Dave Ellis and his staff have, like a lot of people, lived in a state of constant change and unknown for the past 10-plus weeks.
Ellis, Nebraska’s performance nutrition director, doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Even so, Ellis laid out his thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic and the effects it’s had on NU’s student-athletes, what the coming weeks might look like and the approach that’s needed going forward during a wide-ranging interview Thursday morning on the 1620 AM The Zone radio show “Severe and Benning in the Morning.“
“Citizenship is going to be key. People are going to have to be tolerant. This isn’t a political issue, this is a best-practices issue for what is normally a team sport where people are in close proximity where we’re going to have to take extra precaution,” Ellis said.
“People are social, college kids are hyper-social. When I say the word citizenship, that covers everybody. You’ve got to do the right thing. I approach it, and I would love it if our athletes take this mindset, that anybody they come upon could be somebody that has suffered greatly from this pandemic, whether it’s loss of a loved one, loss of income, loss of a job, this is a time to show compassion and citizenship and empathy and not come out there and treat it like it’s over. It’s not over. This is a time to show that compassion, and we’re going to all have to do it. There are a lot of healthy people that are going to come out of isolation and there’s going to be an opportunity for this bug to take off again.”
Ellis and his staff have had the task of continuing to feed the Husker student-athletes who stayed on campus and those who have since returned to campus. He said NU’s makeshift food service operation has been in place now for 72 days. Almost three weeks ago, they transitioned from curbside pickup — athletes could get all the food they need for one day delivered through their car window outside Memorial Stadium — to an open-air market-style setup that has a few more options.
“It gave us a better chance to interact with the athletes, take their temperatures, talk to them about how it’s going, have a dialogue about what they’re enduring psychologically — is everything going all right, are they having some challenges?” said Ellis, who noted that student-athletes are required to wear a mask and gloves and keep their cellphones in their pockets while picking up food. “It’s been a richer exposure the past 19 days since we started that program and we’ll continue in this open-air, portion-controlled market, probably through June.
“I’ve got my toes and fingers crossed that maybe after July 4 that the health department and the state give us some kind of latitude to essentially move back inside. But right now, space is what I need. We can spread the athletes out. Open air is what I need, so we have great circulation. And portion control of food is a mandate. There are no open buffets allowed.”
Ellis said he’s very confident in NU’s ability to bring student-athletes back safely and work with them in slowly building back into routines, noting that everybody from colleges to pro sports leagues are able to learn from each other.
That process will start Monday when voluntary workouts in all sports can begin again, but it will have to start slowly, Ellis said, not only because of group limits or concerns about the virus, but because of what student-athletes have and haven’t been able to do since mid-March.
Ellis said he expects to see “significant gaps” in physical conditioning, varying athlete to athlete and sport to sport.
“It’s very disruptive and very challenging and I expect to see when these athletes come back that some of them have lost muscle mass, that their mobility isn’t going to be at its best and there’s going to be a vulnerability for pulls if we’re not careful and we don’t grade them back into their training properly,” he said. “We’ll certainly take all the precautions necessary. (Head strength coach Zach) Duval and his staff do a fabulous job on that front. Our coaches will have to take it in a very graded fashion when they eventually get them back on the field.”
This is just a glimpse at the multi-layer challenges facing schools as athletes come back into the fold. There’s the virus, there’s new rules and standards, there’s nutrition, there’s strength and conditioning. There may be adjusted academic calendars. There’s not trying to make up all the lost ground in one shot.
“We had them in great shape. These kids had a fabulous winter,” Ellis said of the football team. “Coach Duval and his staff, our nutrition staff, our medical staff just crushed and had a fabulous winter. The kids worked so hard, they were pretty healthy most of the winter compared to the flu that hit us at the end of the football season. … They were ready to have a fabulous spring practice.
“Now what do we have? We have a lot of questions, that’s what we have.”