LINCOLN — There weren’t a lot of workout options for Kobe Webster. Not with coronavirus shutting down most of Indianapolis.
So, at home with the pressures of trying to keep in shape for an approaching senior season at Nebraska, he did what any Indiana hooper would do. He drove to a friend’s farm.
“It’s this place we used to shoot all the time as kids,” Webster said. “It’s been there forever, since I can remember.”
From the driveway, the barn doesn’t look like much. Just another in a field under the Hoosier sun. But prop the door open and you’ll find a full-length, NBA-size court with two hoops. That’s where Webster, a graduate transfer point guard from Western Illinois, has frequented four or five times a week in recent months. He’s had to improvise weight lifting with 30- and 50-pound dumbbells and a worn-out workout band he used in high school.
Thousands of student-athletes like Webster have had to find ways to stay in shape at home, away from top-dollar training facilities university athletic departments can provide. Grand Island receiver Broc Douglass built a home gym in a third garage stall. Johnson-Brock receiver Ty Hahn has been running routes in an open field near his house.
It’s all a low-budget, high-importance operation.
“Not ideal,” Webster said, “but it gets the job done.”
All that ends this week as thousands of student-athletes return to campuses across the country. Starting Monday, as per an NCAA ruling last week, athletic departments can welcome back student-athletes for voluntary workouts. Nebraska will phase in athletes from four sports first — volleyball, soccer, basketball and football — the collective flying and driving in from all corners of the country.
When they arrive, they’ll be tested for COVID-19 and put in a solo quarantine for 48 hours.
Not exactly the welcome Webster was picturing when he committed to Nebraska months ago.
“Probably watch a lot of Netflix and do a ton of push-ups in my room,” Webster said of his time alone.
But the move is a significant one for a sports world dipping its toe into normalcy. What the next few weeks hold is a slight mystery, but interviews with multiple players from multiple sports paint a picture of caution by Nebraska as it welcomes hundreds of athletes back and gives insight into the small, monitored workouts that, though not ideal, are the first step toward sports in the fall.
“It’s exciting,” incoming junior basketball player Teddy Allen said. “Just to be able to finally get up there. Definitely exciting to just get out there and get the process moving.”
Nebraska has moved quicker than most to allow student-athletes back. Ohio State won’t allow students back for workouts until June 8. Oklahoma announced it won’t bring anyone back until July. Creighton announced Friday it has no immediate plans to bring athletes back to campus.
But Nebraska is opening its doors Monday. Athletic Director Bill Moos believes the school is uniquely positioned to bring in students because of the relatively low number of coronavirus cases in the state.
“Being here in Lincoln, we have that going for us where we’re not a real hot bed for COVID-19, we have wide open spaces,” Moos said. “In this particular situation, our governor and president and chancellor relaxing restrictions a bit, enabled us to come in on the first of June to start voluntary workouts.”
Nebraska has never had a stay-at-home order, like some states. As of Saturday evening, Lancaster County had 1,194 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with nine deaths. The state of Nebraska ha d 13,905 confirmed cases, with 170 deaths. Nationwide, the death toll is more than 100,000.
Backed by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the athletic department has the testing capabilities. It has the resources for temperature checks, masks, cleaning products and monitoring systems. In a Friday press release, Nebraska said students would have daily symptom checks and will have instant temperature checks before entering any facility. Any student-athlete who tests positive will remain at home and self-isolate. Two negative tests will then be required for that student to return to action.
Because of the volume of resources and safety measures, the concern among those inside NU in past weeks has been to get student-athletes spread around the globe back under the NU umbrella.
“The safest place for our student-athletes is Lincoln, Nebraska, and the safest place in Lincoln is to be in our facilities,” Moos said.
There are between 150 and 175 student-athletes already on campus, Moos said. Move-in dates for athletes this week appear to differentiate among teams. The volleyball team is already mostly in town, a spokesperson said, but the rest will be in by this week. Men’s basketball players are expected to be in Lincoln by June 6 at the latest. Football players have been given dates as early as June 2 and as late as June 22 for move in.
Webster is going to load up his car and drive the nine hours west from Indianapolis with his parents this week. He was supposed to move into an apartment with three other teammates. Instead, he’ll be living alone for the time being.
After everyone is tested and cleared, the workouts begin, which will be the next hurdle because the conditioning disparity could be vast. Though football coach Scott Frost said this spring he expected most of his players to return in shape, a study released this week by the NCAA showed about 80% of the more than 37,000 student-athletes surveyed were hindered in their ability to work out because of local regulations and lack of access to appropriate facilities.
Across the country, gyms were shut down. In some states, outdoor parks were even restricted.
So athletes have had to get creative.
“Since quarantine started and the gyms closed, me and my family built a home gym in our third garage stall. You have to be a little creative sometimes,” said Douglass, an incoming freshman on the football team. “As hard as you try, you can’t recreate the type of atmosphere a real weight room has when your teammates are pushing themselves and each other to the max.”
