THE CLEVELAND BROWNS were in the middle of their best season in decades, and Malcolm Pridgeon sat alone in his Dodge Durango outside the Berkshire Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in West Babylon, New York, thinking about better times.
When there was no pandemic and the doors to the nursing home were open, Pridgeon would visit his mother during his football breaks. He brought plain butter bagels and chocolate milk for breakfast, and she always knew he would come before he even walked in the room, possibly because 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive linemen don’t go quietly. Her face lit up when she saw him, and she almost always said the same thing. “Look, my soccer player is home!”
Pridgeon hasn’t played football this season. He was one of 69 NFL athletes to opt out due to COVID-19 concerns, according to the NFL Players Association. He never thought he would do such a thing and voluntarily suspend a football season. He believed this was going to be his year. Perhaps all players on the fringes of the NFL think they are just a break from the 53-man roster. During the spring and summer, Pridgeon was careful to play. If he occupied his mind, he could block almost anything and forget how much he missed her.
Peggy Jean White died of COVID-19 on March 31, aged 60. She had a tough life. Her last conversation with her four children was over the phone, except that no one knew it would be the last time they would speak. Pridgeon and his siblings repeated, “We love you, Ma,” but they weren’t sure if Peggy, who had the tubes, had even heard what they’d said. She was buried in front of a handful of mourners after searching for a funeral home to host her after the coronavirus overran the east coast.
For most of his life, Pridgeon played soccer for his mother. He wanted to memorize the new game book and be the best improved lineman on the team because he thought that was what his mother wanted him to do. He worked with two trainers on Long Island who said he had dropped to about 25% body fat by midsummer. He participated in the Browns’ virtual offseason workouts and trained with a purpose. “I wanted to play so badly,” said Pridgeon.
In early July, Pridgeon drove to Cleveland for a jump to training camp. But something didn’t feel right. His blood pressure rose and his mind shifted to worst-case scenarios involving his family and his health.
Pridgeon wasn’t the only one grappling with the risk of playing football during a pandemic. Three of the Browns’ offensive linemen signed out by August 5th, and two of them were guards like Pridgeon. These developments, along with the possibility of outbreaks and quarantines during the season, increased the chances that Pridgeon might be suitable for a game. But on August 6th, the last day he signed off, Pridgeon decided he couldn’t do it. He informed Kevin Stefanski of his decision, and the senior coach left the facility to speak to him. Stefanski admitted it had been a difficult year for him and said he understood. He told Pridgeon to stay safe.
Pridgeon drove back to Central Islip, New York, where he lives with his older sister and 10-year-old niece, isolated from his team and watching games on a living room couch.
“Of course I wish I was out there,” he said. “I can’t look back. It creates stress that I don’t need.
“I have a feeling if someone was in my shoes they would have made the same decision that I made.”
ON JULY 24thGiven the upcoming training camp and the US death toll of more than 144,000 from COVID-19, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to an opt-out change for the 2020 season. Players at high risk for COVID-19 complications like diabetes, cancer, or heart problems could sit out year-round and receive $ 350,000 and a free hand season, and players who are not at high risk could get a scholarship from Earned $ 150,000 for her 2021 salary, excluding accrued season. All of their contracts would extend to the 2021 season, when the pandemic would likely be under control.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a starting guard for the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl championship team, was the first to sign out. Duvernay-Tardif spent months as an orderly at a long-term care facility in Canada in the early stages of the pandemic, and it gave him a different perspective on how COVID-19 puts a strain not only on those infected, but also on the people and the healthcare system around them. “I can’t allow myself to spread the virus in our communities just to play the sport I love,” he said in an announcement. “If I want to take risks, I’ll take care of the patients.”
