Football’s Return a Big Part of Reclaiming the Monarch Experience
The pandemic cost Old Dominion University students so much that they previously took for granted.
Instead of going to class, they took classes online. Even when the campus reopened, student activities were curtailed, large gatherings were canceled and Greek life shut down.
And football, a linchpin at the University since the Monarchs began playing in 2009, was canceled during 2020.
So, it was a refreshing sign to ODU Student Government Association President Myles Nixon when the football team began practicing last week.
After opening the season on Sept. 3 at Wake Forest, the Monarchs host Hampton University on Kornblau Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium on Sept. 11.
It will be the first game in the stadium in 650 days.
"Football is going to play a big role in bringing our campus back to normal," said Nixon, a senior from Atlanta. "Our motto this year with the SGA is to Reclaim the Monarch Experience. Bringing football back is a big part of reclaiming that experience."
ODU began workouts last Thursday with 113 players sweating under a clear-blue sky. Players and coaches seemed to have an extra bounce to their step. Clearly, that's because they finally have a season to look forward to.
So do tens of thousands of ODU students, fans and alumni. For many, college football isn't just about X's and O's. It's also about socializing, tailgating in the parking lots and coming together for a common cause.
Fans will have more pregame entertainment options. ODU opens Kaufman Mall four hours before each game, but this year there will be a beer garden and an ESPN Game Zone, which will have adult-themed games to complement the kids' bounce games already there.
There will also be more food options on the mall and pregame concerts, with the DeLoreans appearing on Sept. 11.
ODU has also reduced prices on thousands of tickets. Some sideline season tickets for all six home games are available $99.
ODU's football team will also resume its Monarch March when the team walks through Kaufman Mall on the way to S.B. Ballard Stadium. That had been a tradition until 2018. The march will start about two hours before game time.
"It will give our fans a chance to see our guys up close and humanize them a little more," coach Ricky Rahne said. "In football, you have helmets on. The fans will see these guys a little more as human and watch them interact with their families.
"The pregame march is part of what gives you a home-game advantage. It's important for our players and our fans."
While it was painful for fans to miss games, it was even more painful for the players.
"We didn't have games and there was no light at the end of the tunnel because we didn't know what was going to happen with COVID," offensive lineman Nick Saldiveri said. "It's so refreshing to know that on Sept. 3 that we're going to play, and a week later, we get to play at home."
ODU hired Rahne away from Penn State, where he was offensive coordinator, in November 2019. He had no idea he would spend more than 21 months waiting for a chance to coach his first game.
"The good news is that we made great use of that time," Rahne said. "Our players embraced the challenge and have worked so hard to get bigger and stronger."
During limited practice in the fall and again in the spring, players wore face guards, coaches wore masks and social distancing was enforced everywhere. That meant players dressed in the locker room and worked out in the weight rooms in shifts.
"It's nice not having to be in a mask, and them being able to see how angry I am at points or how happy I am at others," Rahne said after the first practice.
"I think that's a really good thing. It just felt a lot more like football, quite frankly. It didn't feel like there was a cloud hanging over us. It felt like guys were ready to go, and we're progressing toward something."
Sixth-year senior Joe Joe Headen said the year away from football made him and his teammates appreciate the game more than ever.
"Opening the new stadium in 2019, that was a pretty big deal," he said. "But I think this is going to be bigger. It's been so long since we played."