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Friday, January 15, 2021

Florida Tech, football and the toll of COVID-19

Players celebrated their November 2019 victory not knowing it would be their last

<p>Not all universities have the resources Division I programs do to keep their football teams active during the pandemic. In Melbourne, Florida, Florida Tech cut their team as a cost-saving measure. </p><p></p>

Not all universities have the resources Division I programs do to keep their football teams active during the pandemic. In Melbourne, Florida, Florida Tech cut their team as a cost-saving measure. 

It was a chilly November afternoon in Melbourne, Florida —  the coldest in months for the Space Coast city.  

The Florida Institute of Technology, a small, private research university competing in the NCAA’s Division II, played its last home football game Nov. 16, 2019, against Shorter University, a private Baptist university located in Rome, Georgia.  

Before kickoff, 18 seniors were celebrated in crimson and grey. 

The Panthers scored on their first five possessions, including the longest drive in Tech history, a 17-play, 86-yard march that consumed more than nine minutes. The drive ended with redshirt senior offensive lineman Michael Ruess squeezing through a gap for his first career touchdown during his final game at Florida Tech. 

The players rode off into the sunset high on their victory — not knowing it would be their last. 

The Panthers ended their 2019 season 5-6 with no postseason berth but with a win nonetheless. For the seniors, it was a farewell worth celebrating, and for returning players, it was a moment of excitement for what the future had to offer. 

“By the moods that we were in, you couldn’t tell that we went 5-6,” Eric Johanning, a former defensive lineman for Florida Tech, said. “You would have thought that we just won the national championship.”

The young Panthers packed their belongings after the season, set their sights on winter break and knew come spring they would return to their home-away-from-home. 

Football costs money. A lot of it. But it’s hard to unravel the sport from the fabric of American society. After all, how else would millions of Americans spend their Friday nights, Saturday afternoons and Sundays? 

But what happens when finances get in the way of the future? What happens when a pandemic forces heartbreaking sacrifices? 

Some schools had the luxury of saving their college football seasons despite challenges. Others closed the curtains and boarded up their program’s windows. 

At Florida Tech, players woke up one May morning to find out their team no longer exists. Their dreams, however short they may have been, swept out from underneath them in the middle of the night. 

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*****

A team is a rather abstract concept. It’s not a tangible object. It’s a name, a trademark, a brand. Each member of the Panthers, staff and players alike were people brought together for a common cause: football. Together, they made something greater. 

To succeed on the field, there is no individualism. An individual can make a great play, but 10 others had to contribute, too. Each part plays a key role in the formation of the whole. 

Through the hours they spent practicing, playing, rejoicing and reconciling, they formed a multicellular organism — one that breathed the same breath, felt the same pain and relished the same victories. 

Two months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Florida, Florida Tech announced the football program would be cut. At the time, officials stated uncertainty related to falling enrollment numbers as their reason behind the cuts and furloughs. 

With their decision came fallout. Players who were expecting their regularly scheduled meetings later in the day instead had a last-minute Zoom meeting where their coaches, fighting tears,  told them the Florida Tech Panthers football team would cease to exist.

Johanning, 20, played football three minutes away from Florida Tech at Melbourne Central Catholic High School. Years earlier, his parents put him in a flag football league which taught him the value of hard work which helped him overcome athletes who may have been more naturally gifted. 

“Football forces people to adapt,” he said. “If there's something that I want, I'm going to be willing to work my tail off for it.” 

Johanning always told himself he would never attend Florida Tech. But when it came down to offers, he was between the Panthers down the block and West Point. The deciding factor was the attention then-head coach Steve Englehart gave the prospective recruit.

“Florida Tech showed that they wanted me and they needed me, and everyone loves to feel needed,” he said.

While it was the interest the coaching staff showed for him that drew him against to choose the Panthers over the Black Knights, the locker room solidified his beliefs that he made the right choice. 

“There were no cliques on the football team, it was, it was open borders,” he said. “There wasn't a single guy on the team where I felt like I couldn't sit down and have a meal while having a nice conversation.”

Cutting the team drove a stake through Johanning’s heart. He didn’t understand why a revenue-generating sport was among the sacrificial lambs. 

Florida Tech’s football program spent more than $3.1 million and generated about more than $3 million in revenue from May 2018 to April 2019, according to data made available by the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis

The athletic department reported a net gain of more than $130,000, according to the data. Football accounted for nearly a quarter of the overall revenue. 

“It’s strictly financial,” Interim Athletic Director Pete Mazzone said while describing the constraints of operating a school whose primary source of revenue is generated from tuition. 

While the football team played well, it was difficult finding a consistent base of supporters, many of whom likely pledged allegiances to powerhouse programs within the state, Mazzone said. On average, fewer than 1,880 fans attended home games last season. 

In a tough conference, Florida Tech fielded quality teams, Mazzone added. 

“It was an upper administration decision,” Mazzone said. “We were as shocked as anybody else in athletics.”

