Former Ohio State player Tim Spencer knows task current group might face
Tim Spencer was a workhorse running back at Ohio State, the focal point of offenses on Earle Bruce’s earliest teams.
But one of the most physically demanding stretches of his career came later, in 1985, during a span in which he played in two professional football seasons in a calendar year.
In the spring, Spencer suited up in the United States Football League for the Memphis Showboats. By the fall, he was in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers.
Counting both seasons, he appeared in 32 games and logged 322 carries.
“There’s no doubt that I could definitely feel the wear and tear,” Spencer said in a recent telephone interview.
Turf toe and knee soreness kept him out of most practices near the end of the NFL season, when he needed rehab or rest, or both. Spencer felt spent, especially because he also handled blocking duties as a fullback for the Chargers.
“Luckily nothing major or serious,” he said. “It was just nagging stuff.”
A current generation of Buckeyes players could relive a similar experience next year. If the Big Ten reschedules the canceled fall football season for the spring semester, it could mark the first of two seasons to be staged in 2021.
Spencer, who also spent much of the past two decades as a running backs coach in the NFL and at Ohio State, felt mostly lukewarm on the prospect of college players participating in two seasons in a span of 12 months, at least until a more detailed framework could be assessed.
“I haven’t really sat down to say, ‘OK, this makes sense,’” Spencer said. “Is it possible? I mean, anything’s possible, but it’s also possible you can get a lot of guys hurt.”
As soon as the Big Ten canceled the fall season because of the coronavirus pandemic, the possibility of an alternative season in the winter or spring emerged as frequent fodder for discussion.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day proposed a condensed season that would begin in January; Purdue coach Jeff Brohm followed with a plan for a February start.
Any spring semester model would be unprecedented in the modern history of a sport synonymous with autumn afternoons, and it would result in a host of logistical issues to be sorted.
Weather obviously is one factor, especially in a conference in which College Park, Maryland, is the southernmost city. More pressing, the ongoing pandemic likely would need to subside in the coming months before teams could meet for kickoff.
But perhaps no issue looms as large as the workload and physical demands that could be placed upon players. Can they really appear in 20 or more games in one year?
“From a health and safety standpoint, that’s certainly something that we have to understand and question,” said Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and a former coach at Army, Illinois State and Louisiana-Monroe.
The challenge in assessing the difficulty is that few players have ever gone through such a gauntlet.
Even Spencer’s experience came when he was 24 years old, a time when he was older and more physically mature than most college-age players.
“It’s just a big unknown,” Spencer said.
Steven Broglio, a professor of athletic training at the University of Michigan and a member of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, anticipates a bodily toll, but did not suggest it would be too crippling for players.
“Injuries will happen,” he said, “but I don’t think it will be a crazy, out-of-control number of injuries.”
Broglio thought the biggest challenge presented by two 2021 seasons was the potential of a shortened offseason. Even if injuries do not pile up in the spring, the players who are hurt will be afforded less time to recover between seasons.
“In a regular year, you would have fall injuries, and then there’s a lot of surgeries that take place in December or January, depending on when the team’s season ends,” Broglio said. “Then those individuals have through the next August to recover and get back to where they were. That’s going to be tightened down.
“So if we start in February, and it runs through April or May, now you’re only looking at three or four months to have the surgery and get back to where they were.”
While the unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 weighed on Big Ten administrators this summer, there also could be concerns over the potential for increased head injuries, which can lead to lifelong neurological damage.
As a measure to account for the additional games next calendar year, teams could lessen tackling in practices, reducing potential hits to the head, said Robert Cantu, the medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
This already has been a trend in recent years. The NCAA eliminated two-a-day preseason practices in 2017, and some conferences have scaled back full-contact practices.
No conference has taken steps as drastic as the Ivy League, which banned tackling during in-season practices in 2016.
If the Big Ten stages two seasons in 2021, it might be wise to adopt a similar approach. Cantu stressed the leeway leagues have as far as adjusting regimens for practices, where a majority of the hits to the head occur.
“I don’t think the issue of total body trauma and head trauma within one year, spring and fall, is ideal,” Cantu said, “but I think it can be managed.”
Instead, the apprehension from one of the country’s leading concussion doctors over a spring season rested with the uncertain path of a pandemic that has gripped the U.S. for months.
Cantu wondered whether there would be a widely administered vaccine by then, or if better treatments might be developed, limiting coronavirus cases on teams.
“It’s mostly COVID-19 that is going to drive the bus about whether or not spring is likely,” Cantu said.