MIAMI GARDENS — When Dolphins offensive lineman Jesse Davis was asked what it will be like playing in an empty stadium in New England this weekend, he was brutally honest.
“Either a dead feeling or it’ll just kind of feel like practice,” he said.
South Florida didn’t have to wait until Sunday to get a taste for what football under these strangest of conditions is like. The University of Miami got a jump in its 31-14 victory over Alabama-Birmingham at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday night.
What did it feel like?
Or a dead practice.
The Hurricanes and Dolphins, for now, are capping attendance at Hard Rock at 13,000.
No need. Not this time, anyway.
The turnout — we won’t call it a crowd — might not have been half that. Blame it on this being a Thursday night game or a faceless opponent on the field or an invisible opponent lurking everywhere. Blame it on a combination of all three.
Surely the entire season can’t feel like this. But before digging any deeper, we must take a breath and recall even darker times not long ago when there was real doubt there could be football in 2020 because sports, period, was shut down. Everybody asked himself what constituted a reasonable risk and what did not. Two Dolphins players, Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns, chose “not,” and opted out.
We’re still asking. Is that trip to Publix really necessary? There’s a fandom equivalent, and the answer of whether there’s an acceptable risk to watch UAB will be far different when the visiting team at Hard Rock is the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
“Once the game started, you’re so wrapped up in the game,” UM coach Manny Diaz said of the atmosphere. “The environment was a little bit different. It was great to see the fans that were able to come to the game.”
Football has endured trying times before, but never with so much turmoil coming from all sides. As the Hurricanes were warming up, word came that the stadium’s co-tenants had decided how to handle that other hot-button issue plaguing the country today: social injustice.
Dolphins players released a video that will force critics against kneeling players to cook up a new beef. These Dolphins won’t kneel during either “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem.
They also won’t stand at attention for them.
They’re not going to come out of their locker rooms for either one.
It’s a powerful video, decrying “fluff and empty gestures” by the league to address social injustice. It doesn’t stop at police brutality. Inequities in education, prison reform and even prescription drugs are cited. The video ends with coach Brian Flores saying, “Before the media starts wondering and guessing, they just answered all your questions. We’ll just stay inside.”
Not all the questions. Is the video the start of a movement? If Thursday night was any indication, it is. The Houston Texans decided to stay inside before their game against the Chiefs, who were on the field.
For the record, the Hurricanes were in their locker room during the national anthem, but that’s customary.
Also for the record, the announced attendance was 8,153, a claim that would make a politician blush.
At one point Thursday night, the video boards displayed images panning the stands as a graphic was superimposed reminding fans to practice social distancing, a practice fans had perfected. Had the camera hit one section, it would have found all of 64 fans (yes, I counted). And that was the most-coveted section of the lower bowl — 50-yard line, home side. You could count the fans in some sections on two hands.
Entire concession areas were shuttered. The “Tap Room”? Tapped out. There are no alcohol sales at UM games this year.
At the entrance to the team store stood a sign. “Line starts here,” it read. Inside, not a single customer.
When was the last time you walked the corridors of Hard Rock Stadium and felt obligated to greet everyone you encountered, because stragglers were so rare that it felt awkward not to acknowledge one another?
But on the field, there was blocking and tackling and touchdowns. If it felt a little like a gift, maybe it’s because it was.
“This was not promised to us,” Diaz said.
Yes, football is back.
And for that, everyone there — and everyone not there — could be thankful.
Previously by Hal Habib: