When Mike Locksley walks through the gates onto Maryland football’s practice field these days, he takes a second to let the sight before him sink in.
“Being on the grass,” as he likes to call it, is the second-year head coach’s solace. It’s the one point in his day when he can put all his energy towards his passion of the game. It always has been, but the escape is especially needed in a year like 2020.
While everyone still has a mask on and is following safety precautions, the bliss of getting back on the grass overwhelms the stress and strain the pandemic continues to cause. The pain and anger over witnessing more and more Black lives lost for no reason other than the amount of melanin in their skin fades for a short while. All other worries, whatever they may be, are forced to take a backseat.
With quarantines, social distancing and other restrictions, most people around the United States had to spend some time alone, left with their own thoughts and reflections, over the past several months instead of going about their normal routines. Maryland student-athletes and coaches had no choice other than to take a break from organized football.
“All of us have had to do a full 360, coaches and players included, of asking the question, “Why [do] we do this?” Locksley said.
Locksley’s face lit up and his voice grew more animated as he reflected Wednesday on the Terps’ deeper appreciation of the game, as evident in recent practices. Everyone on that field has felt the energy and excitement in the air, has felt a greater sense of determination to carry out the team’s mantra of maximizing each day.
“The coaches don’t have to get on us for bringing the energy up at all,” junior wide receiver Brian Cobbs said. “It’s really been a team-motivated, self-motivated kind of practice situation.”
Even when the Big Ten postponed the season Aug. 11, Locksley remained confident his team would have a chance to play football. He didn’t know if it would be later in the fall, the winter or the spring, and he didn’t make drastic statements on social media demanding a restart right away like some coaches around the conference, but he just had a feeling. “Maybe because [of] the eternal optimist that I am,” he says.
Locksley has almost 30 seasons of coaching under his belt. He had meetings with coaches, was in communication with athletic director Damon Evans and kept up to date on medical advancements over the past several months. But for many of the Terp student-athletes in their late teens to early twenties, navigating the unprecedented back and forth was a challenge.
“Frustrating,” Cobbs said. “I’d probably say that’s an understatement.”
The Big Ten first released a conference-only schedule and medical protocol Aug. 5. Some players opted out, but many expressed jubilation. They’d dedicated themselves to follow medical protocol and make smart choices, and if everyone around them was assured it would be safe, so were they.
After starting practices back up, though, that sense of clarity washed away quickly less than a week later, as the league reversed course and decided to postpone the season. At that point, over 160,000 Americans had succumbed to COVID-19 and the lasting effects of contracting the virus were very uncertain.
Since the early days of summer, the team has faced a cycle of being told they could work out or practice, then having everything shut down, and back and forth again and again, all with changing rules and restrictions along the way. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Cobbs said.
“I’ve just been level headed and trying not to get too high or get too low,” defensive back Tahj Capehart said. “Always focused on us having a season regardless if they [said] we wasn’t.”
Both Cobbs and Capehart said the team remained focused with the end goal of an improved team and successful season in mind. Players stayed on each other not to get complacent as they continued to prepare for an eventual season. Guys set aside time each day for individual workouts. Everyone tried to eat right and stay in shape. Quarterbacks and receivers found open fields to run routes and build chemistry.
As they did so, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 moved forward with their seasons. When asked if he’d been watching other teams take the field around college football over the past few weekends, Capehart didn’t hesitate for a second. “Of course. Of course.”
He admitted doing so was upsetting at first. That feeling of sitting back on a couch while other players got to strap on pads and helmets, rush onto the field and experience the unique adrenaline that comes with going head to head, tackle for tackle, against an opposing squad was certainly tough.
But last weekend, following the Big Ten’s Wednesday announcement, was a different story. He knew his time, the time for every Terp, was coming.
“It was definitely exciting to know that a few weeks away, we’ll definitely be on the big screen as well,” Capehart said.