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Sumter High School kicker and punter Dyson Roberts and Manning High linebacker Aaron Smith are preparing to play their first season of college football during one of the most difficult summers in history due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The pair of local athletes will play at South Carolina State, but they're still not sure when they'll be able to report to school.
"It's kind of disappointing because I'm ready to get to school and get to work. I was supposed to report July 10 (last Friday), then they said we're to report July 16 (Thursday). Then I got the call today that they're pushing it back again because the cases keep rising," said Smith. "They're just saying they want to keep us safe and they don't want to bring us in with all this going on."
Finding a report date is even harder for Roberts. As a specialist, he will likely be in the last group of athletes to report whenever S.C. State starts bringing its student-athletes to campus.
"They check in on us every day and have us fill out a questionnaire every day to make sure we're feeling good, but I'm not up at the school right now," said Roberts. "We were supposed to go (last) Friday, then I didn't get an exact date yet, because I'm a specialist."
Once athletes get on campus, Roberts said the team is putting procedures in place to help limit any possible spreading.
"We have suite mates and we'll have to stay with them at all times to prevent spreading," said Roberts. "It's really complicated. We're trying to have a football season and stay safe at the same time."
Smith in particular is really missing out by not being able to report to campus yet. The Manning graduate is still yet to receive a playbook, so he hasn't been able to sit down and learn the defensive system. As a result, he's had to get a little more creative to prepare for the upcoming season.
"I haven't had Zoom meetings for the playbook, because they've been telling me that they'd give me a playbook when I report," said Smith. "The way I've been preparing is a couple of guys from Manning High, they played at South Carolina State, Phil Henry and Jason Baxter, so they're coming and working out with me on the field, showing me some plays. It might be different, but they're trying to get me accustomed to what the game is going to be like."
While Smith would love to have the playbook in his hands, he doesn't think he'll need a ton of time to get up to speed.
"I'm kind of worried about it, but I'm just going to be patient. If I have to wait until I'm there to get the playbook, I'll just jump ahead when I get there," said Smith. "I'm a quick learner. In high school, I knew the whole offensive playbook and defensive playbook. I knew every play, where everyone was supposed to be, so a playbook isn't going to be that big of a deal for me and it's going to be easier in college because I'm only going to need the defensive side of the playbook."
Roberts, meanwhile, is looking forward to getting to campus so he can participate in more kicking drills. He's working out at home and fine-tuning his mechanics, but he hasn't been able to do much live kicking during the pandemic.
"It's hard. Normally I would've been at a kicking camp, things like that, but this whole pandemic it's been hard to get into camps because they either stopped having them or they have limited slots," said Roberts. "I can practice my craft at home, but I wouldn't say kicking, because I live in a neighborhood, so if I'm kicking it's going into a neighbor's yard. I'm just working on my craft, making sure my steps are right."
Not being able to report also means not being able to meet teammates. Roberts and Smith have been able to work out together little bit and talk to each other, but they haven't been able to meet many of their teammates in person yet.
"I haven't really gotten up with my teammates that are already at the school," said Smith. "I do text a couple of them if I have questions about how school is going to be and things like that, so we do communicate, but we haven't been able to communicate face to face."
While Roberts does want to get to campus, he also sees a benefit to reporting later. Major programs like Clemson saw a high rate of positive cases when players got to campus. Roberts thinks he and his teammates will be able to learn from what other programs did earlier in the summer.
"I think our athletes will see other teams coming in and testing positive, and we're going to be more self-conscious about what they do, who they hang around, how often they go out and stuff like that," said Roberts."
"Mentally, it's stressful because I worked my whole high school career to get where I'm at now and I might not be able to show off my hard work my freshman year because of the coronavirus," said Roberts. "Trying to get this whole thing out of my head is tough. I'm just trying to keep my head on straight and keep working, because the opportunity is going to come"
Smith echoed those sentiments.
"It's stressful, because we don't really know if we're going to end up having a season and if we do get to play football if any fans will be able to be there, how school is going to be," said Smith. "It's kind of different for me because it's my first year in college, so my freshman year isn't going to be like everyone else's freshman year."
The pandemic also made this summer difficult for Smith physically. Before the pandemic hit, he was able to work out at Manning and run through the workouts his S.C. State coaches gave him. Once the pandemic hit, he got a gym membership and a trainer, but he quickly lost access to gyms. That meant trying to prepare for his first season of college football with very little equipment.
"From January to March, we were still in school, so I still had my weight training class with my coaches, so I gave them my workout regiment and they helped guide me through that to make sure I was doing it the right way. It was really easy," said Smith. "When the pandemic came, I had to go buy me a gym membership and get a trainer that was going to train me to make sure I'm doing everything the right way.
"Then the world went into a freeze. When that happened, I had to be at home doing body weight stuff, because I didn't have any weights. I just had two 20-pound dumbbells. I basically had to make up my own thing to do at home until gyms opened back up."
Roberts and Smith said this upcoming season means a little bit more because of how difficult the last few months have been. For Roberts, it's really helped him learn not to take anything for granted.
"It's very weird, but God makes the toughest times for the best people. If we make it through this, we'll be alright," said Roberts. "A day or your season can be gone in an instant, whether it's by a pandemic or injury. You should treat every game, every practice, every workout like it's your last."
Every season matters to Smith because of his passion for the game, but he said the complications that would come from a missed season make playing this fall even more important.
"Football is all I want to do in life, so it means a lot to me," said Smith. "It also means a lot because say they cancel the season, are they going to give us a year of eligibility back? Then you have kids now who are banking on their senior year to get a draft spot and if they don't get their eligibility back, what do they do then?
"This year means so much to me because it's my first year in college and I get to have my first college experience and see what the game of college football is like. I'm actually going to be out there and do what a college athlete does."
Both of the Bulldogs are hopeful that they'll get to play this fall, but they also understand that health comes first.
"My optimism will always be high, but South Carolina is what, third in the nation for COVID-19," asked Roberts. "It makes it harder for us to have a season if people don't really care about their health and take this thing lightly."
Smith added, "I want us to play football this year, but I also want everyone to be safe. I don't want everyone out there getting sick and getting everyone else sick to the point that we can't do nothing. But I do want us to play football."
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