College football is practically a religion in Mississippi. And for the players, it's life. As Covid-19 upended their world, the teammates at Delta State struggled to find structure and purpose for an off-season like no other.
June 11, 2020
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the Delta State University football team was about to start spring practice. More than 75 players left the small college in Cleveland, Mississippi, and scattered across the country. In hometowns as far from campus as Dallas and Chicago, the players had to find a way to finish the semester with GPAs and scholarships intact, and in good enough physical condition to, they hope, have a winning fall season.
Players at Division II schools rarely make it to the NFL, and Delta State is no different. They play because they love the game — and because it's a path to a college degree and a career. Even in quarantine, much was at stake.
After the team's "family meetings" moved out of the Delta State fieldhouse and onto Zoom, Coach Todd Cooley fought to keep his players focused. They dialed in from homes packed with distractions: ailing grandparents, small children, Game of Thrones episodes and, in at least one case, serious tornado damage. Linebacker Davontre Henderson's biology grade hung in the balance as he struggled to study while living with six younger siblings.
Cooley had always been at the center of the team's success — on field and off — and he resolved that this season would be no different. Cooley told his players to run laps in their yards, to throw tennis balls at the wall and to study hard. "This is coming from a place of love," he said.
Once the pandemic passed, Cooley reminded them, they needed to be ready to crush their rival, Mississippi College. "That's how we bring joy back to our community and to our campus. By teaming up and kicking the piss out of somebody this fall," Cooley said. "That's our part in Covid-19."