Adrian makes Michigan’s college football debut: ‘We’re risk-takers’

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Central Michigan football coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020.

Detroit Free Press

ADRIAN — Win or lose, Adrian College football coach Jim Deere didn’t really care.

OK, he wanted to win. But considering the circumstances, encompassed by the COVID-19 pandemic, an unexpected emotion of bliss overcame him as he walked off the field Saturday afternoon at Docking Stadium, even though his team lost, 44-27, to Trine University (Indiana).

“At least I have the opportunity to be disappointed,” Deere said Saturday. “A lot of teams don’t get that chance. I had a chance to be satisfied with a victory; I had a chance to be disappointed. I’ll take either one of those in the world of COVID right now.”

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Drive 90 minutes southwest of Detroit, and you’ll enter the town of Adrian. That’s where NCAA Division III Adrian College, with a total of 1,865 students, resides. The school has 48 sports teams — from bass fishing to football — and about 1,100 of those students proudly apply the athlete (and band) tag to their status.

On Saturday, Adrian became the first team in Michigan to play a college football game in the 2020-21 academic year. The Bulldogs have three scheduled games this fall, followed by a full conference slate this spring in conjunction with the MIAA.

“Expecting the worst but always ready to play,” said junior quarterback Jack Wurzer, who completed 11-of-28 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns. “I like to think of this as like an NFL preseason. This is for fun. We’re grateful that we can play … and I think it’s going to lead up to the spring really good.”

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Adrian College quarterback Jack Wurzer runs by Trine University linebacker Tony Nikodemski, Saturday, October 3, 2020 at Docking Stadium in Adrian, Michigan. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

The five Division I FBS programs in the state — including Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten — are still waiting, as are the nine teams in Division II, six of seven in Division III and four in NAIA. The Big Ten starts Oct. 24, while the Mid-American Conference — home to Central, Eastern and Western Michigan — comes back Nov. 4.

“We’re the first teams to play college football in Michigan and Indiana,” Adrian athletic director Mike Duffy said. “We’re excited that we can get everybody out there and say, ‘Look, you can do it.’ It takes a lot of work.”

Students returned to campus beginning Aug. 16 and classes started Aug. 24. By Sept. 3, the school had 160 active positive COVID-19 cases — and 200 total cases — among 2,235 total students and staff members. The college shut down in-person instruction for two weeks but returned to face-to-face Sept. 21.

Related: Adrian forcing COVID-positive students to quarantine in dorms with healthy coeds

Adrian College athletic director Michael Duffy on the field before action against Trine University, Saturday, October 3, 2020 at Docking Stadium in Adrian, Michigan. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

When the MIAA announced in September all fall sports were shifting to the spring, Adrian went its own route. On Wednesday, the athletic department administered 200 coronavirus tests to its student-athletes. All 200 tests came back negative, allowing numerous fall sports teams to compete in nonconference events this weekend.

“We’re risk-takers,” Duffy said. “We’re adventurous. It’s a challenge. Can we do it safely? Absolutely. We’ve done it safely. We’ve got it down. Our kids understand what they want to do. Kids don’t want to be isolated or quarantined. They don’t want to be online for classes. They just want socialization, and the way to socialize is just doing it in smaller groups. It can be done.”

The atmosphere, however, was quite different, even for a Division III game. Concessions were open, the band played and the cheer and dance squads performed, but as much as it felt like a normal Saturday, there were signs of college football’s COVID-era — four tickets per player, no students allowed, social distancing and fans wearing face masks, though some did not.

Fans watch action between Adrian College and Trine University, Saturday, October 3, 2020 at Docking Stadium in Adrian, Michigan. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

When the game concluded, Deere repeated a phrase before what should’ve been handshakes with the opposing team: “No contact. No contact. No contact.”

Even though that’s the new normal, Adrian took satisfaction in being able to provide college football.

And for one Saturday, it couldn’t be found anywhere else in Michigan.

“Our kids wanted to do it,” Deere said. “It’s like, ‘If we want to play football, this is what we got to do.’ Obviously, they’ve done it. When you have zero positives going into your game week, that’s something to be proud about, what they’ve done to get themselves in a position to play.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldThe Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content. 

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