BC’s Remarkable COVID-19 Success is Program's 'Biggest Victory'
With a victory at Virginia on Saturday, Boston College—picked by many to bottom out the ACC in Jeff Hafley’s inaugural season—would finish with a winning record in league play for the first time since 2009. According to Hafley, however, that wouldn’t be the Eagles’ biggest win of 2020.
That designation is reserved for BC’s success against its toughest opponent of the season: not No. 1 Clemson or No. 2 Notre Dame but COVID-19, a virus that has wreaked havoc across college football this season and, more importantly, throughout the world this year.
“It is probably our biggest victory,” Hafley said Tuesday.
“Because it’s probably the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with.”
The program has administered more than 8,000 COVID-19 tests to student-athletes, coaches, and staff members without a positive case since workouts began in June. BC hasn’t had a practice or game canceled midseason. In fact, the Eagles, who at one point played nine straight weeks, are just one of five Power Five teams to have suited up for 10 games this season.
BC is one of five P5 teams to play 10 games this year. The team has administered ~ 8,000 COVID-19 tests w/o a positive since workouts began (June).— Andy Backstrom (@andybackstrom) November 29, 2020
"Probably greater than any victory we could have this year is the fact that these kids have done what they've done."
— Jeff Hafley pic.twitter.com/KaVXLK55Ft
Conferences such as the Big Ten and Pac-12 are trying to play catch-up after starting their seasons in late October and early November, respectively. Arizona State is gearing up for its first game in a month after its previous three contests were canceled because of a coronavirus outbreak. Two weeks ago, Minnesota played against Purdue without 20 players available due to injuries or COVID-19. That same weekend, the SEC’s Mississippi State fielded a team against then-No. 11 Georgia with fewer than 53 scholarship players. This past weekend, Alabama head coach Nick Saban had to watch the Iron Bowl from home after testing positive for COVID-19.
The ACC is actually ahead of the curve, although the conference has encountered issues of its own. COVID-19 outbreaks at Miami and Wake Forest shook up the league schedule. The virus sidelined Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the ACC’s best player and Heisman candidate, for a Nov. 7 primetime game against then-No. 4 Notre Dame—arguably the most highly-anticipated college football matchup of the regular season. And Florida State had back-to-back games canceled the day of, infamously causing travel headaches for Clemson and Virginia.
The NFL hasn’t gone without COVID-19 controversy either.
Originally scheduled for Thanksgiving, the AFC North matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers has been postponed on three separate occasions. Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos just played a game with a practice squad wide receiver under center after all four of their quarterbacks were placed on the COVID-19/restricted list.
By mid-October, 108 college football games had already been canceled or postponed. At least 10 games have been canceled or postponed each of the past four weeks, with 12 being called off or moved last weekend, five of which included a Top 25 team.
“I think, as of late, with all the cancellations—both in the National Football League and in college football—I think it’s really started to dawn on us,” Hafley said Sunday. “You look at some other conferences and some other teams, even within our conference, and they’re not even close to 10 games, [and] you really start to notice what these guys have sacrificed...”
Redshirt junior defensive end Marcus Valdez, one of BC’s five team captains, told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that, when players returned to school this summer, creating a bubble wasn’t all too difficult considering that campus was pretty empty. Remembering to wear a mask everywhere, though, was hard, Valdez recalled, especially after being homebound for months.
He explained that, starting in training camp, players began to wear visors and splash shields on their helmets during practice to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets. Valdez mentioned that, at first, the warm air and fog were disruptive, but, over time, the precautions became second nature. Even though BC was taking the appropriate steps—such as mask requirements, daily temperature checks, and locker room rotations—to avoid a potential outbreak, sophomore cornerback Josh DeBerry said he had family members who were surprised by the program’s success. After all, it was and still is far from the norm in college football.
