COVID-19 might postpone Erskine College first football season

Due West

Mark Peeler scrolls and scrolls through his phone, but he can’t find the countdown. He used to look at it every single day — the clock ticking down second by second to Sept. 5, 2020. Each tick would fill him with excitement.

Sept. 5 was supposed to be a transformative day, a day of celebration. It was supposed to be the day Erskine College played its first football game in 70 years.

But sometime in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peeler stopped looking at the countdown altogether. And on this day, in late July, the Erskine College athletics director simply can’t find it. He jokes that even his phone must have given up on fall football.

“I really did have that vision that this was gonna be such an incredible story with football,” says Peeler while sitting in a suite overlooking the Belk Arena basketball court on Erskine’s campus. “It just never dawned on me that September 5 wouldn’t really ever happen.”

In his two decades at Erskine, Peeler has served as both men’s basketball coach and athletics director, a dual role not uncommon at small Division II schools. And Erskine certainly is small, located in Due West, a quiet rural town situated in the northwestern part of South Carolina.

When Peeler first set foot in Due West at the turn of the millennium, the then-dean of students told him, “this is the place that time forgot.” Due West is a church-centered town without stoplights or tall buildings, accessible only by country backroads. It has a population of 1,200. Peeler jokes that the town is like Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Erskine, a private Christian school established in 1839, is unquestionably the heart and soul of Due West. While Erskine is routinely ranked as one of the top Division II schools in the Southeast in terms of academics, sports just might be Erskine’s greatest recruiting tool. About 75-80% of Erskine students are student-athletes. Before the pandemic, the school expected almost 900 students on campus this fall, with approximately 700 playing sports, Peeler said.

In his time as athletics director, Peeler has added 14 new sports and increased roster sizes across the board. But his dream has long been to revive the school’s football program, which was cut in 1951. In the last few decades, the popularity of amateur football in South Carolina has skyrocketed. Peeler has seen firsthand how many fans flock to Dixie High School just down the street for Friday night games. Peeler thought the addition of college football could boost the entire community.

In 2008, and again in 2015, Peeler pitched the idea to Erskine’s board of trustees. Both times he was shot down, with members of the board questioning whether football would truly fit in with the school’s Christian culture. But in 2018, with Erskine facing financial difficulty, Peeler found a window to strike. He pitched football as a way to increase enrollment and to generate revenue for the school, and the board finally accepted.

Momentum grew quickly. The decision was announced in August of 2018, and a head coach, Shap Boyd, was hired in November. Last fall, 130 football players enrolled at Erskine even though they knew they wouldn’t play a single snap until September 2020. In October, Erskine held a “homecoming” tailgate that 2,000 people attended.

“God moved in a way that everything went right,” Peeler said. “And then the pandemic happened. And that was one of the things that there’s no way you predict that, and that is just blowing the doors off.”

College football might not be played this fall. Anywhere. That’s a reality that has gradually come into focus in recent weeks, and especially this week, with reports that the Big Ten and other Power 5 conferences are considering canceling or postponing fall sports. As of Aug. 10, 14 of the 130 FBS schools have announced they won’t be playing this fall, and that figure is expected to rise. Perhaps significantly.

For a small Division II college like Erskine, a school that depends on student-athlete enrollment to stay afloat, the absence of sports this fall could be devastating. But the problem is that most small schools don’t have the financial means to enact the safety measures required by the NCAA. Even in late July, Peeler conceded that Erskine more than likely wouldn’t be playing sports this fall.

“We need to play sports because of the collegiate experience, and what we want to be able to do is to offer that and still be able to keep them safe,” Peeler said. “But under guidelines set by the NCAA, we probably can’t afford to do that. Just to be completely transparent. Not many Division II and small Division I schools can.”

Peeler estimated that costs for setting up testing and other safety measures required by the NCAA could fall anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000, with the latter being much more likely. What is an athletic director to do in such a situation? What is the right move? How does one balance the need for safety with the economic demands of a small college?

Those are questions without clear answers, questions that schools at every level are dealing with across the country. And for Erskine, there’s the added wrinkle of rebooting a football program during the middle of a pandemic.

