If you want to talk loneliness during a long COVID-19 college football season, look into Charlie Mangieri’s apartment near the Northwest Campus. The tight end of the Wildcats and his teammates had been isolated – quite successfully since the end of August.
That meant Mangieri was not home for Christmas, three hours south of Peoria, Illinois. He and two teammates were in their apartment avoiding coronavirus and missing the loving arms of their families.
“My friend’s mother brought burritos over,” Mangieri said. “We ate some burritos and saw ‘Austin Powers’.”
Merry freakin ‘Christmas. This isolation may have been the hardest part of Northwestern’s success in 2020. The Wildcats went 7-2, playing for the Big Ten title for the second time in three years. But perhaps none of that would have been possible if coach Pat Fitzgerald had not convinced his players that seclusion was worth it.
Due to the wildcats’ compliance with the COVID-19 rules, Northwestern came through the season with only one positive case. Although it is a commendable achievement, there were consequences beyond the lack of Christmas.
“Players always sacrifice the normal college experience,” Fitzgerald told CBS Sports. “It was a whole different level this year. Not just here; it led to a lot of our guys feeling homesick. You talk about the mental health side, but it’s a little quiet, hush. I think it’s big.”
“Mentally, it was tough for a lot of guys,” said Mangieri, a rising senior from a close-knit family who scored his only two career touchdowns in 2020. “It was definitely a grind. I do not necessarily blame some of the guys or schools opting out. “
In the end, Northwestern did a hell of a job with coronavirus. Fitzgerald, who signed a new 10-year contract with the school this month, somehow got his players, coaches and support staff to obey health protocols the public still has trouble following: wearing masks, isolating, not going out.
“We held each other accountable, which was the theme throughout the year,” Mangieri said.
It does not matter if wildcats were lucky and / or followers. They showed that it could be done.
In that sense, all players across the country were the success stories of the just-concluded season. They put their bodies and health on the field to play the game they love without compensation. They sometimes underwent daily tests. Some got COVID-19 and fought back. Others were removed from the teams for being close to someone who had coronavirus through contact tracing. They went through the uncertainty of not knowing if there would be an exercise or a game that week – or the same month.
“Even the coaches had a chance to go home and see their families,” said Northwestern Sports Director Jim Phillips.
Mangieri was not allowed to be with his family from the end of August until after the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. His parents went to games and waved from the stands, but that was it. And it hurt.
“You could see it in his eyes,” said Charlie’s mother, Theresa. “‘I want to see you, but I can not get anywhere near you.'”
Mangieri was not the only one. None of this is meant to be judged, but it would be insensitive for anyone in college athletics to take a COVID-19 victory shot. The season was played. Good for everyone involved. But college football in 2020 was not a place to keep score except on the field.
It could not measure the hope of Mangieri, who will one day be captain, or the longing of his father, Pete, who had a brother-in-law with Fitzgerald in the Northwestern.
Northwestern’s performance will never be formally recognized. You do not do much preening during a pandemic. We all understand that the real heroes are the first responders, health professionals and those in the military who protect us.
Certainly not every player spent Christmas in an off-campus apartment, but in this micro-environment, players deserve the credit for being persistent. This is meant to tell part of their story through Northwesters eyes.
“By no means do we have a harder time than anyone who has a child in the ministry,” said Pete Mangieri. “But Charlie told me, ‘Dad, I’m glad I’m not a freshman. It’s really smelly to them. “You think about it. Your worst semester of your life is your New Year’s year. You can not touch or feel your parents that much. No one washes your clothes, no one makes your bed, no one gives you three squares a day.”
“You’re missing all the big holidays,” Charlie Mangieri added late in the season. “I missed Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year without seeing my family. The hardest part was at Christmas time when I could not see anyone. You go on social media and see all the pictures of people having fun with their family and I remember talking to one of my friends [and saying] that all this is good. Social media has a specific perspective where everything looks fun. Many people would rather do what we do right now, play football and have a chance to win the Big Ten Championship. “
Phillips was empathetic. “It’s hard for me to really think of a group that sacrificed more and was more disciplined than what I witnessed this summer and into the fall,” he said. “Living a life that was unlike any university experience you’ve ever seen.”
At a parent conference in sixth grade, Fitzgerald was warned about the seriousness of the situation through his son Brendan. He recalled the conversation:
“The teacher says the only negative is when we asked Brendan what he was most worried about, he said, ‘Getting COVID so his dad couldn’t train. “It was right. It was deeper than just us. It was our whole families and our player families. We had families staying away if they thought they thought they had any tendency to get sick.”
Like many teams, Northwestern football was reduced to itself: online classes, training table, practice. It was their campus experience. Did Mangieri ever find himself as an employee?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Not really. If you sign up for a college football program, you know a little bit what you’re already expecting.”
After games, Northwestern parents and sons pulled up next to each other in separate cars 6 feet away, rolled down their windows and communicated as best they could. Players would text Fitzgerald with photos of the restaurant setting if they dared to go out with their parents after a game.
“We did not tell them they could not go to dinner or anything,” Fitzgerald said. “We just said, ‘Sit socially distant and wear a mask.'”
Northwestern’s only COVID-19 positive occurred once between the Big Ten Championship game on December 19 and the Citrus Bowl. Fitzgerald had told his coaches, staff and players that it was worth complying with the guidelines.
It obviously worked, but not without monumental clutter. The Big Ten season was canceled in August and then reconsidered in September.
Northwestern was like in the center of it. President Morton Schapiro, chairman of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COPC), reconsidered the decision to play. Phillips was on the conference’s TV subcommittee on returning to play. Fitzgerald was one of four coaches on the subcommittee on planning.
Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Nebraska’s Scott Frost had loudly given their support to play in the fall.
“Everyone is a little different,” Fitzgerald said. “I work with the president’s joy here. I believe in some other schools that some of the guys in my role think the president works for their pleasure. The last thing I wanted to do was come out against my president. God bless Ryan and Frosty for doing so, but I certainly hope they talked to their presidents. “
The only hole in Northwestern’s schedule was the game on Dec. 5 in Minnesota. It was canceled due to COVID-19 issues with Golden Gophers.
“Everyone in our program was just so incredibly diligent and disciplined,” Fitzgerald said. “Once we were around 4-0 and 5-0, everyone said, ‘I don’t want to be the person, that’s why we did not play a game.'”
Christmas came in January for the Mangieri family. After returning from the bowl game, Charlie waited for an ice storm in Evanston, Illinois, before finally driving home.
“It was crazy,” his mother said. “We laughed. Our stomachs hurt. The look on his face, the hug. It was amazing.”
And then it was over. A few weeks ago, Charlie just went back to school.
“Then it all starts again,” said his father.