Stars on the Field: Spartan Football Team Unites During a Unique Season
“Love you, Coach!”
San José State Head Football Coach Brent Brennan turned to look at defensive lineman E.J. Ane, ’22 Sociology, as he answered questions during a television broadcast from Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. It was Saturday, November 7, and the Spartan football team had just defeated San Diego State 28-17—their third straight win in a year dictated by evolving COVID-19 protocols, a seemingly never-ending presidential election and social and political unrest. Brennan yelled back, “Love you too!” through his blue SJSU mask before completing his post-game recap. Though the stands were empty, the energy and momentum on the field were undeniable. Something was different.
Brennan wasn’t sure there would be a football season this fall. The Spartans began working out in late July, though their practices had to be modified to meet social distancing guidelines. Players were scheduled to get COVID-19 tested three times a week. The official Mountain West schedule was not announced until Oct. 1, with the first games on Oct. 24—two months later than typical seasons. This only gave Brennan and his coaching staff three weeks to coordinate practice and find a place for the team to drill. The Spartans started their season practicing 320 miles north at Humboldt State, where county regulations permitted them to play at the Redwood Bowl across from the deserted campus. Players lived in dorms a six-minute walk from the stadium, their lives consumed with practice, online classes and team meetings. Where players would normally scrimmage two to three times before the season opener, this year the Spartans only got to scrimmage once.
“This pandemic has created some incredibly challenging opportunities, and any successful athletics program must overcome the constant changing landscape and obstacles,” said Marie Tuite, San José State director of intercollegiate athletics. “Spartans just show up and work. What’s been the real emotional challenge is these young men haven’t seen their families and loved ones for months. That’s tough. Really tough. Their focus and the sacrifices they are making speaks to the love and passion these athletes have for competing and representing San José State.”
“Our COVID-19 discipline is so important to operate, just to be available to play,” said Brennan in a November 9 Zoom press conference from his office at San José State. “This has been at the forefront, because without following the COVID-19 protocol, we don’t get to play. I give our medical staff a ton of credit for putting together a plan that our players have executed. There’s been no complaining because they want to play. This team really cares about each other. The more connected we are, the more committed we are. What can we do to continue to deepen that connection and grow our brotherhood? I think the more we do that, the harder we’ll be to beat.”
An Impressive Season Start
Halfway through the scheduled eight-game regular season, Brennan’s hypothesis proved strong. The Oct. 24 season opener against the Air Force Falcons at San José State’s CEFCU Stadium was scoreless for the first half. The Spartans were not favored to win their opening game, and yet their strong defensive line held the Falcons back until quarterback Nick Starkel, ’22 MS Justice Studies, and tight end Derrick Deese Jr., ’21 Communications Studies, scored two touchdowns and the team scored a field goal in the final quarter, closing out the game at 17-6. Their Halloween game against the University of New Mexico, which had to be moved from Albuquerque to San José due to COVID-19 spread in Bernalillo County, featured Starkel completing five touchdown passes before the game ended at 38-21. Though Brennan was pleased with these results, every week he reinforced the same message.
“My message with my team has been: Worry about right now,” said Brennan after the New Mexico game. “Think about today. That gets lost sometimes when a big game comes up. This is the result-oriented business and no one cares what you did yesterday or last week.”
This focus proved useful in their Nov. 7 game against San Diego State, when Starkel was tackled by an Aztec lineman. Quarterback Nick Nash, ’23 Business Administration, stepped up in his place and helped lead the Spartans to victory. A week later, the Spartans defeated the University of Nevada, Las Vegas 34-17. By the time the Spartans flew to Hawaii to take on the Rainbow Warriors on December 5, the players were itching to score. Within the first five minutes, running back Tyler Nevens, ’21 Communication Studies, had run an impressive 72 yards, a career best, helping the Spartans score two touchdowns in quick succession. While Hawaii did later score, the Spartans were ultimately victorious, their 35-24 win clinching their first 5-0 season start since 1939. The football team flew from Hawaii to Las Vegas, where the Spartans took on the University of Nevada, Reno, for a nail-biting 20-30 win. What makes this year’s team different? Has adapting to COVID-19 precautions forced the Spartans to focus?
This year’s team has had to face a series of obstacles, said Brennan. In addition to the pandemic, which affected how, when and with whom they practiced, the Spartans also had to rearrange their workouts during California wildfires in August and September. While some college football conferences cancelled their seasons outright, all but one football bowl subdivision conference delayed the start of the season, with a number of games being cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Players who ordinarily would be attending in-person meetings, classes, events and extracurricular activities have been limited to online classes and modified practices. To review football tape and observe social practicing protocols, Brennan said, players would have to stand on Stadium Way in front of the entry of CEFCU Stadium and watch the Jumbotron attached to the Powerhouse Kitchen. In an effort to reduce COVID-19 risk, many of them have not been able to see family members and friends. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the Spartans have grown closer as a team, connected by the desire to play football, represent their university and grow as athletes and community members.