“Somebody was joking in an A.D. group text the other day about it: Did anybody buy that book on how to deal with a pandemic as an athletic director?” Peeler says, laughing. “I don’t think any of us know what we’re doing. It’s like the first time you become a parent, you never know what’s going on. There’s no way to think that you have the right answers and to know what the right thing to do is, because somebody will criticize you for it.

“So it’s crazy, and it’s challenging. And, as one of my friends said last week, I used to think this job was really fun. It hasn’t been lately.”

Erskine football head coach Shap Boyd gives instruction during team practice last fall. The start-up team has not yet been able to practice in 2020. Submitted by Erskine College The Flying Fleet

No one has attended more Erskine sporting events than Dick Haldeman. The school has hosted athletics for 125 years, and Haldeman has been around for 59 of them.

The 85-year-old might be the only person alive who has seen Erskine play football. On Oct. 16, 1948, as a middle schooler, Haldeman watched the Flying Fleet take on Florida State in football at home in Due West. Haldeman’s older brother, Charles Haldeman, attended the school at the time.

Surprisingly, Erskine defeated the Seminoles, 14-6. It was the only game FSU lost the entire season.

“That’s the only Erskine football game I ever saw, Erskine-Florida State in 1948,” said Haldeman, who took a job as the school’s public relations director in 1961 and served that role for 34 years.

“So I have seen Erskine play football one time, and it was probably their second-most famous game. Beating Clemson was, I guess, their most famous.”

Yes, the Flying Fleet beat Clemson, too. And South Carolina. And Wofford, Presbyterian, College of Charleston and The Citadel. The Erskine football team was by no means a powerhouse. From its inception in 1896 to its final season in 1951, the program posted an 80-188-1 record. But the team had undeniable moments of glory, particularly in the 1920s when Erskine’s Dode Phillips established himself as one of South Carolina’s first great college football stars. In 1929, Greenville News sports editor Scoop Latimer was so impressed by Erskine’s passing game that he nicknamed the team, “The Flying Fleet,” which still stands as the school’s moniker.

There’s no question the school has a rich football history, even if it hasn’t played a game in 70 years. Erskine cut the program in 1951 largely due to the impact of the Korean War. The team’s assistant coach, Gene Alexander, left the program to serve overseas, and many of the team’s players saw their scholarships lapse as the nation’s G.I. Bill expired. Thanks to declining birth rates during the Great Depression, enrollment for private schools suffered in the early 1950s. Erskine had a difficult time fielding a complete roster.

“The period we dropped football was a low, low period, especially for private colleges,” Haldeman said. “You had to figure that the college could no longer afford to equip and give scholarships to a whole bunch of students during that period because enrollment was so low.

“And so this is a different period. Hopefully (Erskine football) will succeed, and I think it will be a big boost.”

Clearly, Peeler and the rest of the Erskine athletic department hope the return of football will provide a boost, even if the team ultimately doesn’t play until the spring. That timing remains undetermined, but it certainly appears more and more likely.

Regardless of when the team plays, Peeler believes he’s found the right leader for the program in head coach Shap Boyd, whom Peeler has kept an eye on since first pitching the football restart in 2008. Only a year apart in age, both Peeler and Boyd attended The University of the South in Suwanee, Tennessee for undergrad in the late 1980s, and Boyd has developed a sterling reputation as a defensive coach throughout multiple coaching stops at both the Division II and Division I levels.

Most recently, Boyd spent three seasons as the defensive coordinator and safeties coach at the University of Virginia at Wise, a Division II school. Though he’s never been a head coach, Boyd has been an assistant on two other start-up programs in the past — Jacksonville University in the late 1990s and Southeastern University from 2014-15.

That experience has already come in handy. When Peeler offered Boyd the job, he warned him that building a team from scratch wouldn’t be easy. He even tried to talk Boyd out of it, but the coach was unfazed.

“See, I had something he didn’t have,” Boyd said. “He didn’t have experience with that. I did. So I knew. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know.”

In the time since Boyd was hired in November of 2018, he’s assembled a staff of seven full-time coaches and one intern. Together, the staff has gathered a pool of more than 150 players between two recruiting periods. The school completed construction on a $650,000 football facility in January, stocked with a locker room, state of the art weightlifting equipment and crisp new burgundy-and-gold uniforms. Though initial fundraising efforts to build a football stadium on campus weren’t successful, Erskine reached an agreement with nearby Greenwood High School to play at a stadium that is up to par with most small colleges.

