‘I never, ever doubted it – never, ever’: How the NRL made it to grand final day

By Adrian Proszenko

Peter V'landys takes a moment on Friday to reflect on a remarkable NRL season.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

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Peter V'landys' role as overseer of Project Apollo, the bid to restart the NRL season on May 28 rather than the similarly ambitious goal of landing on the moon, was cast early in proceedings.

"I can remember sitting at school [when I was] nine when America landed on the moon thinking, 'Wow, they finally did it'," says Wayne Pearce, the head of the committee behind the league launch.

"The story behind it is, in 1961, [President] John F Kennedy proclaimed to the senate in America, as well as the public, that they would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, because it was a race against the Russians.

The Panthers celebrate after booking their grand final berth … less than six months after many had predicted the 2020 season would not take place.Credit:Getty

Which is why V'landys was announcing coronavirus policies for governments, at state and federal level, at a pace they could not keep up with.

"That's exceptionally well put because that's exactly what happened," V'landys says. "I had the data, I had the facts, I had the figures. So when I was meeting with them, [despite] what they were saying publicly, I knew at all times they were supportive.

"Without the government being supportive, I wouldn't have got there.

"They certainly had to move with us, they had to move at a faster pace than they would have liked.

"While racing was continuing on with all of these biosecurity measures, I knew it was going to work.

"The silly thing people were saying is that it's a contact sport. So what? If you're in a bubble and everyone is negative, it's a negative person touching a negative person."

So how, pray tell, do you get a politician to do something they don't want to?

Game over: Former NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys in March, announcing that the season has been suspended.Credit:Getty

"I think in some ways the politicians appreciated it, that someone was pushing a bit harder than what they [would normally] be doing," V'landys says. "With COVID, you had to get the right balance. You listen to the medical advice, by all means, but at the same time, you need to get the balance with that and normality.

"I was just trying to get the right balance."

Getting the bureaucrats onside was only part of it. At every turn, there seemed to be an insurmountable challenge: a new pay deal needed to be struck with the players; the Warriors weren't even allowed in the country; clubs were screaming for more money to ensure their survival; the referees threatened to walk off the job following the shift to just one whistle-blower; the broadcasters, whose money provides the lifeblood of the game, were about to walk away, too.

"There were spot fires and sometimes they turned into bigger fires," V'landys recalls. "Once you'd put that one out, a bigger one would appear."

Take for instance, the plight of the Warriors. The Project Apollo committee agreed, in the interests of fairness, that all teams should start training at the same time. Yet the New Zealand franchise was facing the prospect of a two-week hotel isolation. That's where V'landys' experience as Racing NSW boss came to the fore.

The Bulldogs after their round two loss to the Sea Eagles … with no fans, and just days before the season was put on hold.Credit:Getty

"I realised in thoroughbred racing that when we bring international horses out, we put them into a special quarantine area where they can continue to train so they don't lose any of their preparation," he says.

"So I thought to myself, why can't we do that for the Warriors?"

Eventually, the politicians fell in line and Tamworth became the Warriors' home away from home. It was yet another example of V'landys stepping in at the last minute to fashion a solution. In the case of the referee dispute, he broke the impasse by personally fronting the match officials the night before they were scheduled for an arbitration hearing at the Fair Work Commission.

"It's the first time the game came together as one," V'landys says.

V'landys had many conversations with journalists during that torrid time. One in particular resonated with him.

"What got me more than anything else, and it was quite weird, I was talking to a journalist who said, 'I've got to go on leave'," V'landys recalls. "He said there was no work for him, that he had to take six weeks off. And if the game didn't get started, he might not be able to work for the rest of the year.

How the game restarted … The Broncos and Eels clash on May 28 saw the NRL restart, with strict biosecurity rules in place.Credit:AP

"That hit me, how important it was. It wasn't just about players, coaches and fans, it was all the other people who rely on the game [to make a living].

"That really motivated me substantially. A lot of people were relying on me and the commission and I didn't want to let them down."

In the end, the mission was a success. On May 28, Thursday night football resumed when Parramatta belted Brisbane. There were no fans at Suncorp Stadium, but the fixture proved a ratings hit. However, suggestions of a Super Bowl-size audience – that sports-starved fans throughout the world would discover league in their millions – never quite eventuated. The number of viewers actually tuning in on Fox Sports in the US for the season relaunch was just 32,000.

However, the restart ensured broadcaster obligations were met, the clubs were saved and the Greatest Game of All survived.

Through it all, "PVL" did his best JFK impersonation. This was proof that rugby league could do better.

In the lead-up to the final game of the season, ex-ARLC chairman Peter Beattie, a former Queensland premier, suggested V'landys could become an outstanding prime minister.

Perhaps another world for V'landy's to conquer?

"I have no ambition for politics," V'landys says. "Zero. Actually minus."

