Braxton Burmeister’s symptoms began about two weeks before Virginia Tech’s season opener last year against N.C. State: nausea, night sweats, weight loss.
The Hokies’ quarterback lost 12-13 pounds in his bout with COVID-19 and suffered hand cramps during the game from dehydration.
Little wonder that Burmeister had no problem complying with Virginia Tech’s vaccine mandate for students this fall.
“I think not having to get tested is a great deal,” he said Wednesday at the ACC’s preseason gathering, “and not having to miss any games, but I definitely respect people’s opinion on not getting vaccinated as well.”
The conference’s medical advisory group, chaired by Duke’s Cameron Wolfe, has not finalized testing protocols for the fall sports seasons, but asymptomatic vaccinated athletes and coaches likely will be excused from routine testing.
“I’m certainly not a doctor,” Hokies coach Justin Fuente said, “but that would make sense to me.”
During an interview after his first state-of-the-conference address, new ACC commissioner Jim Phillips expressed the same view. He also acknowledged that the vaccine mandates adopted by six of the league’s 14 football schools — Virginia Tech, Virginia, Duke, Wake Forest, Syracuse and Boston College — could be a competitive advantage.
“We’re still learning about the variants,” Phillips said, “and we’re seeing individuals who are fully vaccinated contracting the virus. Again, it’s speculative in nature, but I do believe that the teams that are most vaccinated will have the highest probability of being able to play throughout the season. That’s not just me speaking. That’s Dr. Cam Wolfe and our medical advisory group that know the science behind the virus.”
Ongoing research about variants is why the ACC should be, and is, moving deliberately in establishing fall protocols.
“Being first at this time, in this particular situation, for the ACC is not nearly as important as being right,” Phillips said. “I’m not being critical of anyone that’s already made policy and decided. But I know what we feel is best for the ACC.”
Last year, the league crafted a flexible schedule that braced for virus disruptions. Sure enough, 15 of 75 conference games, 20%, were moved from their original date.
By season’s end, only eight of 15 teams — Notre Dame joined the ACC for football in 2020 as a one-year rental — had played their full complement of 10 league dates. Wake Forest managed just seven.
This season’s schedule has no such wiggle room. If you can’t field a game-worthy team in 2021, forfeiture may be the penalty. Phillips said the league has yet to determine how to handle such incidents, but with the vaccine available, and barring wide outbreaks nationally, forfeiture should be the penalty.
“[Last year’s] process is not sustainable,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and I don’t think it adds any value.”
“We think it’s really important to be vaccinated,” UVa athletics director Carla Williams said, “and our student-athletes have done a great job getting there. Our staff, our coaches have done a phenomenal job with the vaccinations. … We want to compete and we know that being vaccinated gives us the best chance to compete.”
Few, if any, ACC programs endured more infections last season than Virginia Tech. Players, assistant coaches, support personnel — no group was immune.
“They were very frustrating, very tiring,” tight end James Mitchell said of the issues. “We’d be in meetings Friday nights, and players would get pulled. … Not having to worry about that would be a big stress reliever for us.”
Announced by university president Tim Sands, Virginia Tech’s vaccine requirement figures to alleviate those concerns. That’s why Fuente thanked Sands for the decision as they flew to Charlotte on Tuesday.
Vaccine mandates allow for appeals based on religious beliefs or medical reasons, but the process is rigorous.
“It’s a real process,” Fuente said. “It’s a not a note from mom. You got to jump through some hoops, and I would anticipate, and I’m guessing a little bit here, that we’ll have some [players] that may go through that. … Sometimes it’s their parents, quite honestly. …
“We’re all anxious to get back to living our lives. Our kids are anxious to play this year. They’re anxious for something being normal. One of the cool things about playing football is playing in front of people, and [last year] we didn’t play in front of anybody.”
Another cool thing is hanging out with your teammates away from football. Those interpersonal connections are invaluable, establishing locker room chemistry and forging lifelong friendships.
Those interactions vanished last year, and vaccinations are the path to regaining them.
Amid the uncertainty of fall protocols and virus variants, Mendenhall is certain of one thing.
“Vigilance is still required,” he said, “but there’s no way that I could sustain the amount of vigilance from a year ago and coach the team effectively with the results we want.”