From a Texas A&M fan’s perspective, it is understandable that the true measure of a full return-to-play during the COVID-19 pandemic comes with the timely kickoff of college football in approximately a month.
Yes, we have Major League Baseball back on the diamond (for who knows how long). The NBA and the NHL are gearing up for their bubble experiments, but all of this certainly seems just like hors d’oeuvres to the real tailgate spread.
But don’t let football fever — which, surprisingly, is not a symptom of COVID-19 — cloud your appreciation for the athletes that braved the coronavirus well before any shoulder pads were fastened. As far as Aggies are concerned, those Atlas-like efforts of returning the sporting world to play have come on the strong, willing shoulders of female athletes.
“It’s not a competition on who’s better: man or woman,” former A&M soccer standout Shea Groom said. “But, I think, we’re always fighting for equality. We’re fighting to be seen and to just have that same kind of exposure and just to be valued by fans in the same way. So I think it is special to kind of put our stamp on it and show that we can take charge and we can be a part of bringing sports back.”
The nation was introduced to the tradition of an Aggie ring dunk Sunday when Groom, a Houston Dash forward, plopped her graduation gold into a National Women’s Soccer League trophy filled with Budweiser. Groom was named the player of the match for the Challenge Cup tournament final, in which her Dash took the crown.
The NWSL played out their summer season in the form of a World Cup-style tournament, with all players and coaches quarantined in Salt Lake City. As the first professional league to return to play, the NWSL proceeded through the course of the month-long tournament without a single positive COVID-19 test, according to multiple reports. The Orlando Pride did not make the trip to Utah because of an outbreak within the team before leaving their area.
“We didn’t intend to be the first league to come back, it kind of just worked out that way,” Groom, who scored three goals, said. “But now, as far as being an Aggie, and being a female in the world of professional sports, I think it’s always special to be able to lead the way and just prove that it can be done.”
Around the same time, A&M catcher Haley Lee suited up for the Bradenton Lynx of the Florida Golf Coast League, a summer softball league, and took home defensive player of the year hardware. Beyond posting a 1.000 fielding percentage, she batted .327 with two doubles, a triple and three home runs.
Then on Sunday, former Aggie women’s basketball All-American Chennedy Carter made her WNBA debut with the Atlanta Dream and led all rookies in scoring over the league’s opening weekend with 18 points. The WNBA is currently playing a 22-game season in a quarantined bubble in Bradenton, Florida.
Bubble life isn’t five-star hotels and endless food. Eventually, a sense of being trapped can set in and sometimes space is needed between the people you are constantly around, Groom said.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “You don’t realize how much you value your freedom until it’s taken away from you. Uber Eats was our good friend, and the hotel staff was, obviously, incredible, putting up with us and making sure everything was structured and fit into what we needed. It was difficult, but I think our team stayed very composed mentally and tried to make the best of the station and had a lot of group gatherings and left each other alone when we needed to do that too. It was hard, but rewarding in the end.”
When college athletics do return to Aggieland, it will also be the female student-athletes that usher in the strangest of athletic calendars. Both the volleyball and soccer teams begin on Sept. 4 after the initial starts to their seasons were pushed back to no earlier than Aug. 31. The football team will take to Kyle Field against Abilene Christian on Sept. 5.
Due to the Southeastern Conference-mandated delay in competition, those female student-athletes have begun preparations for their seasons uncertain when real practice can begin. Groom issued her words of wisdom for fellow Aggie soccer players: embrace the craziness.
“Utilize this time as best you can,” Groom said. “I think it’s a unique time to probably have a lot of individual training that you don’t get to have when you’re in a team atmosphere. While it might seem repetitive and old, I think that’s what takes players to the next level. Obviously, when the time comes, it’s going to be an adjustment, and it’s going to take a team effort. I think that was the difference maker for our team, is just understanding collectively that we had to do it together, and if people were going to complain or be on their own, it just wasn’t going to work.”
Certainly, the fate of the college football season will be the result of many separate sports experiments, conducted by various types of athletes in vastly different conditions. But there is something to be said for the pioneers who pushed ahead into a new frontier with much less security than those who came after.
For that bravery, tip your cap toward Ellis Field, Davis Diamond and Reed Arena whenever we all have the chance to safely return to Kyle Field on a warm Texas Saturday.