Arizona Bowl Football

Wyoming running back Xazavian Valladay (6) makes the catch for a touchdown in between Georgia State safety Jacorey Crawford (10) and Trajan Stephens-McQueen (6) in the first half of the Arizona Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Under most circumstances, a handful of 300-pound men crammed in a basement would be comparable to a living hell. But in an era of COVID-19 quarantine, it was the closest thing Alonzo Velazquez and his offensive line mates had to a gym.

Velazquez, the senior tackle, is originally from Wisconsin. When spring football and classes at the University of Wyoming were canceled for the remainder of the semester due to the pandemic, he opted to remain in Laramie instead of trekking home. With gyms closed and the football facilities unavailable to use, Velazquez, one of the leaders of an offensive line expected to be among the top units in the nation, had to get creative. Velazquez, Blayne Baker, Gavin Rush and Frank Crum had to get their work in.

UW director of sports performance Eric Donoval was able to lend the group a barbell. All it needed was a home. What better place than the basement of Crum’s home?

Strange? Without a doubt. But unprecedented times require strange solutions. The Cowboys would have to make do.

“It was a little weird,” Velazquez said with a laugh.

COVID-19 has forced college football programs to think farther outside the box than ever before. Zoom meetings, phone calls and Facetiming became the reluctant substitutes for face-to-face conversations, classroom sessions and shoulder pads. Workouts, all voluntary for the moment, generally involve face masks or coverings, which isn’t necessarily optimal for heavy breathing.

All things considered, though, it could have been a lot worse, said redshirt junior running back Xazavian Valladay.

“I don’t think it was a bad experience. It was a time for people to humble themselves,” Valladay said. “I try not to take too many negatives out of the quarantine.”

First-year defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel hasn’t seen a single one of his defenders practice yet. Sure, he had no intention of changing an already successful defensive philosophy too drastically. But there comes a point when he realizes he might have to take his foot off the gas pedal as far as installing the playbook is concerned whenever fall camp does eventually get started. There’s no point in forcing players to drink water from a fire hose just weeks before the season opener.

“Now you’re not just getting ready for a spring, you’re getting ready for a season,” Sawvel said. “It’s going to have to be monitored when you might shut off the water. … (We) have to still be able to play fast.”

As difficult as the coronavirus has made the lives of players and coaches in sports globally, there is a silver lining to be had: a greater appreciation for the special opportunity at hand, and a team closer than it’s ever been.

Yes, facial coverings are a pain in the you-know-what to wear while working out. Being constantly monitored is not the envy of any 18- to 22-year-old. Having to take specific paths – in single-file, socially distanced fashion – through the football facilities to get laundry or meals is beyond strange. Having a swab stuck up your nose for a COVID-19 test and being put into isolation immediately upon getting back to campus? Surreal.

But as one of the first college football programs to return to campus in early June, UW players have been given the chance to embrace the strangeness 2020 has held for all of us. And you can be sure they’re making the most of it, even if it’s far from an optimal situation.

The team is closer than ever, bonded behind the common goal of keeping each other safe to ensure the 2020 season goes off without a hitch. Adversity brings the best out of these Pokes.

“That’s one thing I love about this team. The guys on this team, they’re dedicated, they want to take care of each other,” redshirt senior running back Trey Smith said.

There are more than 100 young men taking residence in Laramie who are thankful to just have the chance to set foot in War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 5. The first time redshirt senior defensive end Garrett Crall stepped back in the football facilities for voluntary lifting, he couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.

“Yeah, it sucks. But there was a group of us talking the other day, and we might as well take advantage of it,” Crall said. “That’s what you do. It’s not a bunch of people that are down. It’s a bunch of people that are happy.”

The Pokes started fall camp in early August, but players have been dreaming of putting on pads again for months. Velazquez, for instance, has had a series of “a-ha” moments since the 2019 season ended in Tucson, Arizona. The first occurred when he was on his way back home after the bowl, when the senior realized it was his final winter break as a Cowboy.

Those sorts of moments have made him appreciative of each and every little thing that happens along the way. And amid all the chaos going on at the moment, you can bet he’s happy to be with his teammates again.

“Every day, I try to realize this is my last time doing it. (I) might as well give it all I got,” Velazquez said. “It gives you a whole different perspective.”

Perhaps no one summed up the excitement for the roller-coaster journey at hand better than junior linebacker Chad Muma. As one of the leaders of a defense significantly younger than it was a season ago, Muma has made a concerted effort to step to the plate and lead.

Among Muma’s most crucial roles is policing his teammates, making sure they don’t put themselves in dangerous situations that could result in a COVID-19 outbreak among the team. That sometimes means having difficult conversations with teammates and telling people things they don’t want to hear.

At the end of the day, those conversations are necessary. Because the last few months have shown just how quickly the sport he and his teammates love can be taken away. Muma wants to make sure everyone around him appreciates just how fortunate a position they’re in.

“It just shows there’s other things out there that are bigger than football,” Muma said. “I know everyone on our team is itching (to go).”

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.