“You really can’t even tell ’em how we accomplished it because it’s something that’s kind of unheard of around the country,” DeBerry said. “It’s a testament to us and what we really built as a team from day one since the new staff got here and since new players got here. It’s what we’ve built from the ground up.”
From the start of camp, BC focused on controlling what it could control. Hafley told his players to look at the seniors on the team and recognize that this could be their last season at BC. There was a buy-in. And that continued when classes got rolling at the end of August and the rest of the student body came back to Chestnut Hill.
“Coach Haf preached, we’ve gone all this way and we sacrificed all this, so why would we go jeopardize that now when the actual fun and the games are coming?” Valdez said.
From BC’s season opener at Duke on Sept. 19 to its 26th annual Holy War with Notre Dame on Nov. 14, the Eagles played nine straight games without a bye.
Hafley’s team kicked off the year with a dominant win on the road, after which Hafley gave every single player a game ball to commemorate their sacrifice and perseverance. A few weeks later, BC came within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime against a 12th-ranked North Carolina team. Then, in Death Valley, the Eagles stormed out to an 18-point lead over a top-ranked Clemson squad. A couple weeks after that, they played No. 2 Notre Dame tough.
Beating middle-of-the-pack and lower tier ACC teams and going toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s best, Hafley’s team shattered outside expectations with its new-look offense and revamped, takeaway hungry defense.
All the while, BC kept one of the most impressive streaks in sports alive: three consecutive months of negative COVID-19 tests.
“As the year goes on and we have no [positive] COVID tests, you just don’t wanna be like that guy to get that [positive] COVID test,” DeBerry said. “It’s a bond and a pact we made with each other.”
BC’s COVID-19 efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall was the latest to applaud the Eagles, commenting this week that BC’s ability to steer clear of COVID-19 is “remarkable in about every way,” according to Richmond.com.
Throughout the season, Hafley has discussed how other coaches have reached out to him about what he and his staff have done to stay on the field. It started in training camp. Hafley even got a call from his former colleague, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
“I think there’s a lot of surprise when you have a conversation [with other coaches], and they ask how many [positives] have you had, and you say, ‘We really haven’t had any,’” Hafley said. “They’re first reaction is, ‘You’re kidding.’”
The 41-year-old head coach went on to rattle off typical questions that he gets about protocol, whether he sends his players to class or “locks them up in the room,” and how he’s pulling this off. Hafley admitted that there’s no magical answer. He simply credits his players.
“I’m sure there’s parties that they could be tempted to go to, and I’m sure there’s places off campus they’re tempted to go to,” Hafley said Sunday. “The self-discipline and the sacrifice is, I don’t even have a word for it.”
He added: “It’s not me, I have nothing to do with it. It’s this team doing it for each other.”
Hafley said that he shares ideas with other coaches all the time about meeting and practice structure, and, in doing so, he’s also learned tips and strategies for COVID-19 prevention. He’s just hopeful that the rest of the conferences can finish their seasons while remaining healthy and that there can be a postseason with bowl games and a College Football Playoff.
Hafley said that it feels like just yesterday that he was at Ohio State coaching the Buckeyes against Michigan, well on their way to their third CFP appearance in program history. Since, it’s been a whirlwind for the former NFL assistant. An introductory press conference in Yawkey Athletics Center, a national semifinal against Clemson, the recruiting trail, abbreviated spring ball, months of Zoom coaching, quarantine, a revised training camp, and 10 games of football.
As hectic as it’s been, the 2020 season has been more special than Hafley could have ever imagined, thanks to the players, their leadership, and the culture that they built in “one of the hardest years that any of us could ever experience.”
“I’ll never forget that first win when no one thought we would play,” Hafley said. “I’ll never forget any of the moments that we’ve had in the locker room after these hard wins when people didn’t know if we’d play.
“People picked us 14th, 15th in the conference. I don’t know if there could be a more special year, other than the fact that we couldn’t celebrate it with the fans and the students. But how close we got and the time we spent together—I think it all happened for a reason.”