By: John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA--For standout college athletes, the first three years of college impart countless lessons in direction and development, but senior year is when everything comes to fruition.
In addition to graduating with an academic degree comes abundant opportunity to serve as a team leader both on and off the field. Meanwhile, ample playing time helps engineer enough highlights to perhaps impress a professional scout.
But for thousands of college athletes across the country, the COVID-19 coronavirus altered reality.
Such is the plight of two local products, both 2016 graduates of La Salle College High School, and both football standouts at Shippensburg University. Like several other colleges across the nation, however, Shippensburg cancelled all fall sports. So that leaves graduating seniors Charles Headen III and Winston Eubanks in a tumultuous quandary.
In other words, . . . what’s next?
Having redshirted their freshman year, both retain one year of football eligibility. The problem emanates from their academic status. Since both will graduate this December, they would need to take graduate courses in order to play football next fall. However, Shippensburg does not offer graduate programs that coincide with the future plans of either Headen (sports management) or Eubanks (athletic training).
Still thoroughly desirous of playing collegiate football, both players have entered the transfer pool in hopes of competing for one more season, preferably for a Division I or high Division II program that might benefit from a few months of service from an already seasoned college football veteran.
“I don’t really have many concerns at this time right now during this pandemic,” said Headen. “I am very big on my faith in God and I know that whatever He has in store for me has already been written. But what I will say is that I want to find the right program that I know I can flourish in and show the kind of track speed I have and show that I can truly be a playmaker.”
Despite a currently cloudy forecast, both players have been spending time with family and training every day. Headen has been golfing and bowling “just to keep myself level and relaxed during these tough times.”
Like most, Headen said he was “devastated” when the season was cancelled, having hoped to add to his 14 career touchdowns. Headen didn’t waste any time denying the reality of the sudden challenge that lie ahead.
“I had a quick turnaround,” said Headen, who was an all-state sprinter at La Salle. “I didn’t want to let that affect how hard I was training. The way I look at it is that during this pandemic, a lot of people are going to fall back and stop training. Some will let the virus stop them from being great, and one thing that it did for me was make me go even harder.
“I look at it as just another couple months to a year to get even better than I already was. Regardless of what happens, I want to come in prepared and ready to play at whatever new school I land at in the spring.”
Wide receiver Charles Headen lll graces the endzone for Shippensburg (photo: courtesy Headen family)
La Salle High School standout Charles Headen lll. (Contributed photo from La Salle College HS)
The ultimate dream for both players is to be drafted by a National Football League team.
“That has been a goal of mine since I first started football,” said Headen, a two-way starter at La Salle and a first-team All-Catholic selection as a defensive back his senior season. “For me, the reason why I go so hard is because I’ve been so consistent with my goal since I was five. Going to the NFL was the first dream I always had, and to this exact day, it is still my goal and now I can actually make it a reality if I continue on the path I am on now.”
Eubanks, also a track star at La Salle, can totally relate.
“Getting drafted into the NFL would be a dream come true,” said Eubanks, whose Shippensburg resume includes being a three-time All-PSAC Eastern Division first-team selection wide receiver and a two-year captain.
“However, that is every football player’s dream. I understand that I have to put in the work in order for my dreams to come true. So that’s all I’m focused on for now.
“When I was younger, it was never really on my mind. It was when I started progressing in my career and saw I had the skill set to play at the next level. That’s when I realized I can make it happen.”
Academically, Eubanks hopes to earn a doctorate in physical therapy. He would also consider entering the business field and pursing an MBA.
The anomaly faced by both players is finding an interested football program quickly enough to ultimately thrive in a new environment.
“My biggest concern is that one year doesn’t give me a huge amount of time to really prove myself,” said Eubanks, who enjoys reading and being surrounded by nature. “It’s not like I have four years to develop physically and learn a playbook. I have a short time period to prove I’m a guy that coaches can trust and become an impact player on an offense immediately.”
Shippensburg's Three-time All-PSAC Eastern Division first-team selection Winston Eubanks pictured with his parents. (photo: courtesy Eubanks family)
La Salle High School standout Winston Eubanks. (Courtesy: Eubanks family)
Both players lauded Shippensburg for its overall guidance.
“My experience at Ship was great,” said Headen. “I loved it. Some of my closest friends go there, as well as some of my favorite coaches. I met and created so many bonds there and that’s something that I’ll never forget.
“Football at that level taught me a lot. The PSAC is one of the toughest conferences in Division 2, and a lot of good players go to the next level from there.”
Eubanks appreciated the life lessons he tackled at Shippensburg.
“I’ve learned that adversity builds character, and through hard work and discipline, you can achieve anything you put your mind to,” said Eubanks. “No matter the situation, always give maximum effort and trust the process. You will thank yourself later.”
While at La Salle and then beyond, both players impressed their high school coach, John Steinmetz.