“Being involved with college athletics, you have a really unique opportunity to be involved with young people as they grow, mature and figure out who they want to be,” said Brennan, reflecting on the team’s efforts to address institutional racism and their commitment to voting in the Nov. 3 election. “The last eight months have given us a whole lot of material to work through and digest. I think this team is special because of how they’ve handled all of this and because of the conversations they are willing to have. Our coaching staff embrace these conversations as well. Football is football. Either you play well enough or you don’t. I think the things we’ve done together over the last few months have given us a chance to play better.”
His players agree. When asked about the defensive performance in the Nov. 14 game against University of Nevada, Las Vegas, safety Tre Webb, ’21 Sociology, said, “Our chemistry is incredible right now. We’re firing on all cylinders and we are a tight unit. It’s just really fun to be out there with all of those guys.”
“I’ve been around college football most of my career,” said Tuite. “This team displays the true sense of ‘brotherhood.’ They support each other, they love each other and most importantly, they believe in each other. I can tell you that team chemistry is often more important than talent and ability when it comes to being successful. This team is as mature and united a group as I’ve been around.”
Playing for Each Other
Perhaps, despite the challenges and limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic, this unique set of circumstances has forced players to unite in ways that they hadn’t previously.
“It’s an incredibly challenging time for young people,” said Brennan. “I see that. I feel that. We’re trying to help them work through it. Our team has done an incredible job mask wearing and social distancing, making good choices away from football. It requires a ton of discipline for an 18- to 23-year-old person to make the right choices 100 percent of the time. But they’re doing it, and I’m incredibly excited to see how our kids played so hard and seemed to enjoy it. They play for each other.”
Therein lies the heart of Brennan’s coaching ethos: His players, regardless of position, years on the field or life beyond sports, play for and with each other. Theirs is a family of more than 150 students, coaches, medical and athletic staff members. For seven months they could not be all together in the same space or breathe the same air. For these young men, being together in person, playing contact sports, sharing strategies and studying together are luxuries they cannot otherwise afford during a pandemic that has claimed 300,000 American lives to date. No wonder Brennan’s players yell that they love him. He represents their connection to the outside world, to their future, their education—to each other.
“I think it’s healthy for young men to have another man tell them they love them,” said Brennan in a November 9 press conference. “I think that’s missing in the lives of a lot of the young people we coach and care about. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to build that trust and love, player to coach, coach to player, player to player, coach to coach. That’s who we are.”
“There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to build that trust and love, player to coach, coach to player, player to player, coach to coach. That’s who we are.”
Though the Nov. 21 game against Fresno State and the Nov. 28 game against Boise State were canceled due to COVID-19 contact tracing within the Fresno and Boise State football programs, the season was far from over. There were two home games remaining on the schedule, but a new set of local health orders forced the relocation of the Hawai’i game from San José to Honolulu on Dec. 5. From there, the Spartans flew to Las Vegas, where they hosted Nevada at Sam Boyd Stadium on Dec. 12. Defeating both opponents and the accompanying adversity of travel and unfamiliar surroundings, the Spartans finished the regular season 6-0 and claimed their first berth to the Mountain West Championship.
Hosting the conference title game in Las Vegas meant spending another unexpected week away from home, but the Spartans were undeterred and added the most significant victory to date. With an impressive 34-20 victory over Boise State on Dec. 19, the Spartans claimed their first Mountain West championship and hoisted a championship trophy for the first time in 29 years. Coach Brennan said he hopes that Spartan fans are enjoying the ride of this unpredictable season.
“Amidst all the challenges and hardships that everyone is facing, I hope that they can feel good about their school, their alma mater or where they work,” said Brennan. “Playing good football gives them something to cheer for, something to look forward to. There has been some rallying around football, which is super exciting to hear, because I don’t think it’s always been that way. I’m hoping that people have something great to look forward to and something that they can be proud of.”
This is our Coach. This is our program. This is our culture.
— San Jose State Athletics (@SJSUAthletics) November 11, 2020
On Dec. 19, the Spartans beat the Boise State Broncos at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—an incredible 34-20 win, making them Mountain West conference champions. The final chapter of this extraordinary story is yet to come. On Dec. 31, the undefeated Spartans will face Mid-American Champion Ball State in the 2020 Arizona Bowl. Televised nationwide on CBS, the game will kick off at 11 a.m. PST. For details on the game, merchandise and much more, visit the SJSU Athletics website or follow @sanjosestatefb on Twitter.
On Dec. 15, the Mountain West Conference announced defensive lineman Cade Hall, ’22 Communication Studies, and head coach Brent Brennan received two of the conference’s top four football awards for the 2020 season in balloting by the conference’s 12 head coaches. Hall, a junior from Morgan Hill, Calif., was named the Defensive Player of the Year. Completing his fourth season leading the undefeated and #25-ranked Spartans, Brennan was named Coach of the Year. In all, 11 San José State players were named either a first or second team selection or to a group of honorable mention honorees. Combined with the top honors to Hall and Brennan, the 13 accolades are the most for a Spartan team in one season as a Mountain West member.