Bobby Wooden Jr. said he wanted to stand strong when he said goodbye to his parents as they were leaving their son to play for University of New Mexico’s football team earlier this month in Albuquerque.
But when he saw his mother Vanessa crying, Wooden couldn’t help but to shed a few tears. This wasn’t just any other farewell for a UNM freshman. This was one of fear and uncertainty during an unprecedented offseason amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was emotional,” Wooden said. “I was saying goodbye, my mom just looked at me and I was like, “Aw, snap.” She started boo-hoo crying. … It was emotional.”
For freshmen like Wooden and Ian Shewell, leaving home was just the first part of daunting challenges that include new protocols, temperature checks and testing for the coronavirus.
UNM and first-year head coach Danny Gonzales granted the Journal access to Wooden and Shewell via a Zoom interview. Typically, freshmen aren’t interviewed before the season opener.
Gonzales also wants to keep the freshmen separated for now. They aren’t involved in the small-group team workouts. Instead they train separately, on a different schedule, and are scheduled to join the rest of their teammates when preseason camp begins on July 31.
Wooden Jr. and Shewell expressed excitement for playing for the Lobos, yet they were trying to stay calm knowing they had to endure a 14-day quarantine upon arriving. Within the first week, they were tested for the coronavirus.
Due to privacy laws, UNM did not reveal their test results. UNM announced on Wednesday that of 106 total tests (85 athletes, 21 coaches/staff) between July 5-19, there were four new positive tests for COVID-19 — three athletes and one staff member. UNM has been testing since late June and started summer workouts in early July and has tested 225 people with six positives.
One UNM positive case is wide receiver Jordan Kress, who announced his positive test on social media on Tuesday.
Wooden, a wide receiver from Pearland, Texas, says he doesn’t want to get his hopes up about the upcoming season. He had his track and field season canceled at Dawson High School, where he was a sprinter. He also played baseball, mostly as a baserunner, and that season was axed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would love to get on the field and play with everybody,” Wooden said. “If we don’t get the chance to play, there’s nothing we can do about it, but just keep working and get ready for the next opportunity. Take it day by day. That’s really it.”
The day-by-day mentality has been essential for many families during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bobby Wooden Sr. is an officer for the Houston Police Department.
“All this stuff that’s going on, COVID, and riots, and what have you — what a year,” Wooden Sr. said. “It’s been real. COVID is real.”
Wooden Sr. said saying goodbye to his son was very emotional and stressful at the same time. He was sure to remind his son to wear a face covering when going out, always wash his hands and don’t go to any parties.
“This COVID-19 is taking a lot of people out,” Wooden Sr. said. “It’s kind of hard taking your child to another state. And, you can’t be right there to watch them, day in and day out, making sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, trying to stay safe and COVID-free.”
At one point in the past year, Shewell believed he was headed to Arizona State. He excelled in football and as a state-championship contender in the shot put for the track and field team at Williams Field High School in Gilbert, Arizona.
Shewell’s elder sister, Mahealani, and brother, Adam, attend ASU. His father, Justin, has worked at ASU in nearby Tempe for the past 10 years, the latter three as an educational technologist, helping professors teach online.
The Sun Devils had been interested in Shewell, a 6-foot-3, 236-pound defensive lineman, but sometimes things change in recruiting. He decided he had to leave home for what he believes is a better opportunity at UNM.
The coaches who had been recruiting him, including Danny Gonzales (then the ASU defensive coordinator and assistant head coach) and Jordan Somerville (then an ASU offensive and recruiting assistant, now UNM’s running backs coach and director of recruiting) continued to do so.
Shewell’s mother and father, Justin and Maya, gained confidence and trust in Gonzales, which has made the transition to Albuquerque a bit smoother considering the circumstances.
“I don’t know that I was particularly concerned about him coming to Albuquerque and him entering that environment with coronavirus going on, because they’ve had virtual team meetings before they got there,” Justin Shewell said. “They were explaining the process and how the quarantine was going to be. They are taking a lot of extra precautions. We were also getting emails from the general staff about measures being taken. I work for Arizona State, and it’s really similar to the measures that ASU has. I was pretty comfortable in that regard.”
Still, it was hard for Justin and Maya to say goodbye to their son, Ian said.
“They’re very close to me,” Ian said. “They were super emotional. My mom tried to keep it away from me but I opened the door and saw her crying. It broke my heart.”
Ian Shewell, much like Wooden, doesn’t want to get his hopes up about the upcoming season. But he is no less diligent about following the new rules and protocols.
He said he has been told many eyes are on the UNM football team to “do things the right way,” and that means sticking to the rules and staying away from parties, or large gatherings.
Basically, he is preparing for the season.
“I’m amped about (playing for UNM),” Ian said. “Our recruiting class is the (first for Gonzales as UNM coach). We have positive attitudes about turning the program around.”