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Ryan Day prepares for unique Ohio State football season with blend of optimism, trepidation

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State football coach Ryan Day directs practice in Ohio Stadium on Oct. 3. Day said this Labor Day was his first without a football season since he was 9 years old.

In February, Ryan Day thought he finally had a chance to catch his breath after a whirlwind three years at Ohio State.

His progression from offensive coordinator to Urban Meyer’s fill-in during Meyer’s 2018 suspension to succeeding him as head coach and leading the Buckeyes to a dream season in 2019 until the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson was exhilarating but exhausting.

“It took me at least a month to get over that Clemson game,” Day told The Dispatch on Wednesday. “As we started spring practice, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I guess we can start to get to normal here.’ I thought we had a good season and did some good things and I could kind of take a deep breath and create some routine and be normal.”

Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. Spring practice was canceled and the Woody Hayes Athletic Center was shuttered. In August, the Big Ten postponed the football season before reinstating it a month later.

“Oh, man, I almost dropped to the ground,” Day said of the moment he learned the season was back on.

The season opener against Nebraska is two weeks away. Day is approaching it with a combination of excitement and trepidation. He is grateful that a team with national championship potential has the chance to play. Day also is fully aware of all that could go wrong.

But Day is not only a coach. He is also a husband and father of three children ages 7 to 12. The Days are making major sacrifices to stay COVID-free.

When Day returns to his Delaware home after his long work days, he often stays apart from his family. Their home has a one-room attachment with a separate entrance, and that’s where Day spends much of his time.

“If I am in my house, I'm wearing a mask, but I'm not always staying at the house because I have school-age kids,” Day said. “If one of them comes into contact with somebody (with COVID), then I'm at risk. And so I can’t tell you I'm really spending a lot of time in the walls of my house.”

Day is a devoted father, so the separation tears at him.

“It's not good,” he said. “It's not good for the family, but we are all trying to figure out what the new norm is going to be and hoping to maybe get some testing for the family. But it's certainly a challenge.”

Nina Day agreed.

"It’s been difficult," she said. "It’s honestly easier said than done when you have kids at this age. We make the best of it, but hope to find ways to bring the family back together safely."

Until the pandemic arrived, the Day family enjoyed being with the team at the Woody Hayes facility. That’s not possible now.

“They miss it,” Day said. “They want to be around it. Certainly, my son, RJ, hasn't been at the Woody in a long time. That's part of his life and part of his family. And so he really, really misses it. So do my daughters and so does (wife) Nina. But it's just one of those things they understand right now.”

At least Day got to spend more time than usual with his family while the facility was closed and he had to work from home.

“Some days, I feel like I got in the way more than I helped,” he said at least half-jokingly. “But it was fun. I definitely got reconnected with the family and got to see more of them, which was great.”

But those months were also difficult because the football season was in jeopardy. Day was deeply frustrated that other conferences were moving ahead while the Big Ten halted its season. When rapid testing became available, Day said he knew there would be a path to playing.

Still, he knows how precarious the season is. The NFL is facing outbreaks and postponed games. Twenty-four FBS games have been at least temporarily shelved.

Day constantly exhorts his team to take every precaution. He is pleased with how responsible his players have been, but one lapse can have cascading effects.

“It's a major concern,” he said. “That's what I worry about every day. If a guy tests positive today, they’re out for the first game. That's 21 days (of quarantine). So, yeah, it's frightening. I talk to them every day and try to do everything we can to make sure that they're staying safe.”

This will be a unique season and it has been a unique coaching challenge. Day and his staff have had to try to make up for lost time from the missed spring practices and forced separation for months. The Buckeyes went from the Clemson game until last week without having contact at practices.

“It’s a different game with pads on, so that’s been very, very different,” Day said.

Day said this spring that he believed the 2020 Buckeyes could be a once-in-a-lifetime team. With top Heisman Trophy contender Justin Fields at quarterback, a strong offensive line and talented playmakers on offense and what should be a stingy defense if the secondary progresses, the Buckeyes are prohibitive Big Ten favorites.

Day is tempering his optimism because of all the missed time.

“We'll see,” he said. “We’re going to have to keep growing as the season goes on, build that toughness and build our youth and we'll see. And we’re going to have to stay healthy – healthy physically and healthy against the virus – for this to happen.”

At least the Buckeyes have a chance to achieve their dreams, something that seemed unlikely a month ago. As a player or coach, Day has had a football season every year since he was 9 years old.

“Never had a Labor Day off,” he said. “(It’s been) just the most bizarre year of my life.”

The fleeting sense of normalcy that Day enjoyed for a month is now on hold for the foreseeable future. The sprint of this season will soon begin, and Day is ready.

“Working through difficult times and chaotic times is part of the job description,” Day said. “I just look at it as a challenge and try to handle it the best way possible and embrace it.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch