Last week, my son, Eamon Horwedel, was a sophomore starting pitcher for Ohio University in Athens. Today he’s sitting on the couch trying to figure out what he’s going to do after the coronavirus ground his, and every other NCAA athlete’s, spring season to a complete halt.
It happened with amazing speed. Last Wednesday afternoon, Ohio had just lost a close game to Marshall, 3-2. Two days later, they were called by their coaches to a team meeting with the school’s athletic director, Julie Cromer, and Erik Hildebrand, associate athletic director for compliance.
Their message was simple. Season over. See you next year.
Athletes all over the country got the same news, some sooner than others. The first domino fell last Wednesday night when the Big Ten announced the remainder of their conference basketball tournament would be played with no fans in attendance. Before the day was over, the NBA had suspended the rest of their regular season. Conference basketball tournaments soon followed suit. Before long, March Madness was done, then the NHL, and eventually, the NCAA spring sports season met the same fate.
To some, the loss of sports seems petty. In the big picture, I suppose it is when this virus is wreaking havoc with things far more important. But to trivialize sports as just entertainment is a big disservice. Sports are not only a way of life for many of these athletes, it is their life. For some, like myself, a freelance photographer, covering sports makes up most of my income.
For the student-athlete, there is no applause that goes along with proctored tests on a nine-hour bus ride back to campus. There are no cameras present when they try and keep up with their school work while in season. Yet, they still do it because they love their sport as much as we do.
As parents of student-athletes, we are there supporting our kids as they spend countless hours honing their craft. It doesn’t matter to us. We cling to these precious days, even more so the days we actually watch our kids in action. We know full well their playing days most likely will end right after they graduate. For many NCAA athletes across the nation, that day was Friday, far too soon before graduation.
These past two seasons, I’ve gotten to know the Ohio University players and families pretty well. I photograph their games and share my pictures with both players and parents. Friday, I was expecting to photograph my son taking the mound against Siena in Ohio's first home series of the year. Instead, I was documenting a bunch of stunned young men wandering around a locker room, confused as to what had just transpired in the last 24 hours.
Some were cleaning out their lockers. Some, like senior outfielder Ryan Sargent, were sleeping off the previous night out after learning his playing days had suddenly ended.
“Devastating” Sargent’s mother, Nancy, posted in a one-word group text to all the parents. Players milled about not wanting to show their emotions, trying to stay brave, not really knowing how to react to something that was unthinkable only a few days earlier.
“This feels like a dream,” sophomore pitcher, Braxton Kelly said to no one in particular as he stared emptily out onto the Ohio University basketball court just outside the locker room.
My own son, who graduated from Ann Arbor Skyline in 2018, leaned against the tunnel wall opposite from Kelly, looking blankly out at the court himself, but not saying a word.
Most of the players had one eye glued to the locker room television as ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt was discussing whether the NCAA would grant an additional year of eligibility to spring-sport athletes.
Before the day was over, the team was told they’d have to leave campus by week’s end. Another gut punch. None of it made sense to them. First their season, and now the rest of their semester, stripped away by something they couldn’t see, touch, or comprehend.
My wife and I were there to witness Eamon’s first home start of the season. Instead, we suddenly found ourselves trying to cram all his belongings into our car.
The campus was empty, thanks to spring break, but Eamon wasn’t ready to leave. He wanted at least one chance to pitch on his home turf before heading home to the unknown, so he texted teammate Devonte Washington, a junior catcher from Twinsburg, Ohio. Washington was more than happy to oblige, and the two met at noon Saturday at Bob Wren Stadium to throw a simulated game.
The first pitch, a two-seam fastball, sizzled into Washington’s glove right at the knees on the outside corner. “Strike One!” Washington said. There should have been a Siena hitter standing in the batter’s box; instead, it was just the two of them playing a pretend game in front of a crowd of two, my wife and me.
The sizzle of the ball and the pop of the catcher’s mitt echoed off the emptiness. There was no crack of the bat, no walk up music, no chatter in the stands. Nothing more than sizzle and pop, sizzle and pop, sizzle and pop.
After five innings of simulated ball, Eamon and Devonte chatted for a while in the dugout, talked about their future plans, and wondered aloud if there would be summer collegiate league baseball.
Ten minutes later, they wished each other luck, knuckle bumped, and like the rest of their teammates, went their separate ways, Devonte to the Cleveland area, Eamon to Ann Arbor.
Lon Horwedel of Ann Arbor is a freelance photographer and former staff photographer and writer for the Ann Arbor News.