Before spring break of 2020, Lehigh football defensive lineman Dean Colton said some of his teammates got sick. Some had stomach issues, some felt fatigued and most ran fevers.
The team thought nothing of it, but halfway through the break, Lehigh students were told they would not be returning to campus.
Unbeknownst to Colton, who was a first-year at the time, his collegiate career would be forever altered as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, as would happen for all Lehigh athletes.
“Everybody thought it was going to be a couple weeks then we would resume normal activities,” Colton said. “But after two weeks we started developing a take-home program and an at-home-only program for lifting, and that’s when we figured out that we were not coming back for a while.”
Colton, along with offensive lineman Jack Kempsey and defensive lineman Stephon Bland, will return to play for Lehigh football as fifth-years in the fall of 2023, exercising an NCAA ruling that grants them an extra year of eligibility due to the time lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Colton will use this year to pursue a graduate degree, while Kempsey and Bland will be returning to Lehigh to finish a second degree.
All three Lehigh football players are returning to take the field at Goodman Stadium with the stands once again accessible to fans wearing brown and white after years of pandemic regulations.
Bland said he is looking forward to seeing a revitalization period as the football program undergoes changes and introduces a new head coach and nine new assistant coaches.
“We have a new coaching staff,” Bland said. “We’re rebuilding right now, and I want to be a part of the rebuilding process. I want to help the young guys any way I can.”
After Lehigh announced students would not return after spring break in 2020, in-person offseason practices were canceled. Players were instead assigned at-home workouts and had Zoom meetings with their coaches to install new plays.
As cases spiked in the fall of 2020, Colton said things did not get much better, which meant more workouts on Zoom would follow despite being back on campus.
“We were waking up at (7 a.m.), stuffing our backpacks with textbooks and anything heavy you had in your room and putting it on your back to squat or curling it,” Colton said.
During the fall semester, the team had no padded or full-contact practices.
The season was canceled in the fall and players had to wait until the spring of 2021 to play a three-game season.
Kempsey said this significantly stalled his development as a player.
“It was tough, especially as a younger guy (because) that’s when you develop your game,” Kempsey said. “It’s difficult to lose a lot of that time because next season you only play a couple games, and next fall I’m a junior. I have a chance of starting, (but) I only got one full season of development.”
In the spring of 2021, players were tested two to three times a week for coronavirus and multiple positions groups had to quarantine due to positive tests.
Football returned in the fall of 2021, just months after the shortened spring season.
Kempsey said he “probably was not ready to start” in the spring of 2021, and the immediate turnaround from spring games to a fall season did not help. However, the spring practices helped him and the other players work on individual skills rather than big-picture game strategy.
“(During spring practices) you have a lot of time to look at your technique,” Kempsey said. “You don’t have to worry about ‘Oh, we’re playing Georgetown this week, I have to focus on that.’ You can just watch yourself.”
Although Kemspey said the transition from a spring season to a full fall season was difficult, it wasn’t all bad, as regulations eased up and players returned after being vaccinated, rejoining each other for summer practices.
Still, the ripple effects of the pandemic was felt across Lehigh football.
“We were still in the very back stages of recovering from (the pandemic),” Colton said. “We had to do a little bit of unlearning of the bad habits that we had either developed or were conditioned for.”
Last season, Lehigh finished 2-9 overall with a 2-4 Patriot League record. The Mountain Hawks’ offense averaged only 17.2 points per game, while the defense allowed nearly 30 points every outing.
With a new coaching staff taking over the program, the rising fifth-years are eager to make up for lost time and continue improving late into their careers, especially Kempsey, who missed his senior year due to injury.
“I already lost one to COVID, and then another,” Kempsey said. “I only had two actual fall football seasons, so I felt like I deserved another one.”