A little past 6 in the morning, after a few minutes of spiritual time, D’Ontre Gilliard puts his 6’2” frame on the floor of his room and does pushups, sit-ups, squats and calf raises.
Then, after a morning run, about a mile and a half, he stretches.
“I have always dreaded running and conditioning, but I understand the need for those sessions of cardio,” said Gilliard, St. Augustine’s starting quarterback from Holly Hill, SC and a computer information systems major.
This time of year, he would normally be sore from the bumps and bruises administered by CIAA defensive linemen all over North Carolina and beyond. Not that he misses getting sacked but Gilliard, like hundreds of other athletes on campus, has had to work hard to stay in shape.
The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association decided in early October to delay the start of all winter sports seasons, including men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s indoor track and field, and women’s bowling. Basketball will begin on January 9, while the schedules for track and bowling are still undecided.
The CIAA canceled football and men’s and women’s cross country. So those teams will not play again until next fall. Women’s volleyball will hold its 2021 spring season.
The disruptions were unavoidable, said SAU Interim Athletic Director David Bowser.
“As we progress things will get better but things will never be as we have known them before,” Bowser said. “However, things will progress and we will learn how to keep the student athletes safe which is the main objective and should be our #1 goal.”
Athletes are looking forward to getting back onto the football field or into Emery Gym, which closed in March. Meanwhile, they have to stay ready.
That hasn’t been easy. The weight room and wellness center are closed.
Some of the athletes have found basketball courts in surrounding neighborhoods. Some of them run on a regular schedule. Some have pullup bars in their dorm rooms. There are informal scrimmages and pickup games.
Basketball team member Nia Phillips, a communications major from the Bronx, said she has stayed in shape by waking up early in the morning and running around campus.
“I also go put up shots and work out on basketball courts near the school.”
Geordan Walker, a forward on the men’s basketball team, hired a personal nutritionist to help him watch his carbs. He runs two miles every other day so he won’t get winded when the season starts. He also goes to the YMCA to lift weights.
“I go to the YMCA down the road from school and get shots up,” said Walker, from Durham.
Also getting shots up was Donte Edwards, a guard on the men’s team from Durham. Edwards, a sport management major, attempted 1,000 of them a week at the YMCA. He said he would “start up close” and gradually work his way out.
Taniyah Greene, a communications major from Cheltenham, MD, is a little worried about her endurance.
“If the season started next week, I wouldn’t be ready, because I haven’t run for a full hour since my last game, which was in February,” she wrote in an email.
She has been practicing at a court close to St. Augustine’s every day, scrimmaging other teammates or male players.
“I’ve been able to stay in shape by just going to outdoor courts to work on my game or by doing running to make sure I maintain my weight,’ she said.
The uncertainty surrounding the athletic programs and facilities affected many St. Augustine’s students because many of them are athletes. Nearly 30 percent of the university’s full-time students participate in intercollegiate sports, according to the most recent report filed with the U.S. Department of Education for the year ended June 30, 2019.” That broke down to nearly 40 percent of men and 19 percent of women.
Around one in five of the men play football, like Gilliard, and when they open their season next September, it will have been 22 months since their last game, against Shaw, in November 2019. Gilliard, who made the All-CIAA rookie team last year, threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns in a close, but losing effort. Gilliard led all freshmen quarterbacks in the conference in passing yards and touchdown passes.
Gilliard has tried to stay sharp by working out with receivers. To make it more real, he has persuaded defensive players “to run coverages against us.”
“Also, I would give the advantage to them by limiting the amount of space we can use on the field,” he said.
Most college athletes have been playing since they were very young, every year, often multiple sports. Having time away from organized games and practices has given some of them, in Taniyah Greene’s words, “a great time to heal.”
Gilliard agrees. “The downtime has been magical for my body,” he said in an email. “Many collegiate athletes, me specifically, have broken bones, so this down-time just gives those pains a little breathing time.”
For football players, there is being in shape, and being in football shape. Being in football shape, said Gilliard, is different. “The actual difference is conditioning your body for the hits and small injuries.”
But he is confident that if the season were starting next week, and not next September, “I would play well.”
“Football is football,” he said. “Regardless of being ready or not, the adjustments would be made within the game, not preparing for it.”
— Marquie Clemonts and Jarret L. Jiles