Athletes sometimes are lucky enough to have a gym opened or gain access to a football field. Locally, Allen said he’s been dropping by a local gym twice a day about four times a week. There, he meets up with some other players for drills.
“Pretty much staying on top of everything,” said Allen, adding he lifts weights four times a week. “I’m one of the people lucky enough to have a gym and stuff like that. I’m trying to utilize that and use it to my advantage and get ahead and stay ready.”
Hahn said he’s been driving to Lincoln to work with Chris Slatt, a speed trainer who is also working with former Huskers Nate Gerry, Jerald Foster and Luke Gifford this offseason.
There’s bound to be a fitness disparity when the hundreds of athletes arrive this week. The first task will be figuring out where everyone stands, then putting together individualized plans to get everyone back to the same spot.
Webster said coach Fred Hoiberg has been keeping a tally on who has been able to work out each week and who hasn’t.
When workouts do begin, they’ll be restricted to 10 or fewer people, be that on a field, court or weight room, Moos said, and that includes supervisors. That means football won’t be having padded practices or large-group meetings; basketball can’t field five-on-five scrimmages with its 13 players; and outside hitters can’t rotate spikes with liberos digging on the other side of the net.
“We have to be cautious about how we do these things,” Moos said. “We have a very strict protocol that involves testing, quarantines and all that, and it’ll take awhile.”
Incoming football freshmen interviewed were unclear what exactly the football team would be doing. Hahn said he assumes it’ll be small groups in the weight room while wearing masks. Trevin Luben, an incoming freshman from Wahoo, said he’d been told there will be temperature checks before and after lifts.
Moos said football players will be monitored closely in the weight room, even watched by staff to ensure they wash hands. Nutrition director Dave Ellis told an Omaha radio station this week student-athletes will have to wear a mask and gloves while picking up food.
“Constant wipe downs of the equipment, the social distancing of groups — and that includes the supervisors, too,” Moos said. “It’ll take awhile to put groups through the voluntary workouts.”
The volleyball team will spend the first week isolating, then begin workouts, a spokesman said. The team will be split in two, with small groups in the weight room and small groups in the Devaney Center.
“That’s pretty much what the normal early summer routine is anyway, so it won’t be all that different,” the spokesman said.
Men’s basketball coaches told the team workouts will be on the floor with two to four players at a time, plus some weight lifting in groups. Groups will be separated between guys who have been able to stay active in the gym in the last few weeks and guys who have not, Webster said. Most of the team, it appears, has been able to get shots up. Sophomore Yvan Ouedraogo, junior Derrick Walker and senior Thorir Thorbjarnarson have all posted videos on social media playing in empty gyms or outdoor courts.
But even though players are allowed to return, teams won’t be fully stocked, with many international students still stranded at home. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have international players not expecting to be in Lincoln this week.
The men’s team has four international players — Ouedraogo (France), Dalano Banton (Canada), Shamiel Stevenson (Canada) and Thorbjarnarson (Iceland) — who all went home. Nebraska is hopeful Banton and Stevenson will be able to cross the border from Canada in June. It’s unclear when Ouedraogo and Thorbjarnarson could join.
Women’s basketball coach Amy Williams said New York resident Kate Cain, who contracted COVID-19 earlier this spring and has recovered, will be in Lincoln “soon.” Two players from Australia — Ruby Porter and Isabelle Bourne — will be arriving “a little later,” Williams said. The soccer team has five players from Canada and one from England, all of whom will need clearance to enter back into the United States. Same goes for new Husker punter Daniel Cerci, who is from Australia.
Some student-athlete advocates have objected to the idea of bringing athletes back. The National College Players Association endorsed a resolution made by UCLA football players and the student body council this week, which raised concerns about the health and safety of student-athletes with the upcoming workouts.
Moos confirmed that an athlete at Nebraska tested positive for coronavirus “a while ago.”
Incoming Huskers interviewed don’t have many reservations about coming back.
“I’m sure most of the guys have been taking precaution. I ain’t been going anywhere but the gym and the crib,” Allen said. “Honestly, I’m just thankful to be able to go when we’re supposed to because I know some schools that aren’t. I think they’ll do what needs to be done to keep us safe.”
Douglass said it’s comforting to know Nebraska is following Big Ten guidelines “by the book.”
Still, none of this is ideal. There’s no clear path to what these volunteer workouts could lead to. There’s no guarantee college sports happen in the fall, and it’s unclear, after the student-athletes return to campus, when they’ll be able to leave to go back home to see family.
The silver lining for Webster is it feels like progress. And for the men’s basketball team specifically, with so many new players, it’ll be nice to be around teammates instead of in a barn in the middle of Indiana.
“I think it’ll definitely help with chemistry, even if we aren’t allowed to practice with 10 guys,” Webster said. “I think being in an apartment or wherever we’re staying and just being around each other helps cohesiveness and chemistry. You get to know everyone.”
It is at least a start to the process of heading toward normal, a small slice of life taken and now returned.
World-Herald staff writer Mike Sautter contributed to this report.