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BBL deadline could hurt import signings

Big Bash teams could miss out on signing a third star import for the coming BBL season, paid for by Cricket Australia, if they can’t secure a big name signature in the coming days.

After negotiations for months the Australian Cricketers Association relented on its opposition to an extra overseas player turning out for each team and clubs have been furiously trying to find big-name players willing to come for the two month tournament.

The Melbourne Renegades confirmed the signing of Mohammad Nabi, the number one ranked T20 all-rounder in the world, hot on the heels of the Hobart Hurricanes securing Englishman Dawid Malan, the top ranked T20 batsman.

Nabi isn’t however the Renegades “marquee” signing, and the Melbourne outfit is racing the clock to sign a player in time to firstly get approval from CA, and also to meet what is looming as a strict process around their entry in to Australia.

If players can’t be secured in coming days, there is a chance they wouldn’t be able to meet biosecurity requirements in time for the start of the tournament in early December.

It’s understood CA also wants bang for its buck from any players who will be paid by the governing body outside of the $1.8 million salary cap, and would have the right to “veto” anyone who didn’t meet their criteria.

That means someone like South African legend AB de Villiers who brought masses through the gates during his stint with the Brisbane Heat last summer should be a target.

South African great Dale Steyn was a huge hit for the Melbourne Stars in last year’s BBL . (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)Source:AAP

There are issues however with player availability, and those superstars currently playing in the Indian Premier League could be hard to lure to Australia having already spend significant time in quarantine bubbles, and away from home.

A new Sri Lankan T20 competition in December, which has signed West Indian star Andre Russell, is another impediment to the absolute best players coming to the BBL.

The Renegades have re-signed Nabi, currently playing in the IPL with David Warner’s Sunrisers, for a fourth BBL season.

“I have always enjoyed my time with the Renegades and testing myself against some of the best T20 players in the world in the Big Bash. I’m very pleased to have re-signed for a fourth season,” Nabi said.

We've got a little news to announce. Well, not so little. It's kinda big, and important. It's actually Presidential #GETONRED

Renegades Coach Michael Klinger said Nabi provided the team with added flexibility.

“He can bat and bowl in a number of different situations and he reads the game so well,” Klinger said.

“We’ll again be looking for Nabi to play a key role in our middle order and he’ll be called upon to bowl some important overs.”

The BBL is expected to be pushed back at leats a week from it’s original start date of December 3.

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Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady: Inside the numbers as future Hall of Fame QBs meet for third time

NFL fans were treated to quarterback duels between Drew Brees and Tom Brady in Week 1 and Brees and Aaron Rodgers in Week 3.  

Now, it’s time to see Brady and Rodgers in Week 6. The future Hall of Fame quarterbacks lead a pair of NFC contenders into a 4:25 p.m. ET matchup Sunday between the Packers (4-0) and Buccaneers (3-2).  

It is only the third head-to-head matchup between No. 12 and No. 12. Which quarterback has the edge on Sunday? Sporting News explores the past matchups between Rodgers and Brady for some trends you should pay attention to:

Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady  

Brady is close to catching Brees for the most TD passes in NFL history. Brady has 553 TD passes for his career – three fewer than Brees’ all-time-record of 556. Brady also ranks second in career passing yards with 75,946.  

Rodgers is the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating (103.0). He ranks seventh in passing TDs (377) and 12th in passing yards (48,160).  

Brady and Rodgers have combined to win five AP NFL MVP awards. Brady won the award in 2007, 2010 and 2017. Rodgers won the award in 2011 and 2014.  

How many seasons has Tom Brady played in the NFL?  

Tom Brady is in his 21st season in the NFL. He made his NFL debut on Nov. 23, 2000, taking over for starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in a blowout Thanksgiving loss to the Lions. 

How many seasons has Aaron Rodgers played in the NFL?   

Aaron Rodgers in his 16th season in the NFL. He made his debut on Oct. 9, 2005 with the Packers in mop-up duty for Brett Favre in a blowout victory against the Saints.  

Aaron Rodgers vs. Tampa Bay  

-Rodgers has four career starts against the Buccaneers, and he has a 2-2 record in those starts. That includes three road games. Rodgers is 85 of 136 (62.5 percent) for 1,048 yards, eight TDs and seven interceptions in those games.  

-Rodgers made his first appearance against Brady in New England in a 35-0 loss on Nov. 19, 2006. Rodgers completed 4 of 12 passes for 32 yards in a blowout loss. 

Tom Brady vs. Green Bay   

-Brady has made five career starts against the Packers – two against Brett Favre, one against Matt Flynn and two against Rodgers. Brady is 3-2 in those games and split the starts against Favre and Rodgers.  

-Brady is 103 of 169 (61.0 percent) with 10 TDs and three interceptions against the Packers in those five starts.  

