Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 17, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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4 OCT. 17, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED T he question that was posed to Brian Kelly midway through his press conference before the Florida State game was straightforward: What did you learn after a COVID-19 outbreak cut your roster by almost a third? Finding an answer was the difficult part for the veteran Irish head coach, and forgiv- ably so. "There are just so many levels to all of this that it becomes maddening to try and track every little move- ment," Kelly lamented of monitoring 100-plus play- ers, 24 hours a day under a COVID cloud. "We have to be on top of every little thing regardless of the circumstances," Kelly added. Kelly's assessment brought a follow-up question: What exactly spawned the outbreak that put 25 players in isolation with posi- tive tests and another 14 in quarantine through contact tracing? Kelly initially suggested the viral spike that ignited Sept. 21, two days af- ter the game with South Florida, might have been connected to a team dinner gathering the evening before the game. Kelly later explained that many of his players are involved in campus activities outside of football, so per- haps the virus entered his team's or- bit after one of those gatherings. Speculating on other potential rea- sons for a viral breakout that sidelined 39 players at its peak and halted foot- ball activities for about 10 days, Kelly theorized that perhaps team members playing video games together without masks, or simply sharing a vehicle ride without proper safeguards, may have also accelerated the spread. "We're not scientists, and it's al- most impossible for us to directly link it," the coach explained. Kelly's multiple infection theories illustrate just how difficult it is for any football program to get clear control over an invisible enemy, es- pecially in a sport defined by close contact. "We're trying to do the best we can in terms of trying to figure out some safeguards where we can improve our own procedures and protocols," Kelly said of his program's tireless effort. Offering one final potential reason for the sudden outbreak, Kelly spec- ulated that perhaps in-game celebra- tions during the 52-0 win over South Florida might also have promoted some spread in the ensuing days. "It's so hard to win, then you do win, the first thing out of your mouth is, 'Hey, stop celebrating, put your mask on,'" Kelly explained, loosely estimating that perhaps four or five players became infected through those celebratory gatherings. "You have to do that." Viral spread became so pro- nounced after the South Florida game that football players accounted for 25 of the 41 total positive cases reported on the entire Notre Dame campus, or 61 percent. Through aggressive interven- tion, Notre Dame officials quickly controlled infection and quarantine rates enough to resume their season against Florida State Oct. 10. But with one arrow dodged, con- jecture remains if Notre Dame can fulfill its entire 11-game reg- ular-season schedule? "We have to understand, if we're going to continue to play in this environment, we have to be even more vigilant than we were in the past," Kelly said. Even the slightest error in judgment or execution of COVID protections or proto- cols by just one Irish player or member of the univer- sity family could re-trigger a widespread infection and cancel a football season. More importantly, this preservation effort for a fall sports season requires a united university effort all the way from the decision makers at the top to the con- cession staff down the ladder. "Success depends on the choices we make individu- ally and collectively," Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins wrote July 29 in a campus- wide email, while warning students that failure to comply with viral protection guidelines in and around campus could lead to expulsion. Ignoring his own safeguards, Rev. Jenkins contracted COVID-19 on Oct. 2 after being videotaped at a White House event, mingling with attendees without a mask. "I failed to lead by example at a time when I've asked everyone else in the Notre Dame community to do so," Rev. Jenkins said in an apology letter after his diagnosis. Beyond any bad judgment or mixed signals, the message at this moment is clear: There is too much at stake and too much already invested into maybe the best Irish team Kelly has fielded to have players become careless during a season that could end with the first national champion- ship in 32 years. "The virus is going to be the virus," Kelly explained of the challenges ahead, "and it's not going away." ✦ Answering COVID Questions Is An Impossible Job UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at Multiple infection theories — including in-game celebrations — illustrate just how difficult it is for any football program to get clear control over an invisible enemy. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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