ALBANY — When one of his UAlbany football players goes down with an injury during a game, head coach Greg Gattuso said he typically doesn’t go out onto the field, unless he has reason to suspect the injury is serious.
During Saturday’s game against Stony Brook, Gattuso estimated he made six or seven of those trips onto the field.
“It was overwhelming for me,” Gattuso said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters, “how we were after that game and on Sunday.”
Gattuso spoke Wednesday just minutes after the news came out that UAlbany was opting out of its remaining two games during the spring CAA season, citing an immense buildup of injuries within the program.
After starting the season 1-3, UAlbany was set to conclude its spring campaign over the next two weeks with games at Delaware and at home against Villanova. With this decision, the Great Danes won’t see the field again until Sept. 4, when they kick off their fall season against North Dakota State.
It was concern over the team’s overwhelming rash of injuries, Gattuso said, that sparked his conversation Monday with UAlbany athletic director Mark Benson that began the process of deciding to opt out of the remainder of the season.
“I think we all kind of saw it coming,” Benson said during the teleconference. “The injuries were increasing from week to week, progressively. Watching the game on Saturday, it felt like every several plays we were carting off one of our players and keeping our athletic trainers very, very busy. When [Gattuso] reached out to me, I kind of had a feeling he wanted to talk about that. Not overly surprised, but really glad that he reached out.”
The news of a college team opting out of competition has become common over the past year. The stunning part in UAlbany football’s case is that it wasn’t concerns over the novel coronavirus pandemic that ultimately forced the program’s hand.
Injuries had piled up so badly, Gattuso said, that the team would not have been able to fill out a complete travel roster had UAlbany opted to play Saturday at Delaware.
“We have a couple positions that are just decimated right now with injuries,” Gattuso said. “We had nine guys go down [against Stony Brook], and this is something I’m seeing happen more each week. The problem is, if we were to duplicate that again, I don’t know where we would be.”
“There’s a group of guys playing right now that shouldn’t be playing,” he continued, “and I probably wouldn’t let them play this week — even though they think they’re able to — because of some of the punishment injuries they’re dealing with.”
UAlbany was missing four starters — quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, All-American linebacker Levi Metheny, wide receiver Tyler Oedekoven and right tackle Parris Heath — due to injury heading into the Stony Brook game.
While the decision in the moment wasn’t specifically related to COVID-19, the pandemic certainly had a long-term domino effect on the eventual wave of injuries that struck UAlbany.
When the CAA football season was postponed from the fall to the spring, Gattuso had hoped to use the fall semester as a chance to make up for spring workouts last spring being canceled at the outset of the pandemic. But, UAlbany went through several pandemic-related pauses to all athletic activity on campus during the fall semester, and the Great Danes ended up opening their preseason workouts in February having not engaged in full-contact work since their previous season ended on Dec. 7, 2019.
“In 2020, our football team did not have a padded practice or game,” Gattuso said. “Parting of our training concept is practice and lifting and running, and it’s just been so disrupted. I think that’s what resulted in this many injuries.”
That the Great Danes were 1-3 and on a three-game losing streak, rather than on a track to repeat their 2019 trip to the FCS playoffs, played no factor in the decision to opt out, Gattuso said.
“I wish we were 3-1 right now, because it wouldn’t change my decision one bit. Not one bit,” he said. “You hear a lot right now about health and well-being, but until you’re in that environment and they’re your kids, it’s a different story. If we were 4-0, 3-1, 0-4, whatever numbers you want to attribute to it, it would not change the fact that we are not healthy enough to play a college Division I football game right now.”
After the initial discussions between Gattuso, Benson and athletic trainer Jay Geiger, both Gattuso and Benson met with the football team’s leadership group — composed of about a dozen players — to discuss moving forward.
While the players were motivated to take the field and disappointed with the way the end to the season unfolded, Gattuso said he ultimately felt the team understood the rationale behind his decision.
“It’s really difficult, sometimes, to explain how we feel about our players,” Gattuso said. “We just don’t want to put them at risk anymore. I think our kids get it.”
“They’re disappointed,” he added. “They want to play. I love that about them. I’d be heartbroken right now if I had kids walking in saying they didn’t want to play football. We didn’t have one kid walk in here and say, ‘Coach, we don’t want to play.’ They want to play. [Senior running back] Karl Mofor isn’t talking about trying to go to the NFL, or anything like that, he’s talking about playing. That’s what I love about them.”
Multiple UAlbany players made social-media posts Wednesday reacting to the move.
“#PurpleFam We’ll be back,” redshirt sophomore Jeff Undercuffler posted.
“Minor setback for a major comeback,” read a post from redshirt senior tight end L.J. Wesneski.
With the team’s remaining games out of the picture, Gattuso said that he gave his players the remainder of this week off, but that they’ll get back together until the CAA season ends April 17 — UAlbany was scheduled to have its bye during the final week of the regular season — with the focus on recovering from injuries, getting back into shape after the team’s “disrupted” training left many players carrying too much weight, dealing with academics and assessing the team’s overall mental health.
Next week will also see many discussions with the team’s seniors regarding which players will opt to use the extra year of eligibility granted to all NCAA athletes and return for the fall season.
“We’re going to start next week and kind of assess everybody,” Gattuso said. “Honestly, our minds have been on week-to-week and playing games. We haven’t looked at all beyond, really, today.”
Following UAlbany’s announcement, CAA Football commissioner Joe D’Antonio released a statement that the league “respects and supports the difficult decision made by UAlbany to opt out” of its remaining games.
While Gattuso acknowledged that some of the team’s injuries could linger into the fall, he said he was hopeful that the majority of injured players would be able to return in September, despite the short turnaround.
Despite the abrupt ending to a bizarre and frustrating four games, Gattuso said that he ultimately doesn’t regret his team playing this spring, particularly because of the experience gained by many of the Great Danes’ younger players.
“This is negative, and it’s disappointing, but it’s the right thing to do,” Gattuso said. “Sometimes, it’s tough to do the right thing.
“But at the end of the day, the spring season has been a success in my mind.”