NAU Football’s altered season hasn’t hurt the team’s spirits

NAU players and staff celebrate winning the Grand Canyon Trophy after defeating Southern Utah University 28-20, April 10.

NAU Football has faced numerous postponements and cancelations due to COVID-19.

The Big Sky Conference was granted an eight-week season for spring 2021, including two bye weeks that can serve as times where delayed games may be rescheduled in an effort to mitigate pandemic related issues. NAU football has seen many schedule changes thanks to other teams it was supposed to play.

The team had to take a three-week hiatus because Idaho University had COVID outbreaks that pushed their match-up to the end of the schedule. With that, NAU was essentially given a two-week bye. Then its next game, scheduled for April 3, was canceled because the opponent, California Polytechnic State University of San Luis Obispo, opted out of the rest of the season due to not meeting the minimum active player count of 49. With the several unknowns COVID-19 still presents, NAU head coach Chris Ball has expectations for players and staff to uphold every day, for the benefit of themselves as well as the team.

“It all comes down to when you wake up in the morning, how are you going to handle that day,” Ball said. “The best thing about that is it is a choice, you can choose to handle it and feel sorry for yourself, or you can choose to wake up and continue to try to be elite every day.”

Constantly thinking about what can possibly happen, instead of reacting to what actually happens, is what Ball said he encourages the team not to do. Instead, he tells them to worry about what they can control.

The players have bought into this way of thinking. By focusing on themselves and becoming better individually, the team as a whole is set to be on the rise.

“Our coaches have a really good mindset and for that reason, we as a team are able to keep going and keep persevering because it is tough during this COVID season,” freshman running back Draycen Hall said. “We don’t know if we are going to play. We like to think we are going to, prepare and do everything so that we can play, but at the end of the day we can’t control the circumstance — but we can control how we react and how we prepare.”

COVID has altered the sports world as a whole, including a number at NAU. These changes have allowed players to look at athletics in a new perspective.

Redshirt senior punter DJ Arnson relates this period of COVID cancelations and halted social gatherings to a time long ago when all sports were canceled in college as well.

“It’s been so unprecedented, I don’t think there’s anyone that has gone through cancelations like this,” Arnson said. “Probably the closest thing would be during World War II when they canceled all sports in college. It’s just so different and uncharted waters.” 

With the ideals Ball preaches, such as waking up every day, improving oneself and reacting to situations instead of dwelling on uncontrollable events, Arnson understands that if the team is following protocols and ready to compete every week, there isn’t much else that can be done.

The changes to NAU’s schedule have occurred because of other teams and their responses to this odd season. Unlike Idaho, NAU has yet to endure a COVID outbreak.

“Control what you can control, we came off a really hard-fought loss last week at Weber and we were very, very ready to take our anger out on this Cal Poly team,” Arnson said. “Now, low-and-behold, we find out they are going to opt out of the rest of the season. So that was nothing that was in our control — nothing we did, nothing we could have done to prevent that — but now we have two weeks to prepare for Southern Utah and the show goes on.” 

Back on March 27, the Lumberjacks lost a heartbreaker on the road against still undefeated Weber State when the Wildcats converted a 50-yard hail mary to win the game 28-23. 

Both the players and coaching staff had to work around the effects COVID presented to the team. Despite Ball only being in his second season as head coach, he and his staff have been resilient in their determination to stay the course.

Ball discussed how the figures on his staff used their experiences to stay the course. Football lives in their blood and nothing could get in the way of that.

Although the coaches’ and team’s mentality are not to reminisce on the obstacles being thrown their way, it is still frustrating for players like Hall to miss opportunities after completing numerous practices and workouts.

“We work so hard, especially during those bye weeks practicing and lifting, and it is hard preparing for something when you don’t get to play and show out,” Hall said. “It’s been a long time waiting … We’ve been grinding and hitting just going against each other, but we want to go against another opponent. We want to show the hard work we’ve put in, [and] we want to show how good Northern Arizona [University] is.”

Thanks to their game against Idaho being postponed to April 17, the team’s long break began to remind players of the even longer hiatus this past fall.

Ball can relate to the struggles the players have gone through after missing the 2020 fall season and then having a shortened spring season with several conference teams not competing. 

“A lot of them hang their hat on football defining them,” Ball said. “Football does not define you, but in their minds that’s where they gain the attention, that’s where they’ve gotten friends, what they’re known for, and all of the sudden what they hang their hat on. This sport does not define you, and that has been hard on them too. That is why it is so important we play this spring.” 