Rodgers vs. Brady head-to-head matchups   

Rodgers and Brady have met head to head just twice in their career. They split those two meetings.  

Brady is 44 of 70 for 539 yards, three TDs and zero interceptions in two head-to-head starts against Rodgers, who is 48 of 81 for four TDs and zero interceptions in those two games.  

A look at those two meetings: 

Green Bay 26, New England 21 (Nov. 30, 2014)   

The Patriots (9-2) and Packers (8-3) entered the game with winning records at Lambeau Field, and Rodgers finished with 368 passing yards and two TDs. Brady had 245 yards and a pair of TDs. The Packers sealed the victory on a late connection from Rodgers to Randall Cobb, which elicited a memorable reaction from Brady.  

New England 31, Green Bay 17 (Nov. 4 ,2018)  

The second matchup fell on Sunday Night Football, and it came complete with a promo from Michael Jordan.  

Brady, who finished with 294 yards and a TD, led two TD drives in the fourth quarter to break open a tie game. Rodgers finished with 259 passing yards and two TDs in the loss.  

Rodgers vs. Brady playoff history   

Brady is a six-time Super Bowl winner with a 30-11 record in the postseason, and he has 222 career victories as a starter in the regular season. Brady won all six Super Bowls with Bill Belichick in New England.  

Rodgers won a Super Bowl with Green Bay in 2010, but he has yet to get back to the big game. Rodgers took the Packers to the NFC championship game in 2014, 2016 and 2019. He is 11-8 in the postseason, and Green Bay reached the NFC championship game last season under first-year coach Matt LaFleur.   

Rodgers vs. Brady in 2020  

Rodgers is off to a fantastic start in 2020. He is completing 70.5 of his passes, and that comes with 1,214 yards, 13 TDS and no interceptions. He is in the MVP conversation, and the Packers are one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the NFC.  

Tampa Bay is 3-2 with Brady. The Buccaneers are coming off a Thursday Night Football loss to the Chicago Bears. Brady is still learning with new coach Bruce Arians, but the veteran quarterback is completing 64.3 percent of his passes with 1,375 yards, 12 TDs and four interceptions. 

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Wimbledon WILL go ahead even if it takes place behind closed doors

Wimbledon WILL go ahead next year with or without fans and optimistic tournament chiefs are planning for FULL CAPACITY despite coronavirus still keeping crowds away

  • Wimbledon will take place next year even if it is to be staged behind closed doors
  • The Championships were cancelled this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • In response, plans have been drawn up to make sure the tournament goes ahead 

Wimbledon is set to go ahead next year even if the tournament has to be staged behind closed doors.

The Championships was cancelled this summer for the first time since World War II because of the coronavirus pandemic and the All England Club is planning for several scenarios for 2021.

Chief executive Sally Bolton said: ‘Staging the Championships in 2021 is our number one priority and we are actively engaged in scenario planning in order to deliver on that priority.’ 

Wimbledon will take place next year even if fans are not allowed to return to SW19

This year’s cancellation  saw Novak Djokovic denied the chance to defend his singles title

The AELTC is developing plans for a full-capacity tournament – which appears highly unlikely – a reduced-capacity event as well as one held with no fans.

Wimbledon will have been closely watching the recent US Open, played behind closed doors, and the French Open, where 1,000 fans a day were eventually admitted, down from a hoped-for 11,500.

Both tournaments were deemed overall successes, with very few positive Covid-19 cases and broad player support.

Another major factor for Wimbledon is the AELTC will now be unable to secure pandemic insurance, which was prudently put in place a number of years ago and ensured losses from this year’s cancelled tournament were minimised. 

Former Great Britain Davis Cup player Jamie Baker, meanwhile, has been appointed head of professional tennis and tournament director and will take on the role of liaising with the player community, ATP, WTA and International Tennis Federation over Wimbledon’s plans.

The scheduled start of the Wimbledon championships is for June 28 next year

Wimbledon’s statement read: ‘Our overriding priority will continue to be the health and safety of all of our stakeholders, in particular our guests, our staff, and our competitors.

‘We are working closely with the relevant government and public health authorities, alongside the rest of the sports industry, to understand the varying challenges and opportunities presented by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.’  

Two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray supports the decision to hold the tournament next year, following the success of other majors like the French Open and Australian Open.

‘I would like to see Wimbledon go ahead regardless of whether there are fans or not,’ Murray said, after his French Open first-round defeat by Stan Wawrinka.

‘But we’ll see what they decide. I think the events that have gone on so far, the ones I’ve been involved in, have been pretty successful.

But two-times winner Andy Murray has recently called for the championships to take place 

‘I guess it would be up to the fans. If the fans are enjoying watching it and they are getting good TV ratings, then that would suggest people would still like to see tennis and watch the major events.

