LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Offensive lineman Robbie Bell was among the first wave of University of Louisville student athletes arriving on campus this week, and he's probably one of the most physically fit after all were away from coaches and trainers for nearly three months due to the shutdown necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
To stay in shape, Bell, a senior from Hoschton, Ga., 50 miles northeast of Atlanta near the University of Georgia campus in Athens, took advantage of a workout area in his garage that featured a homemade weightlifting platform built by him and his dad. He already had some weights and he bought more when he saw that he wasn't going back to school anytime soon.
"So I actually had a very good lifting setup, and I've been doing the same workouts I would be doing if I was up here at the stadium with Coach Mike (Sirigano, head strength and conditioning coach)," Bell said. "I've been doing power cleans, dead lifts, bench and squat, everything we normally do. So I feel I haven't missed a beat."
Under the first phase of Louisville's plan, about 75 student-athletes, including 30 football players plus men's and women's basketball players and members of the swimming and diving team, are back on campus for the first time since mid-March.
And it's a pretty safe bet that all of them feel the same way Bell does.
"I'm just glad to be back," he said during a teleconference Tuesday. "I've really missed our whole staff, my teammates, everybody, and I'm excited that next week I get to interact somewhat and get to see everybody again after being seven hours away at home in Georgia."
More than 120 student-athletes, coaches and staff underwent drive-up coronavirus testing at Cardinal Stadium Tuesday. Physical exams are scheduled for Thursday, then volunteer workouts, without coaches, can begin on Monday. UofL vice president/director of athletics Vince Tyra was the first to get tested.
"Our return to campus is off and running," he said in a release from the school. "It's a control group. We want to prove it out. We don't want to take any risk. We're trying to make sure we aren't outdoing ourselves right away."
Bell said the tests, which involve a nasal swab, weren't as unpleasant as he expected.
"The test itself isn't as bad as the videos looked," he said. "It was not very enjoyable, but it's part of the process we've got to do."
The process also involves staying a safe distance away from coaches and teammates for the time being, filling out paperwork daily with checklists and questions about symptoms. Furthermore, players will be escorted to and from lockers and the weight room, the number of players allowed in the lockerroom will be limited and players won't be allowed to have a partner in the weightlifting rack as they usually do. Players and staff will wear masks except during workouts. Racks of weights in the 28,000-square-foot strength and conditioning area of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex are already spaced 12 feet apart and one player will be assigned to each of the 26 workout stations.
"It's a very strict situation from how it's been explained to me," Bell said of the overall plan. "But I think me and the guys will get used to it and be able to get through it real easily. I'm just looking forward -- it's very cliche' but it's really true -- I'm excited to see my teammates again. Seven of the 15 guys on offense we brought back in this group are offensive linemen, so I'm getting to see a bunch of my friends for the first time in about three months. Than, as we continue to bring in more and more guys, I'm excited to get to see the rest of my teammates."
Mike Summers, senior director of sports medicine and head trainer, said a quarantine process, both on campus and in a hotel room, is planned for anyone who tests positive..
If Phase One goes well, UofL will add 30 football players and 60 Olympic sports athletes on June 10, with workouts beginning on June 22. In Phase 3, Tyra said the remaining football players would be back on campus by July 6 and start workouts on July 18. An additional 60 student-athletes would be included in that phase if permitted by the ACC and NCAA.
By the fourth phase, in late July and early August, all student-athletes would return to activities with full practices, scrimmages and competitions as allowed by ACC and NCAA guidelines.
"We feel confident and comfortable in what we're doing bringing them back," UofL football coach Scott Satterfield said. "We're not 100 percent sure -- I don't think anybody is -- you can ask any doctor out there and they would probably tell you the same thing. But what we have is the safest plan you can probably come up with, all of the safeguards we're putting in, and I think it's time to get them back."
Satterfield added that there are still some things to be worked out whenever coaches are allowed to get involved, including how to have in-person meetings with position groups and what will happen once practice begins.
"When we're playing, what's that going to look like on a day-to-day basis," he said. "In order to play football, we're all going to be on the field and we're all going to be interacting with each other. How can we go about our business with that? I don't think anybody knows."
Once most of the players return, some of the virus threat has abated and restrictions have been eased, Satterfield said he expects things to return to normal to an extent.
"They're all fearless, right?," he said. "You're young, feel like nothing's going to happen to you. If we're honest, I think these young people are going to just about carry on life the way they know how, the way they've always done it. They're going to hang out with each other, pal around, wrestle in the dorm rooms. We have them here for two hours; what are they doing the other 22 hours? That's something we're going to be watching to see how that works, but it's a concern because when they leave the facility, we don't know what they're doing."
The Cardinals are scheduled to open the season on Sept. 3 against NC State in Cardinal Stadium, and Bell -- for one -- has no worries about kickoff happening that evening or shortly thereafter.
"We're doing to have a season," he said. "That's not been in doubt for a single moment for the last three months, even with everything going on. I've always had that feeling, and then as things have gone on our coaches have echoed to us even more that there will be a football season this year. So I'm not stressed or worried abou it. I know I'll get to play.
"So my focus is going to be the same as it was while I was gone -- I'm trying to get bigger, faster and stronger, work on my technique, fundamentals, lift heavier and run faster. It's going to be like a regular offseason. I'm just getting prepared for that first kickoff Thursday night against NC State."
And if there are no fans allowed in the stadium, or if attendances is limited?
"It would be odd," Bell said. "But I think we all just want to play football. If it's full of however many thousand people or if it's just parents in the stadium, I don't think anybody cares as long as we get to play. I mean, that's what matters most. So whether it's fans or not, I'm kind of indifferent. I just want to be able to get the chacne to go out and play my last season."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.