Mazzone said the school’s president, T. Dwayne McCay, offered to deliver the news. Mazzone opted to carry the burden himself, acknowledging that the decision wasn’t easy to make and wasn't any easier to deliver. 

“News is hard when you’re talking about jobs,” he said. 

He said he wishes those who lost their ties to football well and made the most of the difficult situation they wound up in. Most importantly, he hopes they have been able to move on. 

Still, the decision continues to haunt players like Johanning. 

“I still miss Florida Tech,” Johanning said. “Realizing that I was losing those moments hurt more than, you know, just the outer layer of losing football.”

florida-tech-2

The Florida Institute of Technology, a small, private research university competing in the NCAA’s Division II, played its last home football game Nov. 16, 2019.

*****

Johanning still has his award for freshman defensive player of the year, which he received as a redshirt freshman last season. When he earned it, he was a redshirt, not a true freshman. It’s why he felt as though was rather pointless. 

Now he feels like Love and Marriage’s Al Bundy whenever he glances at the award. 

“I can’t believe that happened in real life,” Johanning said. He paused. “It seems so long ago that Florida Tech ended, and yet it was just a semester. I mean, the memories that I have there will last a lifetime, but it feels it feels like those memories were made a lifetime ago.”

He couldn’t play in the last game as he was recovering from a separated shoulder he sustained earlier in the year. However, conquering Troy to end the season felt like a fairytale ending. 

A memory spoiled by the program’s unfortunate demise. 

While Johanning is now part of Murray State’s football team, his connection to the sport is distant on Saturdays. The Racers postponed football to the spring as a COVID-19 precaution. So The closest Johanning came to playing football was when practicing until 11 a.m. on Saturdays. After, he watched the rest of the country compete seated on his couch, looking at a television inside his apartment. 

At Florida Tech, he took practices for granted. There were points where practices felt joyless. His teammates kept him going. 

At Murray State, it’s not the people that keep Johanning going. It’s the love of the game.

“Realizing that football can be taken away from me in an instant,” Johanning said. “I got lucky to find Murray State, and I'm not going to take football for granted.”

*****

Football was among the premier sports at Florida Tech. The Panthers, members of the Gulf South Conference which competed in the NCAA Division II, fielded their first team in 2013. 

They played in Florida Tech Panther Stadium, which allowed a maximum of 4,980 fans but rarely sold out. On Friday nights, fans gathered at the stadium to support Palm Bay Magnet High School’s football team. On Saturdays, it was the Panthers’. 

Players would participate in the Panther walk from their student center to the training center at 11:20 a.m. It’s not a traditional powerhouse, but it drew attention from loyal fans who would spend their mornings tailgating on campus. Each Saturday morning gave the student-athletes a taste of fame before boarding buses to the shared stadium. 

Four of the team’s seven seasons ended with winning records. The program only knew one head coach, Englehart, who was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Indiana State until he was hired in 2011. 

He won Gulf South Conference coach of the year in 2014 after leading the team to a winning record in its second season. He and his team won the first Eastern College Athletic Conference Division II Futures Bowl in his first season. They made the playoffs in 2016 and 2018, losing both times in the first round. 

“I’m just in a position right now that I really don’t want to comment about any of it and would rather just move on,” Englehart wrote in a text message after declining a request for an interview. 

Compared to the FBS and FCS, not many athletes play at the Division II level with high expectations of turning pro. Of the more than 16,000 athletes eligible for the NFL draft each year, 254 — less than 2% — hear their names called. Five Division II players were drafted in 2019.

But still, there’s prestige to playing college football. Athletes are provided a chance to play the sport they love while earning the education they desire. They get to say that they’re among the best at what they do. 

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about spending four years practicing, traveling and competing with their teammates that can’t be artificially manufactured. 

But within a stroke it was gone. 

Scholarships would still be honored, according to a Florida Tech release. Players wouldn’t have to shift their lives too much if they opted to stay. 

Most Panthers, who were well past their careers in high school, thought they were done sending their film to colleges in the hopes of being recruited. With the semester unwinding, many searched for another place to play with little time to spare. 

The odds that a quality program with scholarships remaining was slim. But those who wanted to leave reached out to programs across the country with bated breath.

In the wake of his team’s demise, former starting quarterback Mike DiLiello found a new home too. 

He transferred to Middle Tennessee State University, a Division I FBS program that competes in Conference USA. DiLiello currently plays as a backup quarterback for the Blue Raiders.

DiLiello, 20, played football since he was 6 years old, yet he didn’t expect to get a scholarship offer out of high school as he was lightly recruited until the end of his senior year. He had offers as a preferred walk-on to several schools but chose to spend his next four years playing in red and silver to stay in Florida. 

Whether it was working out at 5 a.m., one of several meals or traveling, he cherished each memory he formed with his teammates. 

“When you have all those guys with you, waking up with you at 5 a.m., you’re all jacked up and ready to go,” DiLiello said.  

But he found out what happened to his team like everyone else did. Through a laptop screen. Together, they were devastated. 

When he transferred to MTSU in July, he was torn knowing he would be abandoning friendships he can’t replace.