‘For a player, it is not the same without fans, but I’d still way rather be playing the event than not, that’s for sure.’ 

Wimbledon has been working closely with the club’s local communities during the pandemic and will continue to provide 200 hot meals a day to people in need.

More than £750,000 has been donated to local and national charities and organisations while 30,000 of the famous Wimbledon towels that were intended to be used for the 2020 tournament have been donated towards other causes, including refugee projects and support for the homeless. 

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Andy Cole: I would have been Virgil van Dijk's worst nightmare

Manchester United legend Andy Cole says he would have been Virgil van Dijk’s ‘worst nightmare’ as a player after Dutchman’s stuttering start to the season and claims the Liverpool defender ‘doesn’t like chasing back’

  • Man United icon Andy Cole says Virgil van Dijk has shown weakness this season 
  • The Dutch centre-back has looked off the pace at Liverpool in recent games
  • He played the full 90 minutes as the Reds were thumped 7-2 by Aston Villa 
  • Cole believes he would have relished going up against him when he was a player
  • The former striker pointed out how Van Dijk is often reluctant to track back  

Manchester United icon Andy Cole says he would have ‘loved’ playing against Virgil van Dijk after the Liverpool defender’s sluggish start to the season. 

The Dutchman has become known as one of the best centre-backs in world football after some dominant performances under Jurgen Klopp in recent years, and he was pivotal to their Premier League title triumph last season. 

But this term the 29-year-old has looked off the pace and has put in some suspect displays, with Liverpool conceding three against Leeds in the season opener and then slumping to a 7-2 defeat against Aston Villa last time out. 

Manchester United legend Andy Cole says he would relish going up against Virgil van Dijk 

He said the Liverpool defender has shown weaknesses recently after a poor start to the season

And Cole, who is third in the Premier League’s all time scorers list with 187 – with 93 coming for United – says that while he still rates van Dijk highly, he has started to show vulnerabilities, including a reluctance to track back.

‘Van Dijk is a really good player, but I’m the kind of individual who would love to have played against him – and I feel like I would have got to him,’ he told Sunday World. 

‘You want to test yourself against the best and he is the best at the moment, without a doubt, but I like to look at defenders and find weaknesses in them and we have seen a few with Van Dijk in the last few months.

Cole believes the Dutchman doesn’t like chasing back and that strikers are getting in behind

‘I watched him in the opening game of the season against Leeds and the strikers who give him problems are the ones who run in behind him and stretch him. They scored three goals that day and he didn’t look like he enjoyed the experience.’

Cole believes he would have been van Dijk’s ‘worst nightmare’ if he came up against him in his prime and warned that top flight strikers may be alerted to his weakness in future games if he doesn’t adapt.  

‘He is a Rolls Royce of a defender, but he didn’t like putting his foot down and chasing back when people were getting in behind him.

‘That’s what I would have done all day when I was at my best, so I would probably have been his worst nightmare if I was playing against him.’

He claimed he would be van Dijk’s ‘worst nightmare’ if he played against him in his prime 

He is regarded as one of the best defenders in the world and was crucial to Liverpool’s title win

Van Dijk has started all four league games under Klopp this season, scoring in the 4-3 win over Leeds last month and looking mostly untroubled in victores against Chelsea and Arsenal. 

But former Gunners defender Sol Campbell believes he may be getting complacent after winning so many plaudits in recent years and suggested he is not being challenged enough.

‘I know Van Dijk struggled in the Villa game, but he stands out these days because he’s head and shoulders above everyone else, which makes me wonder if that is hampering him at the same time,’ he told the Athletic. 

The centre-back played the full 90 minutes as Liverpool were thumped 7-2 by Villa last time out

‘He’s the complete player in that position and has made it look easy, but maybe he’s not been challenged enough and then, like a cricketer being done by a slower ball, he’s come unstuck.’

‘If you’ve not been worrying about forwards troubling you, sometimes you drop your guard a fraction. It’s a natural human thing.

‘Maybe that’s seeped in a bit at Liverpool in general. I’m sure Jurgen Klopp will recognise that and get them back on track.’

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‘I was just praying’: Wallabies superboot Hodge relives near-miss kick

Reece Hodge didn't get much sleep on Sunday night.

That's not unusual for professional athletes, who often struggle to get a good night's sleep just hours after their body has been pumping with adrenaline.

Reece Hodge says he would have no hesitation in putting his hand up to take another clutch penalty at Eden Park on Sunday.Credit:Getty

The next six minutes were frantic and both teams had their chance to secure a 1-0 series lead.

But it was the kick Hodge replayed "hundreds" of times in the early hours of Monday morning.

"Last night wasn't a great start, I'll give you that. It was a bit of a broken sleep last night. I probably replayed it hundreds of times by now," Hodge said when asked if he was restless overnight.