None of those efforts were easy, but there was a firm plan in place, and every indicator pointed to a successful opening on Sept. 5.

That’s not the case anymore. COVID-19 has made firm plans an impossibility.

“I don’t think anyone has any idea how this fall is gonna look yet,” Boyd said. “I mean, they can tell you they do. They’re lying.”

Offensive lineman Collyn Richardson, who played for Airport, will be on the Erskine College football team this year. Tracy Glantz ‘I Will Never Be 19 Again’

Collyn Richardson has never played a college snap. He hasn’t played in an actual four-quarter football game since 2017. Yet as a transfer student from Newberry College, Richardson is one of the most experienced players on the Flying Fleet team. He’s practically a grizzled veteran.

A 6-foot-1, 300-pound offensive lineman and an accomplished powerlifter from Airport High School in West Columbia, Richardson decided to transfer to Erskine after visiting the school on a cold, rainy day last January. He wasn’t happy at Newberry, where he redshirted his freshman year and didn’t think the culture was the right fit for him. But as soon as he met Boyd and the rest of the coaching staff, he knew where he belonged.

Boyd epitomizes the old-school football coach mentality. He’s the hard-nosed type who is blunt and honest with his players, who demands accountability and work ethic.

“The No. 1 thing about these coaches is they’re not going to sell you anything other than what they’re actually going to put in your face,” Richardson said. “They’re not going to tell you what you want to hear. They’re going to tell you what you need to hear.

“… And I’ve never seen a coaching staff more hungry to get out on the field than these coaches are. I think since they all took a semester off or a season off, just like we did as players, it’s like they’re going to be playing on Saturdays, like they’re excited to get out on the field.”

The past year has been challenging for Richardson, Boyd and the entire team. Perhaps nothing is more important to a start-up program than the opportunity to practice and gel as a group, but Erskine hasn’t had that opportunity since the fall. The idea was to ease players in during that time, to work on conditioning and basic concepts and play a few intrasquad scrimmages before ramping up the intensity in the spring.

But there’s been no ramp-up period. COVID-19 shut down spring practices and canceled the team’s first-ever spring game. Players haven’t been on campus since March and won’t be on campus until school opens Aug. 19, barring a change in plans.

Getting 100-plus freshmen to buy in and adjust to the college game is challenging enough under normal circumstances, but doing so during the pandemic, over Zoom video calls, is a true juggling act.

“That’s been tough,” Boyd said. “It goes back to young players not being the most engaged. They weren’t engaged where we would have liked them to be to begin with, and then they left. So then you got to try and get them back and engage through Zoom and stuff.

“… We were just trying to have conversations with them and let them know we care. Let them know we loved them. Let them know we were there for them.”

The team has already been touched by the coronavirus. Boyd said he’s heard from five or six players who contracted it during the summer and experienced mild symptoms. The mother of defensive line coach Neil Harrell was hospitalized due to COVID-19 in Florida, after she experienced complications due to asthma.

But much like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the rest of the college players involved in the nationally trending #WeWantToPlay movement, leaders of the Flying Feet team have expressed the desire to play this fall, as long as it is deemed safe. As of now, the season has not been called off, although it has been tentatively pushed back to Sept. 19.

“I know everybody’s different, but from my point of view, I don’t have an issue with playing,” Richardson said. “I know player safety and personal safety is a huge thing, and you see people opting out of playing. And if that’s the case, if people feel like they shouldn’t play, then I understand completely. It’s a pandemic. Like, I completely understand. But from my point of view, if you asked me to wear a mask, I’ll wear it in the classroom, in football, whatever. Whatever it takes to let me play, I’m going to do so I can play.”

For many Division II athletes like Richardson, college offers a final opportunity to play football at a competitive level, which Richardson calls a blessing that he doesn’t want to take for granted.

Wide receiver Kevon Catoe, a rising Erskine sophomore from Blythewood High School, echoed those sentiments. Catoe said he relishes the idea of making history, being part of something new and helping to establish a culture. His mother pointed out to him that he would be one of the first African-American players to ever wear an Erskine football uniform. The school was still segregated the last time Erskine played football. At one point, before the “Flying Fleet” nickname stuck, the school’s athletic teams were known as “The Seceders.”

