McALLEN — Southwestern University and Texas Lutheran University — a pair of NCAA Division III programs in Georgetown and Seguin, Texas, respectively — announced last week that both schools were cancelling football and other fall sports seasons in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and its tightening grip on the Lone Star State.
Now, a vast majority of Texas’ DIII colleges and universities are following Southwestern and Texas Lutheran’s lead, postponing the upcoming fall sports seasons until the spring semester or public health conditions permit a return to competition.
For many of the Rio Grande Valley’s top college-bound athletes heading to Georgetown and Seguin in the fall, though, it feels like déjà vu after having just completed a spring semester interrupted by COVID-19.
“Every kid wants to play and be able to play, whether that’s now or later,” said Southwestern freshman and former McAllen Memorial quarterback Joseph Lara, one of the most prolific passers in Texas high school football.
“When I got that news that we had moved (football season), I didn’t know how to feel about it,” said Texas Lutheran freshman and former PSJA High linebacker Jayden Arrington, who helped anchor the Bears’ defense during back-to-back district championship runs.
Southwestern and TLU, two schools that have recruited dozens of the Rio Grande Valley’s top high school athletes in a variety of sports, made the call to cancel fall football July 22.
The decision came just days after the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC), the league in which the Bulldogs and Pirates Olympic sports teams compete, voted as a conference to not compete in any fall sports before the spring semester.
The American Southwest Conference (ASC), another NCAA DIII conference where the Pirates and Bulldogs play football, announced two days later that it too voted as a league to suspend all fall sports competition until the fall. The NCAA has yet to make a DIII-wide proclamation on the timing of fall sports championships.
Those moves will affect hundreds of RGV college athletes at a number of DIII schools throughout the state, though, including but not limited to Austin College, Concordia, Howard Payne, Hardin-Simmons, LeTourneau University, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Sul Ross State, Schreiner and Trinity universities.
“It was disappointing not being able to play in the fall, but I have a whole heart still knowing that I’m going to be able to play,” Arrington said.
“We get to play ball again,” said Lara, who noted he didn’t see any major difference between fall and spring football. “That’s all we want is to be able to play football.”
While the moves by TLU and Southwestern caught much of the sports world by surprise, Arrington and Lara found out near immediately.
While practice start dates are still up in the air, Lara and Arrington each noted that they’ve been kept in the loop throughout the process by their respective coaching staffs.
“I found out right away, the day that it happened. My coach texted me right away and my quarterback coach emailed me about an hour later asking me for my perspective on it and how I felt about it,” Lara said. “I expressed to him how I felt, and I feel great about it. It’s not a loss and, if anything, it’s something good that’s happened.”
Arrington and Lara, however, are maintaining their optimism amidst the chaos and identified many positives of the pause on pigskin, like being able to continue training and practicing through the fall.
“With my school schedule that I have, it opens me up to being able to come down more and see my family in the fall. Since we won’t have a season (in the fall), I can come down and see my parents and family on the weekends,” Arrington said.
“I also want to be able to get my feet wet and feel what it’s like to live on my own. I was telling my mom I had just talked to my linebackers coach, Coach (Jody) Ford, and he was telling me that maybe it’s a good thing because it’ll allow us incoming freshmen to kind of get a hold of the system, see how things work and get the feel of having to go to class and work outs and study hall and learn how to live as a college athlete.”
“I would say as freshmen coming up from a college standpoint, I think it’s a better situation on our part because the coaches won’t be able to favor their top (returning) players,” Lara said.
“We can go in there and show them what we have, our abilities and what we can do on the field. We’ll be able to earn a spot and playing time basically, and learn the schemes of whatever offense and defense we’re going to be playing.”
Lara plans to pursue a business degree at Southwestern, where he’ll be joined by other former Valley football stars like Brownsville Pace’s Jaylun Garcia, Rio Hondo’s Ty Rhyner, Valley View’s Aleksander and Damian Gomez and Mr. Texas Football award winner and former Mission Veterans quarterback Landry Gilpin.
Arrington will major in nursing at Texas Lutheran, where he’ll be joined by PSJA North’s Frankie Saucedo, McHi’s Trace Gagne, McAllen Rowe’ Derek Luna, Weslaco High’s Elijah Estevanes and Harlingen South’s Brandon Bennett and Sky Tatum among others.
Both Lara and Arrington, though, are most appreciative of how Southwestern and TLU have handled the situation proactively rather than reactively, which may be the ultimate factor in whether or not they play a full freshman football season.
“When I first heard that we were moving (the season), I was kind of bummed out, but one thing I always try to do is find the brighter side of things. That brighter side that I found was that our coaches actually care about us,” Arrington said.
“They care about the health of their kids and the football team, not just themselves or just getting their paycheck. They actually care about the kids coming up to their school.”