Hodge is the Wallabies' long range specialist. He nailed a similar kick in the 2017 Brisbane Bledisloe to secure a 23-18 win.

As soon as he saw referee Williams stick his right arm out and award the Australians an advantage, the Melbourne Rebels star started thinking about the kick that could win the Wallabies the game.

The blustery Wellington wind – which wreaked havoc with the goal kicking of James O'Connor and Jordie Barrett all afternoon – was front of mind.

"It was obviously pretty swirly wind in Wellington. Throughout the warm up they were going everywhere. Left, right, you always get told to aim just straight down the middle," Hodge said.

"I went to Rabs (O'Connor) for a bit of a heads up on which way it had been going in that second half and he said the wind was left to right. But you can't really trust it too much in Wellington.

"I aimed it just inside the left post and it turns out, just outside the left post would have been a bit better.

"I struck it as well as I could have. I was just praying when it was in the air."

The weight of the situation didn't play on Hodge's mind. He has shown many times – at both Test and Super Rugby level – that he is up to taking and making clutch kicks.

If the same scenario plays out this Sunday at Eden Park, Hodge will call straight for the kicking tee.

"Yeah, absolutely," Hodge said when asked if he would put his hand up for the same kick on Sunday.

"Any time you get a chance and feel confident – why not step up and have a crack?

"When it's in my range, it's something you just have to step up and do and have the confidence to try knock it over."

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Texans DE J.J. Watt: 'I don't have ill will' toward Bill O'Brien

J.J. Watt tweeted a photo of the sun rising over the open roof of NRG Stadium on Tuesday, and he sounded like a refreshed man behind the microphone a day later.

Watt’s coach, with whom he reportedly feuded in their final weeks together, was terminated this week, bringing about what Watt called “a fresh start.” With Bill O’Brien now out, the star Texans defensive end sees a great opportunity ahead for his team that extends beyond the field.

“One of the things I’m excited about right now is hopefully getting on the same page with our fanbase again,” Watt said. “I feel like that’s something, there’s certainly been a bit of a tension there in the last months and years, and I can’t wait to have us all pulling in the same direction again. I feel like there’s been a bit of a disconnect there, and it’s not fun as a player to be a part of that when you feel like your fans can’t fully back you the way that they want to.

“I really am so excited because I’ve been here in some of the best times we’ve ever had. There’s nothing better than when this city is all on the same page and pulling for the Houston Texans.”

Watt’s response was interesting, because typically when a coach is fired there’s a bit of a public relations mess to clean up, but that process usually gains steam with the hiring of a new coach. Here, though, it sounds as if O’Brien’s departure is viewed as the key to reconnecting with the Houston fanbase.

Watt didn’t come out and say it specifically, but the disconnect he referenced likely had to do with the personnel decisions made by O’Brien since he’d ascended to the role of general manager — first, in de facto form and later, as the official head of personnel.

Chief among those decisions was the trade that sent All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for a handful of draft picks and running back David Johnson. The deal was stunning in that it not only felt lopsided, but also appeared to rob the incredibly promising Deshaun Watson of his greatest weapon just months after Houston was drastically outscored by a superior Chiefs offense in the postseason.

Of course, all of that can be set aside if success follows, but the Texans instead produced the opposite in the first month of the 2020 season.

“When you have the talent that we have, specifically at the quarterback position in this league, you can’t be 0-4,” Watt said.

Interim head coach Romeo Crennel on Wednesday said he expects his team to bring an improved level of energy to the field in the weeks ahead. Watt agreed with him, saying he wanted his teammates to “play loose and free, and have fun and enjoy it and trust in each other and feel like they can go out there and be who they are.”

Frankly, it sounds as if the O’Brien era had become unenjoyable for the Texans taking the field, something NFL Network’s James Palmer confirmed when he asked multiple players if O’Brien had lost the locker room, and they each responded with a yes.

“You’re never going to win any games if you don’t buy in,” Watt said when asked about the importance of players subscribing to the team’s approach. “Where we sit right now, we need to do it very fast, so it’s extremely important that everybody buys in, that we all band together and we do this together, because right now it comes down to winning one game.”

When asked about the photo of a sunny day in Houston, Watt deflected, taking the high road while also looking ahead and not behind.

“I think that’s,” Watt said before trailing off. “I appreciate what Bill did here. I’m very thankful for what Bill did. You’re trying to get me to go down the road here. We won four division titles in six years. The one thing that I would say about Bill O’Brien is he always stood up for his players. I’ve been in meeting with him and things like that, and off the field, certainly he’d try to do whatever possible to support his players and give his players the absolute best support. And I truly believe that he always did what he believed was best for this football team.

“So I don’t have ill will at all. So no. But I do look forward to a fresh start. I do think there’s an energy and excitement and we’re looking forward to going out and getting a win.”

