When Eric Wilson left the field Nov. 23, 2019, after his Harvard football team had lost a double-overtime game to rival Yale in the season finale, he had no way of knowing that it might be his final game for the Crimson.
The first human cases of COVID-19 were still weeks away from being detected. The full-on pandemic caused by the virus was months away from triggering the cancellation of U.S. sports from preps to colleges to pros.
Wilson, who grew up in suburban Minnetrista and played high school football at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, earned second-team Ivy League honors as an offensive lineman as a junior in 2019. He imagined building on that year as a senior – culminating in a rematch with Yale, this time on Harvard’s campus almost a year to the day after the heartbreaking loss.
Instead, Wilson was among the first group of athletes to experience for certain the cold reality that the impact of COVID-19 is far from over. Amid the backdrop of major U.S. pro leagues busying themselves with plans to resume play this summer even as coronavirus cases surge nationally, the Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to postpone all sports competition until at least January – a decision that impacts a number of fall and winter sports, with football at the forefront.
“A lot of us as players expected to not have a season,” Wilson said in a phone interview Thursday from his home in Minnetrista, where he has been since March after Harvard moved spring classes online. “But to definitively hear it … confirmed what we were all worried about and made things pretty sketchy for the future.”
Indeed, as is often the case in these times, even a dose of clarity tends to bring on a flurry of other questions and decisions. Wilson is one of several Minnesota natives on Ivy League rosters across a number of sports.
The Ivy League’s announcement left the door open for fall sports to potentially be played in the spring, though Princeton football coach Bob Surace told The New York Times that a virus vaccine and better treatments for those with the illness would need to be in place for that to be considered.
Wilson said some players are considering their enrollment options for fall – a semester in which classes will be conducted online-only, Harvard recently announced. Another option possibly in play for Wilson: graduating in the spring and playing another season as a grad transfer at a different school in 2021.
Or maybe Nov. 23, 2019 was the end of Wilson’s college football career.
“I would do anything to have another season with my current class, but with so much uncertainty with what’s going on it’s hard to know what’s the right decision,” Wilson said.
That said, football is hardly the only factor in a complicated decision.
“We as football players – I don’t want to speak for us in total – but I went there because of the history of football program but also be challenged academically,” Wilson said. “We don’t go to Harvard Lite. You go there facing the same challenges of other students.”
Players have essentially been told that the future is unclear – which Wilson actually appreciates within the context of other options. If other conferences end up following the Ivy League’s lead – which is what happened in March when it was at the forefront of canceling it postseason basketball tournament – it will have been better to know ahead of time, he said.
“There’s so much uncertainty with other conferences and programs,” Wilson said. “I honestly feel bad for kids who are training hard and moving into dorms on other campuses and still could have their seasons canceled.”
Wilson has applied that sort of perspective to his overall framing of the last four months. While describing himself as not usually “super optimistic,” Wilson said he has challenged himself to think positively, keep in touch with teammates, cherish added family time, make the most of his remote coursework in psychology and train as best he can.
“I think James Lee, one of my teammates, put it best. He was just saying that we can get upset and think about all these possible solutions, but you can’t forget there’s a pandemic going on right now,” Wilson said. “I’ve had a few classmates directly affected, with their parents passing. In that moment you gain a sense of the bigger picture.”