“You want to play football for as long as you can,” he said. “You don’t want to stop, especially not on your terms.”

Though he was a veteran in Melbourne, he was like a freshman once again in Murfreesboro. He still holds connections with his teammates from his past life as a Panther, saying he speaks with them at least three times a week. 

“Those guys are people that will be at my wedding,” DiLiello said.

*****

Not all left Florida Tech to continue playing football. Some were too hurt to stay at the school that turned its back on its student-athletes. 

“We played football for the school, we represented the school,” said Payton Cleveland, a former offensive lineman for the Panthers. “Once they kind of just pushed us to the side, let us all go, especially the way they did it. I just didn't feel a connection to the university anymore.”

Cleveland, 20, is now studying mechanical engineering at Florida State University. 

Saturdays without his beloved sport or teammates can’t compare to what he grew accustomed to. 

He said he misses walking by fans tailgating before each home game. He would reverberate their energy and channel it into his performance on the field. 

“It’s addictive,” Cleveland said. “There's nothing like, you know, putting on your pads and walking out.”

Cleveland kept some mementos from his past. Two jerseys are framed in shadow boxes in his home in Vero Beach, Florida. In his new home in Tallahassee, a single Florida Tech jersey hangs on his wall. Its black threads absorb all light and contrast with the number 74 and “Panthers” in a deep grey with a red trim. 

The jersey used to collect blood, sweat and tears. Stains would mark it like scars and as much as they were washed away, the memories remain intertwined in its polyester fibers. More often than not, he thinks of his brothers when the jersey catches his eye. Other times, his thoughts are overrun with resentment. Each time he’s trapped in a rabbit hole of questions surrounding why Florida Tech, he has to force himself to shift his perspective to avoid casting a dark cloud over the rest of his day. 

“At the end of the day, you know, I had an opportunity to play college football, which is something I've always wanted to do,” he said. 

Now the jersey hangs, collecting dust. The memories stored within, growing further from the present with each passing day. Memories Cleveland returns to, though sometimes that nostalgia is poisoned by his team’s fated demise. 

Cleveland is 6 foot, 4 inches tall and 278 lbs. Anywhere he goes, he’s the recipient of a barrage of questions correlating his size with playing football. He can’t run away from his past.

It’s why he chose to attend school more than 300 miles away. The closest he gets on any given day is through the prism of a Snap from someone still on Florida Tech’s campus.

He never imagined having to use distance to grieve the loss of the team he committed his college career to. Then again, he never imagined losing the team in the first place. 

“I have a pretty strong sense of distaste for the university,” Cleveland said. “I'm sure it will kind of fade in time. But it's all just still kind of, relatively new. This would be my first season not playing football in eight years.” 

*****

Former linebacker Matt Geiger tries to keep life on-campus much of the same. With three-quarters of his teammates gone, the campus feels emptier now that there’s a football-sized void, he said. Feelings of loneliness are only compounded by the difficulties of managing life as a college student during a pandemic. 

Geiger, 20, started playing football at 12 years old. He loved how the sport gave him a second family. The hours absorbed by football gave his routine purpose. 

However, he opted to stay at Florida Tech, take the remaining two years he has with his scholarship and finish his education where it began. With football, the schedule he had to balance meant each part of his day was carefully constructed. With loose ends throughout his day, adjusting to life without a strict routine was a life Geiger had to adjust to sooner than planned. 

“School is easier, but it’s less eventful,” Geiger said. 

To keep his connection to football stable, he would watch football — high school, college or professional — whenever he could. 

Earlier last season, he took a trip to visit DiLiello. 

“It’s definitely weird,” Geiger said after pausing to gather his thoughts. 

Now, he’s not on the field helping his team and instead on the sideline cheering them on. He’s isolated to the nearest bleachers, hoping his voice can carry past the sideline to the ears of his friends as it would when they played together. 

Geiger has his Florida Tech jersey on display in his room, crowned by his pitch-black Land O’ Lakes High School helmet. 

“It was weird,” Geiger said, this time laughing, as he talked about what thoughts came to mind each time he caught a glimpse of the jersey. “There’s a lot more that could have been left on with that journey but it all kind of got cut short.”

His mind fills with warm memories, he said, as he’s come to terms with his athletic careers expedited conclusion. His future remains steered toward completing his global management and finance degree. 

*****

Student-athletes sign up for at least four years of athletics at their given universities. Playing time is never guaranteed. Neither is school-wide glory. That’s earned between the lines together with teammates. 

Student-athletes dream of senior days. A chance to relish the twilight of their college careers. A time spent with a new family culminating in a moment of recognition with family nearby. 

But for former Florida Tech football players, this moment ceased to exist. Instead, the program’s funeral was conducted over a Zoom call. 

Athletes that left had their names immediately placed in the transfer portal. Chances to continue playing college football remained in some capacity for the fortunate few. 

But the team, now fractured, won’t have it’s fairytale goodbye. The once 120-strong is now divided. So is the fate of a college football program that got cut.  

Contact Christian Ortega at cortega@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @unofficialchris

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