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‘I really wanted to play this season’: Why opting in to Big Ten football became the rage for top NFL prospects

Shaun Wade already was expecting a big day on Sept. 16, no matter what happened around the world of football. It was his birthday. He was preparing to sign with an agent to celebrate the occasion and to formally commence his preparation for the 2021 NFL Draft.

The informal prep already had begun. He was trying to get a workout in that morning, in fact.

“It was hard, because everybody was blowing my phone up,” Wade told Sporting News. “My dad was blowing my phone up. People were trying to interview me. It was just a lot of stress.”

In addition to this being the day Wade turned 22, it became the day the Big Ten Conference turned around its decision not to contest a football season in the 2020 calendar year. The league would begin competing Oct. 24, which meant coach Ryan Day and the Ohio State Buckeyes would be active in time to pursue a College Football Playoff championship.

And that meant Wade had a decision to make: continue moving on with his plans to position himself for the draft or return to play his senior season at Ohio State as one of the nation’s elite cornerbacks.

“It was on my birthday when they announced they were going to play, and I just felt it was like a sign from God for me to play — to showcase your talent and just help your team win games,” Wade said. “I was just ready to come back and play with my brothers. And now I’m back and I’m looking forward to this.”

The pandemic that is defining this year has imprinted upon the lexicon many terms not commonly employed — epidemiologist, quarantine, coronavirus, PPE — and, for that matter, the word pandemic itself. To this, the world of sports has added at least one: “opt out.”

We have heard of athletes opting out of contracts containing language allowing them to chase even bigger paydays, but almost no one, ever, opted out of competing entirely. That, previously, was called “retirement.”

With concern about the pandemic rampant during the summer, nearly five dozen NFL players opted out of the 2020 season, two dozen players in Major League Baseball, and such NBA players as Avery Bradley of the Lakers and Davis Bertans of the Wizards. It became common in college football, as well, particularly when the Big Ten announced Aug. 11 that it would postpone its fall sports competitions, most likely to the spring.

When the league reversed course more than a month later, something surprising happened. Players began opting back in, and for the loveliest of reasons.

“When it got announced it was back on, I got a plane ticket immediately to go right back to Columbus, without even hesitation,” Buckeyes guard Wyatt Davis told Sporting News. “The NFL really had nothing to do with it. The way I look at it: If I do what I’m supposed to do and play how I’m supposed to play in order to help my team win, and then all that stuff will come.

“If I was really worried about going to the NFL, I would have left after my season last year. But I didn’t. I wanted to come back, win a national championship — and I believe we have the team to do it. So it was all purely driven off of Coach Day and the program that he has built here, with the culture and the brotherhood, and coming back and playing with my guys.”

Davis, Wade, Michigan tackle Jaylen Mayfield and Purdue wideout Rondale Moore have returned to their teams since the Big Ten announcement. It took the Pac-12 a little longer to declare its intent to return, with a seven-game season launching Nov. 7, but that was enough for California corner Camryn Bynum to announce his return. Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman is back with the Gophers and preparing for the season; because he signed with an agent after opting out, he must successfully navigate the process to have his eligibility restored.

All these young men are college football players, and they long to play college football. They plan to become professional football players, no doubt, and excellent performances at this level will help advance them toward that goal. Nearly all these players are projected in the mock 2021 first round published by 247 Sports: Bateman is top 5, Wade top 10, Moore top 15 and Davis top 25. Mayfield is listed as “one to watch.” Bynum is widely projected to be selected among the first 100 players.

But now, they are members of these teams they chose to join, and they have goals they wish to accomplish.

“Growing up, football was a big part of my life, and when that was taken away, it kind of put me in a weird situation,” Mayfield told SN. “When the opportunity presented itself for me to come back, a lot of players reached out to me. I really wanted to play this season, I thought it could do a lot for myself, and I wanted to come back and reach the goals we’d set for ourselves.

“It immediately struck me that I want to be back, and I want to play with the team. There’s so much I can benefit from, and so much I want to experience in another year with this team.”

As have so many athletes, these men have found 2020 to be a challenging year. Ohio State got in just three spring practices before the Big Ten suspended all athletic activities March 12 because of the pandemic. Michigan was set to begin four days later. Purdue was lucky enough to get in eight.

Campuses were shut down and football players were sent home, and it was difficult for most of them to find a place to train. When permitted to return to campus in early June for the purpose of safely conditioning and preparing for a season they expected to occur in some form or fashion, they maybe were out of sorts but at least were back in place.

Then came word from the Big Ten headquarters that football would not be taking place in the fall. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who had advocated for the season taking place, had to break the news to the Wolverines.