One of Ball’s main focuses when coaching his team is to instill the ideal that being a good person will amount to someone being a good player.

No matter the circumstances, getting a spring season was extremely important for this team, which is heavily stacked with underclassmen. Some athletes were struggling mentally as they were unable to compete in a game they have been practicing and playing since elementary school, and that did not go unnoticed by Ball. 

Ball noted these students have been playing football since they were as young as eight-years-old and the game has been a part of them for years.

With those daunting questions swarming the heads of the young men Ball trusts and cares about, he constantly reminds the team of the characteristics they have to represent, enabling everyone to continue focusing, learning and improving each day.  

Actions off the field also bring character to this squad. The idea of being a student-athlete who still acts professionally is also a cornerstone for the Lumberjacks.

“If you’re not doing the right things, if you’re out partying and doing whatever, you’re not following those characteristics and you’re probably going to get COVID,” Hall said. “[Coach Ball] really preaches on that not even just on the field, but off the field, because if you’re not doing the things off the field you can’t even get on the field.”  

If players do not follow the rules, they take on the added possibility and responsibility of jeopardizing everyone affiliated with the team’s health. 

Arnson detailed how hard it can be to effectively put your life on hold for the better of the team. The added sense of responsibility for not only yourself, but your teammates, requires sacrifice. 

“It’s been a challenge; it’s been night and day different from any other regular season,” Arnson said. “There is an added aspect of responsibility for each player to understand the bigger picture. That you have to make some personal sacrifices for the good of the team.”

NAU football has not had any COVID outbreaks so far this season and has reportedly practiced over 80 times since August, Ball said. Seeing competition in the spring is more of a jumpstart to becoming an even better team next fall.

With extra practices and a surprise spring season, performance expectations from Ball and the athletes are set sky high. The values Ball represents and teaches to the athletes go a long way in convincing them they can be great, Hall explained.  

“We want to show that we are a championship team,” Hall said. “Coach Ball really has that mindset and I think a lot of guys are buying in, but we need to play that to show that. The stuff coach Ball is teaching us is for life. It goes beyond football.” 

While competing in a once-in-a-lifetime spring season, and with attendance allowed at only a few universities — NAU not included — Hall’s family was able to witness his first college touchdown against Weber State at Stewart Stadium. 

This moment was a long time coming for Hall as NAU’s battalion of running options have all received a chance to make huge plays for their offense.

“It was a blessing ... My family was actually able to attend … they got tickets and so it was amazing scoring the first touchdown of my college career in front of my family and everyone,” Hall said. 

While Hall was able to enjoy his family’s attendance at the game, playing in stadiums with no fans and no noise is a completely different atmosphere and experience for the athletes. 

The disparity between venues with fans and those without has certainly been noted by the players. 

“When you’re on the field, it’s really easy to focus because there are zero distractions, but when you’re on the sideline … it’s almost more distracting on the sideline because you can hear way more,” Arnson said. “It’s almost like an added pressure because the people on the sidelines are way more focused on whatever you’re doing because they’re not looking around, talking to people in the stands or looking for their parents. Everyone on the sidelines is watching the 22 people on the field.”  

Not only are all eyes on the players but without the noise of fans in the crowd, all the athletes hear is silence — or coaches from both sidelines screaming. 

With the extra practices, downtime and quieter games, the athletes have been able to turn around the negative effects of COVID and grow with each other. 

“It’s been awesome to meet so many more of my teammates and actually have relationships with them rather than just knowing their names, and it builds into the whole factor of trust,” Arnson said. “I think if more people on the team took it upon themselves to get to know the guy next to them, it’s a lot easier to play for those guys in the game when you’re down in the trenches or you’re down by two touchdowns and it’s the fourth quarter. Raising the camaraderie of the whole team is really important.”  

COVID cancelations and postponements aren’t opportune, but there are several areas the team improved on and will use more strongly once the pandemic’s issues are resolved. 

A value Ball constantly revisits with the team is the importance of being a good person first. 

“Good people usually end up doing better on the field, in my opinion, [and] we see the guys making good choices, smart choices in the classroom, off the field, working hard. Those are the ones that make plays,” Hall said.

Staying focused on this season while also keeping a close eye on next year, the team has to see gains in the weight room.

“We’re covering all the situations right now and then we will be able to really focus this summer on the weight room and getting bigger, faster, stronger.” Ball said. 

NAU found some success recently as it improved its season record to 2-2 after winning a rematch against Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah on Saturday. With one regular season game remaining against Idaho, the Lumberjacks will not take the opportunity to compete for granted.