“Erskine has never had an integrated football team before, and I’m going to be part of the first class since the ’50s,” Catoe said. “It’s just little things like that. No matter what, we’re always gonna leave a mark.”

Expected to be one of the team’s top receivers, the speedy Catoe said he’s hungry to play and eager to show the fruits of his hard work throughout the pandemic. At the same time, though, Catoe said he wonders just how safe it is for any student to go back to school in South Carolina, where COVID-19 cases have surpassed 100,000 and continue to climb.

“I just don’t understand why we’re going back, because in South Carolina they sent us home because of 200 cases a day, and now the average is 1,600 (cases a day) and they want us to go back,” Catoe said. “And everybody knows what the reason is. It’s because of money. Money is the root of everything. So I mean, we could do nothing but just pray about it. Because I mean, if we don’t go back to school, people could lose scholarships and this, that and the third.

“But at the end of the day, you have to do what you have to do pretty much. There’s like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now playing college football at 19 years old. I never will be 19 again.”

Kevon Catoe will be on the Erskine College football team this year. Catoe played for Blythewood High School, graduating in 2019. The school has not had a football team for 70 years. Tracy Glantz The Obstacle Course

There’s a burgundy wristband around Boyd’s right wrist, marked with Erskine’s team name and the letters “W.W.J.D.”

That acronym, of course, stands for “What would Jesus do?” The question carries even more importance at a Christian school like Erskine, where faith permeates every inch of the campus, including the start-up football program.

Boyd found faith as a youngster, after his parents divorced when he was 8 years old. He said his beliefs gave his life much-needed stability, as did his relationships with football coaches, who served as the male role models he was missing in his life. Those experiences steered him toward coaching. Yes, Boyd wants to win. And, yes, he wants to build a successful football team. But most importantly, he wants to mold young men. He wants to make a positive difference in his players’ lives and within the Due West community where he and his wife now reside.

Throughout this pandemic, he’s looked down at his wristband often, as a reminder of his mission. Whether football is played in the fall or in the spring, Boyd said he’s not giving in to anxiety. He’s learned throughout his life what he can control and what he can’t.

“There is so much unknown,” Boyd said. “The one thing I am assured of, it has nothing to do with any of this other stuff that we’re dealing with right now. (My faith) is the one thing I can count on. I try and do my devotionals in the morning, and that’s what I focus on. I call it my vitamin C; that’s kind of where I get energized for the day.

“And that’s something that I think young people struggle with because they want to control everything. And at some point, you just got to realize what you can control. Once you figure that out, your life becomes a lot more simple. Until you figure it out, your life’s a nightmare.”

For Boyd and the rest of the Erskine athletic department, the key is fluidity. The school belongs to Conference Carolinas, which doesn’t sponsor football, meaning that the football team is technically independent. Even if the conference were to decide to cancel or postpone fall sports, Erskine could still theoretically schedule football games with willing opponents this fall.

Boyd didn’t express a preference either way, saying he’ll accept playing in the spring if that’s what makes the most sense. As for the effects such a move could have on the school, Peeler said the financial hit from not playing football this fall doesn’t worry him quite as much as the potential impact on enrollment. The hope was that football would help push the student population above 1,000 in a couple years’ time.

When college sports shut down in March, Peeler said he initially feared that a postponed football season would derail interest in the program from parents, community leaders and students — potentially endangering the start of the program before it even begins.

But both Peeler and Boyd were encouraged by the turnout for a team barbecue hosted on July 18, where incoming players, current players and their families could gather and interact. Nearly 200 people showed up for the event, providing hope that interest will remain strong regardless of when football is played.

The dream, at least for now, is still alive.

“(Boyd and I) both said, ‘10 years from now, we want to leave this place, and we want to leave it in a really good place when it comes to football and athletics,’” Peeler said. “And I think we both understood the purpose of what we were trying to do for the long term.

“It’s still gonna work. It’s just taking a big obstacle course to get there.”

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Michael Lananna specializes in Gamecocks athletics and storytelling projects for The State. Featured in Best American Sports Writing 2018, Lananna covered college baseball nationally before moving to Columbia in 2020. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in journalism.
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