“He brought everybody in; we were supposed to practice that day,” Mayfield said. “Everybody was just so down. Everybody was in a state of shock. Football is all we’ve had since we were young, a lot of us, and we love to play the game. I don’t think anybody ever saw that actually happening, especially with everybody else around the country still playing.”

Moore electrified college football as a Purdue freshman with a season that included 114 catches, 12 receiving touchdowns, 231 rushing yards on just 21 attempts and selection as a consensus first-team All-American. His second season was not as glorious. He was reminded that football can be an unforgiving game. Moore injured his hamstring and played only four games all season, and the Boilers went just 4-8.

In practice this year, Purdue receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard told SN, Moore showed how delighted he is to be healthy again by ripping off a slant-and-go pattern that led to a long touchdown — and then executing a back flip in the end zone while wearing a full set of football pads.

“He was so happy to be back out there playing,” Shephard said. “He loves to compete. And to be quite honest about it, he’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. Having not played as much as he wanted to last season, there’s some doubters out there. He knows what he is capable of doing. His teammates know.”

Moore called Shephard soon after hearing the news about the Big Ten’s return. He had one question: What’s the schedule look like? Moore didn’t immediately commit to returning, but when he started asking questions about the playbook, it gave away his intentions.

Although he’d left West Lafayette, Moore never left Purdue. As he was working out regularly with a personal trainer back home in the Louisville area, Moore was taking a 27-credit load online to advance toward completion of his degree. He carries that work ethic onto the football field, as well.

“You’ve got some newcomers, some guys that just got with the team, and they had not seen his work ethic and how he goes about his performance,” Shephard said. “For them to see it, too, everybody’s play is being pushed to another level.”

When The Associated Press conducted its preseason college football poll Aug. 24, Ohio State received 21 first-place votes and ranked No. 2 behind Clemson. There was plenty of reason to believe the Buckeyes could achieve a second CFP title if all their top talent was in place — and if there were actual games to play.

When the second poll was conducted, and only active teams were included, OSU was gone from the top 25. The good news came soon afterward, though. Now the Buckeyes are having preseason “camp” at the same time as others are preparing for Saturday games. There are teams in the ACC that already have played four games. Clemson is unbeaten and could be 5-0 by the time the Buckeyes reach their first game day.

“It feels really strange, but with how the world is right now, it’s almost like you kind of get used to it,” Davis said. “The fact we can come into the facility each day, go out on that practice field and go to work, it kind of blocks all that out.

“There is a pandemic still going on. Coronavirus is still out there. Right now is probably when they were saying it was going to come back even harder. Honestly, it’s holding everybody accountable. It’s very hard to ask guys not to maybe go and see their girlfriend, go out to eat, go to a party in college when everyone else around you is doing that. But ultimately, it’s about what we want. And what we want is to play football.

“We were fighting and advocating for it, so now we have to make the sacrifices that come with that. Coach Day brings it up all the time, that we’ve got to go out there and make smart decisions. We have a very small window to make it to the CFP, and if guys start getting too comfortable we could easily lose that opportunity if we get games that get canceled.”

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UFC Fight Island: Holly Holm, Germaine de Randamie prove they’re still evolving

Much of the talk in recent years surrounding Holly Holm has focused on retirement. When will the 38-year-old Holm hang up the gloves?

After her performance on Saturday in the UFC Fight Night main event on Fight Island, that discussion could be about a title shot.

Holm, ranked sixth in the ESPN women’s bantamweight rankings, overwhelmed Irene Aldana for five rounds and earned a unanimous-decision victory in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Holm, known for her striking, used five takedowns to smother Aldana, who entered the fight ranked fifth and a winner in four of her past five fights.

After losing four of five, Holm, the former 135-pound champ, has won three of four, with Saturday night’s domination certainly opening eyes.

Germaine de Randamie might have something to say about who gets the next title shot in the division, however.

The second-ranked de Randamie, who specializes in kickboxing, choked out the fourth-rated Julianna Pena in Round 2 on Saturday. De Randamie had last fought against champion Amanda Nunes and lost last December. But the 36-year-old de Randamie, who has won six of her past seven, called out Nunes after her win.

Another veteran had reason to smile on Saturday. Carlos Condit, who hadn’t fought in two years, snapped a five-fight skid by notching a unanimous-decision win over Court McGee.

ESPN’s MMA expert panel — Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi — addresses those fighters.

How Holly Holm spoiled the party for Irene Aldana

Helwani: This was very dangerous matchmaking for the UFC. A Holm win would mean they would potentially be stuck with no solid title contenders for the women’s 135-pound champion, Amanda Nunes.

Make no mistake about it, this was set up to be a showcase fight for Aldana, who was coming off a great knockout win of the previously undefeated Ketlen Vieira.

An Aldana win would have been easy for the promotion because she is one of the few top-ranked bantamweights who hasn’t fought — and lost — to Nunes.

