Retaking the field
By the time Mines football started its 2021 season, it had been 642 days since the Orediggers last took the field. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season, student-athletes and coaches in the program couldn’t wait to make their return to Marv Kay Stadium.
“I think about it a lot,” said senior co-captain Kobe Brewster a few weeks before the Orediggers’ scheduled season opener against Western Oregon on September 2, 2021. “We’re reminded of it when we come in every day. There’s the beautiful picture of the first game here, and you see pictures of the packed stadium on Twitter and the website—it’s chills thinking about having my family back and the alumni back.”
The only other time Mines football paused was during World War II, as did many of the nation’s college teams. The Orediggers played a single game in September 1943 before a lack of opponents shut the season down, and the 1944 and 1945 seasons never happened during the height of the war. Mines finally returned to the field in 1946 and played every season until last year.
In March 2020, Mines was riding high. The Oredigger football team had just tied the program record for wins with a 12-1 season, an undefeated RMAC championship and an NCAA Second Round appearance under their belts. The team began spring practice with a talented core returning, thinking about a repeat performance that fall. That was, until the world came screeching to a halt.
“It seems like light-years ago, but it also seems like yesterday,” said head coach Gregg Brandon. “I’ve watched that [final game of 2019] probably 3,000 times all through last fall and this spring. Now we get to start game planning for this season. It’s nice to be back in that mode. This is going to be the most anticipated season in college football history, and it certainly is for Mines.”
Mines eventually got back on the field in fall 2020 for limited practice, then had a relatively normal spring 2021 practice season that included two unofficial scrimmages against Washburn and Fort Hays State. Now, in the fall 2021 season, the Orediggers have managed to retain much of that veteran group that led them to success in 2019, including several sixth-year “COVID shirt” returners who are utilizing an extra year of eligibility granted to them by the NCAA. Eleven members of this year’s team are playing while in graduate school, with three student-athletes using a sixth year.
“I think with the COVID year, a lot of leaders have stepped up,” said quarterback John Matocha, who started as a first-year student on the 2019 team. “We have a lot of ‘COVID seniors’ coming back, and I’m excited to play with them again. There’s nothing better than winning on a Saturday—or a Thursday. I can’t wait.”
But how is the team after such a long layoff? Brandon doesn’t seem worried. “We’re tremendously excited to play football again. Our guys are chomping at the bit,” he said. “I can’t wait to turn them loose.”
The Orediggers won their season opening game, beating Western Oregon 42 to 3.