Cadet-only crowd awaits Army for football season opener
By KEN MCMILLAN | The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y. | Published: September 3, 2020
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MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — The return of college football to West Point on Saturday is a reminder of what’s been normal over a century, and what is peculiar to 2020.
Fans will not be permitted at Michie Stadium for the season opener against Middle Tennessee State and the Sept. 12 game against Louisiana-Monroe, except for nearly 4,000 cadets, due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions. It should make for a strange sight for the teams involved, plus a national television audience on CBS Sports Network (1:30 p.m.).
"It will be an incredible experience, whether there are fans or not,’’ said senior co-captain Amadeo West. “We are fortunate to be playing. And the cadets … they bring enthusiasm and excitement to the game. … It’s not a negative thing that there are no fans. We’re just happy.’’
“We’re really excited, the whole team,’’ said senior defensive lineman Nick Stokes. “We’ve been looking forward to this since we got back.’’
There were moments at the start of summer when talk of canceling the college football season was prevalent, and concern set in about whether there would even be a season.
“We stayed hopeful,’’ said senior linebacker Jon Rhattigan. “And now the week is here and we’re really eager for it. We don’t take anything for granted.’’
That’s what makes this Saturday’s game more special for the players.
“One hundred percent,’’ said junior quarterback Jabari Laws. “We really appreciated what the athletic department has done for us, working so, hard day and night, getting this 12-game schedule.’’
Since the revamped schedule only came together in recent weeks, any advance preparation for the original slate has gone for naught. For the players, the focus shifted on their own responsibilities, and they let the coaches worry about installing a game plan.
“We’ve had the whole summer preparing for our first game,’’ Stokes said. “We didn’t know who (the opponent) was going to be … a nameless, faceless opponent as head coach Jeff Monken always says. We knew we were going to be ready for whenever our time came.’’
“I think it’s perfect for us,’’ Rhattigan said. “We’re going to take things day-by-day and week-by-week. Right now, we're focused on Middle Tennessee State and that's really it.’’
Despite losing spring practice, having limited summer training and a shortened preseason, the Black Knights feel as though they’re sufficiently prepared for the start of the season.
“I think we’ve gotten the most out of the preseason,’’ Rhattigan said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve been cheated. We’ve made the most of any opportunity that we've gotten and we worked hard all summer.’’
Laws made nine appearances and had five starts a year ago, the first coming in week three against Texas-San Antonio. He is currently No. 2 on the depth chart, and is ready to help in any way he can.
“This year I’m trying to bring maturity and (a role as) another coach in the position group,’’ Laws said. “We have (quarterbacks) coach (Cody) Worley but I want to help the guys around me because I’ve been in the system a little longer than some of the guys that are under me.’’
A great lesson learned last season was being prepared for the moment, with the coaching staff having to delve deep into the quarterback lineup following a host of injuries.
“Something we preach in the quarterback room, with coach Worley, is staying calm, cool and collected,’’ Laws said. Laws made a name for himself in the UTSA game, carrying the ball 23 times for 137 yards. He started late-season games against San Jose State, Air Force, Massachusetts and Virginia Military Institute before his season-ending injury.
“It was definitely a little heartbreaking,’’ Laws said of getting sidelined. “But I know I can trust the guys around me and they’ve been there all the way for me, while I am recovering.’’
Laws would certainly like another shot at starting but he is supportive of No. 1 starter Christian Anderson. “I feel all of us would love to be The Guy," Laws said.
“I feel as a unit we are doing great,’’ Laws added. “We’re preaching competing throughout the camp. Our job in the quarterback room is to service others and service each other and help each other build and get better throughout the season.’’
Laws is majoring in sociology, but his career job aspiration is quite different.
“My dream would be a general manager for any NFL team,’’ said Laws, who hails from Upper Marlboro, Md. “I would like to go back home for either the Washington football team or the Baltimore Ravens.’’
The cadets at West Point have been restricted to who enters and leaves post as one step toward preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve always had a natural bubble,’’ West said, “so that’s worked to our advantage in terms of playing this game and playing it safely. On top of that, what’s different about this year is essentially people having more health protocols and being more sanitary: washing their hands, maintaining social distance, wearing your mask as long as you are out of your room.’’
“There’s a lot of different protocols that are in place for us in terms of our daily operations,’’ Monken said. “But once we hit the practice field and really what we’re doing to prepare our players is very much like a normal season has been, so it’s nice for all of us to just feel that sense of normalcy.’’
Monken said the team has reacted well to the new normal.
“It’s a little bit of a pain in the rear end to have to do all that stuff but that’s what we’ve got to do,’’ he said. “It’s the world we live in right now. So we can say no and buck the system and say we're not going to wear masks (or) ‘I'm not going to wash my hands,’ and come up with all these reasons why we shouldn't or why we won’t but it's foolish to do that. The wise thing is to follow the protocols that they put in place.
"I think it's because of that, the vigilance that we've had in creating an environment where our guys can stay healthy and they do the things to get themselves the best chance to stay healthy, that we've made it this far.’’
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