion, socially distant or not, a meaningful one.
“These guys are uniquely gifted by God to play a game at an unbelievably high level,” Drinkwitz said about his team. “They're elite in every single facet. And if you take that away from them, you take that game away from them, they hate it. And these guys love football, they haven't been around their teammates, their brothers, their locker room, their coaches in nearly 12 weeks.
“There is absolutely an enthusiasm and an energy to get back and to start working towards that goal of Sept. 5 playing (Central Arkansas).”