His teammate Damien Williams, who ran 104 yards in the Super Bowl, knocked out a few days later. Williams’ mother is battling stage 4 cancer and he didn’t want to put her at risk. Thirty-six of the players who opted out started at least one game in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Others were like Pridgeon – young, naughty, and unknown. No quarterbacks, punters or kickers have canceled. More than half of the list was made up of linemen, players who don’t replace much and constantly grabbing, touching and breathing each other. Linemen are also larger beings, often weighing more than 300 pounds, which in some cases can be considered a comorbidity.
Dr. However, Bert Mandelbaum, an exercise physician and co-chair of medical affairs at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., Said it was impossible to take on any unhealthy concerns or motivations. In an unprecedented year with a harmful virus that claimed more than 425,000 American lives, everyone has a choice to make, and each of those choices has a different story.
To address player concerns, the NFLPA made a series of Zoom calls over the summer. Carl Francis, the NFLPA’s communications director, said approximately 2,000 people were on the phone, which usually lasted more than two hours. Some of the most frequently asked questions revolved around what happens when a player brings the virus home to their family and the long-term effects of COVID-19 on an athlete’s body. Six months later, none of the questions can be fully answered. However, the season prevailed through 16 games in the regular season and the playoffs through to the Super Bowl the next week.
“I really didn’t think they’d make it this far,” said Rolan Milligan, security officer for Indianapolis Colts, who had chosen not to protect his young, high-risk family. “I knew they’d probably be halfway through, maybe just halfway through the season. Everyone did their job well for the most part and played through the season until the end of the season.”
The New England Patriots had eight players who signed out. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, and Los Angeles Chargers didn’t have any. Francis said he hadn’t heard any stories from teams trying to prevent their players from sitting out or threats that the decision would be made against them. Patriot recipient Marqise Lee, who signed off out of concern for his young daughter, said coach Bill Belichick was not angry when he told him the news. He said Belichick called it “a grown man’s choice”.
None of the six opt-outs surveyed for this story regretted their decision. These men made sense in their season without football. Lee was there for daughter Alia’s first word – dad – first tooth and first steps. She will be born next month 1 and just before the pandemic breaks out in the US. Buffalo Bill’s cornerback E.J. Gaines, who had to sit out because his fiancée survived cancer and his son had breathing problems, has tried his hand at real estate. He set up a playground in the back yard and watched his children run around. New York Giants co-captain Nate Solder is working with Compassion International on an initiative called Fill The Stadium that aims to provide food and medicine to 70,000 vulnerable children during the pandemic.
On a recent January morning, Solder was on the phone while his young son uttered a series of small screams indicating that he had finished his breakfast. Solder, who survived cancer and whose 5-year-old son Hudson has battled cancer since childhood, seemed like a no-brainer to end the season.
But when you give up on something so fleeting that you’ve worked so hard for, it’s never easy to stop.
“In many ways, I felt like I was leaving my teammates in the lurch,” said Solder. “I felt like I was abandoning the new coaching staff. As a 32-year-old NFL player, it only hurts my chances that my career starts at this point. I just have to trust God.” and see where it leads me.
“Trust me, there was an inner tension. But when it became clear that the priority of life for my family, our children, my in-laws and parents, and all connections in our community, man, I value people more than I value my career in the NFL. “
MALCOLM PRIDGEON WAS 8 years old when his father introduced him to football. James Pridgeon would meet his son at the bus stop after school and they would throw a football around in the back yard. Malcolm was initially unable to play youth football. He was told he was too big. James was a tall man too, about 6-4, and he worked nights as a street sweeper. One day when Malcolm was 11 years old, James died of an aneurysm. He was 46 years old.
Malcolm’s mother was heartbroken. They were high school darlings and she always said a piece of her went with him that day. Two years later, Peggy suffered a heart attack and stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Malcolm’s sister, Kalisha Garrison, who is 15 years older than him, took on the role of the family matriarch. She tried to work while taking care of her brothers and mother, but Peggy needed 24/7 care and her insurance only paid six hours a day. It eventually got too much and she had to go to the nursing home. She wasn’t happy about it at first, but when her children promised to visit often and bring food, she felt fine.
