For the first time in 12 days, ECU football returned to the practice field after a spike in COVID-19 cases and subsequent contact tracing forced a pause in activities. The Pirates had been conducting preseason practices since July 31 and were just beginning to turn a corner from a strength and conditioning standpoint when the shutdown happened on Aug. 20.

“Some good, some bad,” head coach Mike Houston said after Tuesday’s practice. “It was great to get back out on the field. Great to have the guys back out running around. We were in helmets today; about an hour and a half practice. It was very, very obvious how much conditioning we’ve lost in the 12 days that we were off. I think it’s a great reminder to the kids just how hard it is to get in the shape that you need to be in order to play at a real high level. The good thing is, I thought a lot of guys pushed through. It was not pretty at times, it was pretty ugly at times, but the guys pushed through and we are where we are. We got 25 days before Central Florida.”

The pause in football activities forced ECU’s athletic department to postpone its Sept. 12 season-opener against Marshall. While that was a less than ideal situation after Athletic Director Jon Gilbert worked to get the game on the books to honor the 50th anniversary of the tragic plane involving the Thundering Herd’s football program, it was a necessary move after 30 individuals associated with the Pirates’ football team was either quarantined or isolated due to COVID-19.

Houston would not get into specifics regarding player names, but did confirm on Tuesday that 23 of those 30 remain in quarantine or isolation right now, with around 10 others cleared to begin working with the training staff before resuming full activities.

Even with more than three weeks before ECU is scheduled to play UCF in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Houston said it will be difficult for his team to get completely in shape. That is a problem, he said, that will plague football programs early in the 2020 season. However, he expects his team to continue pushing to prepare itself for the opener.

“We’ve got to push ourselves as hard as we can right now to try to get in some semblance of game shape and try to get to where we can play a football game,” Houston said. “I heard stories from the FCS game Saturday night that said it was pretty bad at halftime with the teams in the locker room; dehydration, cramping and all that. I think we’re all going to have a really difficult time early in the season this year with our conditioning after missing so much time. That’s the challenging thing with this.

“Nobody is around when they’re (the players) doing all that training in the winter and spring and summer. But all that training is what allows guys to play at an elite level, at a high level. Certainly right now we’re missing that, so we’ve got to make up for it as best we can.”

Tuesday’s practice served as something of an easing back in period for the Pirates. As for the remainder of the week, Houston wants to continue progressing toward full pads with the anticipation of scrimmaging as early as next weekend.

With that in mind, Wednesday’s practice will consist of shells and will last about the same length as Tuesday’s practice, according to Houston. Nevertheless, he understands that the first couple days back for his players will be hard as they work to condition their bodies all over again.

“We’ve got to push through right now,” Houston said. “It’s like anything else, all of us have been through it. You sit around and don’t do anything for a month and then you come back and start working out and training again — whether you’re a marathon runner or just a weekend Joe or you’re a college football player — those first couple of days are painful and it hurts. We got to push through this little phase right here to get back on track.”

Even with the push to play catch up, Houston entered the Pirates’ team meeting on Tuesday playing the band Earth, Wind & Fire’s hit song “September” in celebration of it being Sept. 1.

Earlier in the day, Houston posted a video to his Twitter account with a clip of the song and the caption, “Today is the first day of September and @ECUPiratesFB are back on the field for practice in preparation for the 2020 season!!…#GoPirates!!!”

“It’s September 1, we got a ballgame at the end of the month, we got to practice today,” Houston told reporters. “This is what we do. I’m a football coach, they came here to play football. I get to be around these young people. It’s an exciting day, I like having a positive vibe. I came into the team meeting this afternoon playing that song and the kids are dancing around. I’m fortunate to be sitting in this chair and having this job and I love every day.”

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