The Wheaton football team has twice as many seniors this year as it did in 2019. The reason? COVID-19.
Because the pandemic forced the team to cancel last season, the NCAA granted athletes an extra year of eligibility. This builds on a long-standing NCAA rule wherein athletes that experienced unforeseen incidents or injuries that prevented them from playing for over half the season are also given the opportunity to play an extra year; this is commonly referred to as a medical redshirt. As a result, the sidelines at McCully Stadium are teeming with more fifth-year seniors than ever, having 46 seniors on the team now as opposed to the 23 seniors on the 2019 team.
For second-year senior English writing major linebacker Wyatt Lee, the decision to stay was easy. “I love Wheaton football,” said Lee. “It just felt like playing for the extra season would be something I wouldn’t regret.”
At 26 years old, tight end Bert McJunkins, a master’s student in Biblical Studies, is the oldest player on the team.
“Ultimately it was the opportunity to be with the guys,” he said of his decision to stay on the team for another year. “As a grad student I am older than most of the guys on the team, and not to over-spiritualize it, but I just didn’t feel like the Lord was done with me here.”
While student-athletes are generally required to be enrolled full time, seniors are allowed to be enrolled half time, according to the amount of required credits that they have left. The NCAA lowered the requirement to 6 credit hours this year, due to COVID-19 and the extra year of eligibility.
Junior Christian Formation and Ministry major and quarterback Ben Thorson said that the older players who chose to return set a positive example of hard work for the undergraduate members of the team.
“Guys like Adam Terrini, Ryan Schwartz, and Jackson Schmidt, just to name a few, are just such great leaders and men that you want to follow,” said Thorson. “You can’t be a leader if no one’s gonna follow you. They show everyone around them how to work hard, not to glorify themselves but to glorify the team, and ultimately, glorify God, which is so different and counters what the world says.”
“Our guys really care about our program,” said Assistant Coach James Houch. “They’ve invested a lot in their physicality and time. Between COVID and any injury , they really love our program and they just want to see this out and finish everything they invested in.”