COLUMBUS, Ohio — The past month of Chris Olave’s life provides a look inside the mix of dread and triumph that defines the Ohio State football season.
The Buckeyes’ star receiver said he had never felt better than the week leading into the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern. Ohio State prepared to face a top-10 defense by some metrics. It needed a victory — and in some people’s estimation, a convincing one — to ensure a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Olave said he practiced especially hard early that week. Of course, prior to every practice, he also underwent a daily rapid antigen test for coronavirus. He was not naive to the process by then because he had seen it play out for other Buckeyes over the past three weeks.
“To get that tap on my shoulder was tough,” Olave said.
Buckeyes center Josh Myers opened up about that tap on the shoulder. Others received it sometime following the 49-28 victory over Clemson on Jan. 1. Ohio State coach Ryan Day confirmed some number of players will be unavailable for Monday’s national championship game against Alabama, as a positive test mandates 17 days out of competition per Big Ten protocols.
That combination of back luck and bad timing is especially cruel for players who made it through upwards of 10 months without contracting the virus. That span included the start of the pandemic last winter, the shutdown of spring football, the long quarantine separation, the summer return to campus, the resumption of football, the shutdown, and then the restart and daily testing since September.
Olave can testify.
“It’s terrible timing, and I know mentally I was messed up — especially catching it towards the end of the season,” Olave said. “You can’t really control that. You just try to control what you can control and do what’s best for the team.
“That week I was just trying to hype my guys up. I’m just glad that we came out with a win that week.”
After Olave’s positive test was confirmed, he called his parents, then checked in to a hotel to live alone for his 10-day isolation period. His only physical exertion came through workout bands and sit-ups and push-ups. At the end of the isolation period he had to pass a cardiac exam to rejoin the team and resume workouts.
Yet he also had to gradually return to full involvement through an acclimatization period. When Olave returned to practice, he had less energy. When not at practice, he slept a lot. Not until Dec. 30 — two days before the game — did he start to feel normal again.
Ohio State was known to have one player miss the Sugar Bowl due to a positive test — starting left guard Harry Miller. It is possible other players were affected as well. It is not known if any will have cleared the return-to-play protocol in time to play in the championship game.
Olave’s case, though, backs up something Ohio State coach Ryan Day has said in recent weeks. Reaching the end of that 17-day period does not automatically mean a player returns to full effectiveness.
“It’s not like you just throw them back in there and they’re going 100 miles an hour again.,” Day said prior to the Sugar Bowl. “There’s a ramp-up to it. They didn’t really do anything for ten days. They had to pass their cardiac test, and then you have to kind of ease them into it — especially the skill guys because of soft tissue injuries.
“I think we’re doing as good a job as anybody of having a really good protocol and how to get them back safely to play. But it certainly has been a major challenge. Guys in, guys out. That puts a lot of stress on the guys who are in there who are taking the reps in practice.”
Olave had extra incentive to return strong for the Sugar Bowl. The 2019 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl was a personal one for him. A miscommunication at the end of the game between him and Justin Fields resulted in the game-sealing interception.
That strength returned just in time. Olave totaled 132 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions in last week’s victory in New Orleans. He will line up against Alabama on Monday night and compete for a national championship.
Other Buckeyes will not make the trip, enduring their own 10-day isolation period in Ohio while the rest of the team plays in Florida.
“With his year, especially, it’s a lot different because of the COVID stuff,” linebacker Justin Hilliard said. “Guys feel like they’re able to play, but they can’t play just because they have COVID, so it’s real tough.
“The biggest toll it has on a team is getting guys to focus and getting guys to know they have to step up. I think that is something that we’ve done a great job of this year is our leadership. Our younger guys know that when someone goes down it’s next man up, and they have to be at that level or even better when they come in.”
This is how Ohio State will try to win a national championship in 2020 — interrupted, incomplete, but not inhibited from their goals.
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