To recap: Germaine de Randamie, who picked up an amazing submission win Saturday night against Julianna Pena, already lost to Nunes, as has Holm and Raquel Pennington. And then there is Aspen Ladd, who is still recovering from knee surgery. Again, there just isn’t much out there.

Had Aldana won, they would have looked like geniuses.

And wouldn’t you know it? Holm won.

And not only did she win, it was vintage Holm. She looked incredible. Aggressive, motivated, quick, solid game plan. The entire body of work was extremely impressive. Heck, we even saw her score five takedowns, which is her career high.

Dare I say, it was the best she looked since her historic win over Ronda Rousey five years ago. I feel very confident in saying that. She looked that good. This was her second win in a row, which — amazingly — means she is on her first winning streak since she beat Rousey to improve to 10-0 (she lost her next fight — and the belt — to Miesha Tate).

And it’s even more impressive when you remember Holm turns 39 in 13 days and that was her 60th pro fight if you combine her boxing, MMA and kickboxing matches.

Truly remarkable.

But Holly Holm is no stepping stone. At least not yet. Far from it. People keep talking to her about retirement and she keeps spoiling plans. It’s almost like she took all those annoying retirement questions and channeled it into pure aggression toward the younger Aldana.

As for what’s next, I don’t think she’ll get another title shot. I’d love to see THAT Holly Holm fight Nunes, but I don’t think it’s happening next. Plus, Nunes is fighting in December, a defense of her 145-pound title, so the UFC has some time.

I would book Holm versus Vieira, who won last week at UFC 253 against Sijara Eubanks. Do it in January/February. The winner of that fight would be worthy of a title shot. I also wouldn’t be opposed to a rematch against de Randamie.

And I know this will drive the Holm haters mad, because they love to complain about all her title shots, but you’re going to have to get over it. Holm is still very much a player and still very much in the title picture. You’re lying to yourself if you think otherwise.

In the words of the great Israel Adesanya, “Y’all must’ve forgot.” (Sorry, I had to.)

What did Germaine de Randamie prove with her first submission win?

Raimondi: Germaine de Randamie still has a lot left. That was never in doubt coming into Saturday night. After all, she pushed double champion Amanda Nunes in a women’s bantamweight title fight at UFC 245 last December. She was the first fighter in a long time to give Nunes trouble on the feet. With a guillotine choke win over Julianna Pena, de Randamie showed that — at 36 years old — she not only is still an elite fighter, but she’s actually getting better. The Netherlands native is evolving. De Randamie, a lauded kickboxer, has become more than competent on the ground, enough to dispatch a fellow division contender right in her wheelhouse. Pena is a great wrestler.

For a former UFC champion, de Randamie is perennially underrated. She was the first-ever UFC women’s featherweight champion and was stripped of the belt in 2017 when she wouldn’t fight Cris Cyborg, citing Cyborg’s past positive steroid test. It’s a shame that fight never happened — and probably never will — because it would have been a true test for Cyborg. De Randamie reminded everyone once again Saturday night that she’s one of the best female fighters on the planet, in two divisions.

Who are three possible opponents for Carlos Condit’s next fight?

Okamoto: You know, I thought Carlos Condit looked alright Saturday night. Right? Any time you’ve got a guy coming in riding five consecutive losses, zero wins in five years, a near two-year layoff, in his 44th pro fight — you tend to expect the worst in those situations. But once Condit knocked down Court McGee with that right hand at the end of the first round, he came alive. He was hanging in the pocket, his timing looked good, he was versatile in his offense. It was great to see.

Now, three ideas for what’s next. Nick Diaz is an obvious one. Keep in mind, there are about a billion options for Diaz if he does fight in 2021, but Condit has to be considered near the top. They fought for the UFC’s interim title in 2012. Condit won, via “baby leg kicks” according to Diaz. This fight also bore the classic, “We’re throwing spinning s— now” line. Plenty of history. Sign me up.

Speaking of history. Matt Brown. These two were supposed to fight in 2013 and 2018, but both times it fell through due to injury. And the sport’s fan base was crushed each time. If you’re a longtime fan of MMA, there’s a spot in your heart for Condit vs. Brown, and it will probably always be there. Brown himself mentioned on Twitter shortly after Condit won that he’s up for the fight. I’m up for it, too.

Robbie Lawler. Gotta be, right? Probably the greatest fight of Condit’s career. He is a fighter known for leaving everything he’s got in the Octagon, and no fight of his career epitomizes that more than his title fight against Lawler at UFC 195, which he lost by decision, but many believed he won. These two very well might be at the end of their careers — honestly, I think fighting each other could bring out the absolute best in them. That magic of nostalgia and familiarity. This is probably my No. 1 choice, actually. But it could all depend on how Lawler fares against Mike Perry in November.

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