College athletes, particularly football players, are currently experiencing one of the more unusual offseasons in recent memory with the absence of spring practices as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An example of a local athlete battling such circumstances is Swanton native Gunnar Oakes, who is a tight end at Eastern Michigan and about to enter his redshirt junior season.
Now quarantined back in Swanton at the home of his parents, Oakes must work to figure out ways to work out that are close to normal if he was still on campus.
Without the benefit of a squat rack, he has filled the void by using large tree limbs with 25-pound weights placed in Kroger bags tied to the ends.
His fellow teammates have also had to improvise. One from his position group even purchased concrete mix to construct his own weights.
Gunnar was lucky in that regard, as he was allowed to borrow a weight bench, some weights, and dumbbells from Swanton High School.
But, although he is lifting regularly, right now running and cardio exercises are more of a priority.
“The main focus right now has been working on conditioning. Because, after this is all over, whoever is gonna be in the best shape from (putting in the work on their own) is gonna have the best season,” said Oakes.
He does go on runs around the town of Swanton, along with performing workouts sent to him from strength and conditioning staff at EMU to help get in shape. These are ones he’s accustomed to from being in the program for three years.
Oakes says he usually works out five days a week.
His typical workout schedule goes like this: lift two days in a row, condition the third day, take the fourth day off before resuming workouts.
He hopes his hard work will pay dividends this season and beyond.
“This year, my goal is I’m gonna drop a little bit of weight,” explained Oakes. “Get faster on the field so I can become more of a one-on-one threat. Mainly with the linebackers who I match up with a lot. My goal is to be a guy that my quarterback trusts to go to when it’s crunch time. Then senior year, to progress even more on that. Try to get a shot to go somewhere after that.”
If Oakes is able to drop some weight, his hope is it provides him more athleticism on the field.
Through two seasons in which he saw game action, Oakes has played in a total of 22 games. He has caught 17 passes over that span for 205 yards and one touchdown.
His best season was his redshirt freshman campaign, where he had 11 receptions for 143 yards and the lone TD.
That score, a one-handed catch, provided him with his favorite memory so far in his college career. It came in a contest at Western Michigan with his mother Leslie in attendance, who had recently begun radiation treatment for breast cancer.
The highlight made it on ESPN that night, where the cameras also got a shot of him pointing to his mom in the stands following the play. “That was a special moment,” said Oakes.
Oakes is confident he can become more of a receiving threat throughout his remaining years at EMU. Then, hopefully, that opens the door to a shot at playing in the NFL.
If not, he is majoring in criminology with a minor in sociology. His goal after graduation is to be a police officer or state trooper.
Or, if he is eventually able to earn his Master’s Degree, it would go towards a career working in undercover narcotics.
Oakes has grown accustomed to the college game; but at first, the changes can be daunting.
“The main thing is the speed of the game,” he said on how playing in college differs from high school. “It’s a lot quicker. In high school, too, there wasn’t (many) guys that were bigger than me. Now, a ton of guys are bigger than me.”
Another difference is how much more time goes into it. “It’s just a year-round thing that’s way different than it was in high school,” explained Oakes. “I’ve watched thousands of hours of film already in college. In high school it wasn’t that much.”
The Swanton alum still looks back fondly on his days as a Bulldog. He helped the football program to a 20-4 record over his final two seasons, one Northwest Ohio Athletic League title, and a pair of playoff wins.
It was success the program was unfamiliar with in the roughly two decades prior. Oakes was just happy he could be part of recharging the Bulldog fan base.
“There’s a lot of them,” said Oakes on his favorite memories from his high school playing days. “I’d say a big one was whenever we had our first ever home playoff game and we won. That was huge just to see how many people turned out. Because I went to games when I was little and that place would be parents only basically. It would be kind of empty.”
It is widely-known the status of the 2020-2021 season remains up in the air — for sports across the globe.
However, that is something Oakes tries to stray his mind from thinking about. From everything he is hearing, there will be a season at some point…whether that means pushing the start of it back to the winter, or even next spring.
But, if for some reason the season is canceled, Oakes was told he would likely get another year of eligibility.
If that ends up not being the case, it would be devastating, Oakes says.
“If we didn’t have a season and then some reason didn’t get another year, definitely that would be pretty tough,” he said. “I’d just be going straight into my senior year. And then not to mention the guys that were gonna be seniors this year, that would just be really tough.”
For now, he will continue to stay positive, training with the expectation of a season. And doing so in the comfort of home, surrounded by family and friends.