Headen, Eubanks, and Steinmetz will always remain enmeshed after winning the 2015 Philadelphia Catholic League title – a nail-biting 29-28 victory over St. Joseph’s Prep that necessitated a go-ahead touchdown with 49 seconds remaining in regulation. The Explorers would not have won without the heroics of both Headen (four catches, 67 yards, touchdown) and Eubanks (five catches, 76 yards). The Explorers then captured the city championship and advanced to the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals.
“They both have continued to work hard at their craft and have remained successful and had great careers,” said Steinmetz, who remains at the La Salle helm. “They’re both great kids. They still came back to La Salle and helped work with players at the camps. They’re both great role models and great representatives of La Salle College High School.”
Pictured (L to R) Headen #2 and Eubanks #13 holding plaque after winning the Philadelphia Catholic League Title for La Salle in 2015. (Courtesy: Eubanks family)
Dr. Mitchell Greene, a clinical and sports psychologist in Haverford, PA, was asked to assess the trials that Headen and Eubanks along with other college athletes may encounter when looking to transfer.
At the forefront, he said, was the obvious task of blending in with new teammates and coaches. Those new teammates, however, will also be confronting their own concerns.
“It can be daunting to find your role and your voice with your new team,” said Dr. Greene. “Some teams will welcome a new, one-year transfer, while others may see this as a threat to their playing time and/or to the team culture they have been trying to build with the players who have been there from the start.
“Another potential challenge involves the academic side of college life. If you are a diligent student, you might find yourself in a program where the team has a different ethos as it pertains to academics. If you have no one to go to the library with because they are always getting ready to go to a party, that can be a tough adjustment. Of course, that can play out in the other direction, where the player who transferred is hoping to ‘just play,’ and not worry about academics, but his/her professors and academic advisors are putting a lot of pressure on him/her to perform in the classroom in a way in which he/she wasn’t prepared for.”
Headen and Eubanks have plentiful company – particularly with upperclassmen – regarding modern-day anxiety.
"Athletes, high school or otherwise, are granted to have weeks if not months where they are confused, frustrated and anxious about what COVID means for their athletic future,” said Dr. Greene. “But, at some point, these athletes need guidance and support on how to find the areas in their sporting life where they can take control.
“Those who more quickly wrap their heads around the fact that they can still find ways to train and improve their fitness, stay as emotionally balanced as possible in the face of this storm, and become more pro-active in reaching out to coaches directly – if appropriate – or having coaches reach out to coaches on their behalf, will win the inner game of COVID-19.”
Though it may seem harsh, there is a bottom line that all athletes need to face.
“I think this period of time really forces an athlete to question how much they really want it,” said Dr. Greene. “Some will find this uncertainty a time when they think that maybe all the extra effort, they will need to get on a coach’s radar screen and play in college – or beyond – isn’t worth it. I often think if this period of time doesn’t make them hungrier and more desirable to reach their goal, then maybe it’s not for them anyway. For the athletes who look for solutions to the problems, instead of excuses, they will find a path that will put them in as good as position as possible to achieve their desired outcomes.”
So, how can a student athlete remain proactive and positive during this time? They not only desperately want to play, but their health might be at serious risk if they do. They are receiving pressure from different angles and constantly hearing mixed messages from the media and social network.
A concrete answer, Dr. Greene says, doesn’t really exist.
“There isn’t any realistic way to be completely positive and proactive under the circumstances,” he said. “But we tell athletes to draw a parallel between what’s going on now and them preparing for a big game or tournament, and not knowing if they will come out with a win or a loss.
“Athletes have to see the messages they are hearing and the social media they are digesting as mostly distractions to their goal, in the same way they might see a yelling parent, a bad call by a ref, or a nagging toe injury a distraction to their mission to try and play well and win the game. The game is won on the field of play, and as much as they can keep their minds on making their bodies stronger and more agile, and their focus on staying calm and having a flexible mindset, the better off they will be.
“Certainly, limiting social media and finding like-minded peers who are focusing more on what’s possible versus what’s been taken away can also have a positive affect on an athlete’s ability to stay consistent with their training and block out the noise.”
Dr. Greene offered advice for competitors struggling to remain focused.
“An athlete keeps the fire lit by each day burning a new piece of tinder which helps stoke the motivational fire,” said Dr. Greene. “How do you do this? By creating training schedules, setting up small ‘sub-goals’ – goals that reflect improvement over outcome – and challenging themselves in training to go beyond their comfort zone as much as possible.
“For example, it could involve working on a weakness – physical, technical, mental – again and again, until it becomes more of a strength. Athletes should always be looking to add ‘tinder’ when motivation is low.
“Also, athletes as a group aren’t always the best at asking for help, especially for concerns that have more to do with their mental state. This is a time, more than ever, that we encourage kids to do so. The value in sharing their frustrations, voicing their worries, and expressing their confusions to someone, like myself, who understands the game and the athlete mentality, can be very therapeutic.”
(Click Here for more information from Dr. Greene.)