When Malcolm was hired by the state of Ohio after two seasons at Nassau Community College in 2016, conflict arose. He didn’t want to go, but he wanted to play for one of the best college football programs in the country and he knew he had to go. So he went to Columbus while his mother was waiting for him. Pridgeon started each game in 2018, his senior year, and graduated with a degree in human development and family sciences. When he signed a rookie free agent deal with the Texans the next spring, Kalisha announced to Peggy that her baby was going to the pros. “It’s not just my baby,” Peggy said to Kalisha. “It’s our baby.”
The Texans passed him off in August 2019, and Pridgeon returned home, took two days off to decompress, and started at Xceleration Sports with coaches, John Furia and Steve Wilk, who had become his friends over the years Train workout. Pridgeon’s agent Eugene Lee called a few weeks later and said the Browns were interested in inviting him to practice. In September 2019, he was inducted into the Cleveland practice group. He was happy to be back in Ohio. His then girlfriend Emma Hnat lived there, and Pridgeon was only an eight-hour drive from his mother. And after years of futility, the Browns were close to the final battle.
“They were good times,” he said. “They treated me with respect. I just miss it, play soccer and learn from the older boys.”
PRIDGEON was taken into account at higher risk because he has high blood pressure, a condition so worrisome that he temporarily put his football career on hold in junior high. He had to skip a season because he couldn’t get his blood pressure under control.
He’s done a lot of research over the past summer on the health risks of COVID-19 and spoken to almost everyone close to him – his girlfriend, siblings, his coaches, and his agent – about what to do. “He was really in conflict,” said Lee, connecting Pridgeon with Dr. Herb Martin, a psychologist who works with Lee’s agency Vanguard Sports.
Pridgeon eventually told his sister that he felt he should sign out. She asked him how he was feeling. “I feel hurt,” he said to her. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be selected to play on the team after I sign out.”
The decision has been a tough one for players at all stages of NFL life. Colts’ Safety Rolan Milligan has been playing football since he was four. It had taken three years and three teams before he was finally promoted to the active Indianapolis roster in 2019. And now would he sign out?
His girlfriend is expected on January 30th and her pregnancy is at high risk because she only has one kidney. She told him to play. “She knew how much gambling meant to me,” he said. “She didn’t want to be the reason I didn’t play.”
He couldn’t take the risk.
Chandler Brewer wanted to play so badly that he took a spot on the back row on a flight to California last summer, sat on the Germ-X, and intended to get to training camp despite being classified as a higher risk. The brewer’s toughness is well documented. In his senior year in the state of Middle Tennessee, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, received radiation between games, and still played all season.
But his agent, Buddy Baker, consulted with a number of doctors and they decided the risk was too great for him to gamble. To keep in touch, Brewer, an offensive device for the Los Angeles Rams, held onto his team-issued tablet. He watched archived team meetings and movies for games he would never play.
“I don’t want to do anything,” he said. “I’ll be back and this will make me better, rest and recover. I’ll be ready to go and not miss an inch.”
IF IT WAS All the positives from 2020 is that Pridgeon got engaged. It happened at the end of December. He took his then girlfriend to look at the Christmas lights and then he was on one knee and then Hnat said yes.
Then it went back to the reality of waiting. On a Sunday evening on the second weekend in January, he was sitting in his sister’s living room in Central Islip and watching football with his brothers. Pridgeon was wearing his Browns sweatshirt, a reminder of his life before the pandemic. Cleveland was on the verge of winning a playoff game for the first time in 26 years. A security guard named Blake Hance entered the game, replacing the injured Michael Dunn, who was replacing Joel Bitonio, who was on the COVID-19 list. Hance had never played in the NFL before and was taken over by the New York Jets training team in Week 17.
Pridgeon couldn’t help but wonder, in isolation, one more cold night, what could have been. He couldn’t think about it anymore. He smiled and cheered and waited for better times.