ALBUQUERQUE — The numbers speak for themselves and, in the case of the latest coronavirus data from the New Mexico Department of Health, they’re screaming at the top of their lungs.
With the the start of college football season just days away, the University of New Mexico had no choice but to bow down to those numbers Tuesday. The announcement that the Lobos would not play Saturday’s game at Colorado State after skyrocketing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in Bernalillo County casts a dark shadow on a season that may not start for a while, if at all.
“It’s just another door that’s been put up in front of us that we need to knock down,” Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales said.
In this case, that door might be too big to kick down in time to save UNM’s home opener on Halloween night. Barring a major drop in positive cases in relation to the overall population, it’s reasonable to assume the Oct. 31 date against San Jose State — Gonzales’ first as the team’s new head coach — won’t take place.
To get there, the county’s rate must drop below 8 cases per 100,000. As of Tuesday’s announcement, it was nearly twice as high. Gonzales stopped short of saying he felt as though officials were jumping the gun by putting the brakes on the season opener.
He spoke at length about how proud he was of his team and the challenges of keeping a group of 18- to 22-year-olds focused on a task that is in the hands of someone outside their influence.
“They’re here to get a degree and they’re making progress toward doing those things,” Gonzales said. “They’re as committed to that as playing football, they’re just extremely disappointed that they don’t have the opportunity to run out on that field in Fort Collins this week.”
Asked repeatedly during a Zoom meeting with local media who was responsible for the decision to pull the plug on the Colorado State road trip, athletic director Eddie Nuñez only said it came from a phone call he had with UNM President Garnett Stokes.
“It was direct, it’s one of those calls that you don’t want to receive, or at least you don’t hope for the outcome to be what it is because you know how much we’ve all invested to do this right,” he said. “Nobody here is going to say we’re more important than anybody else. That’s not the situation here.”
UNM has reported 10 positive cases in its football program since last week, the latest of which came after nine positives shut the team down for two days last week and limited workouts ever since to pods of five people at a time.
Still, Gonzales said his team remained ready and focused for its trip north to face a CSU team that has won 10 straight games against the Lobos.
“We’re going to keep going forward until somebody tells me another opportunity’s taken away and then we’re going to keep going forward until that opportunity’s taken away,” he said. “Soon enough we’re going to have an opportunity to compete and our guys will show up.”
Nuñez said the heart of the matter is the numbers game outlined in the 95-page document produced by the state to act as a template for handling the pandemic.
A dozen pages are devoted to youth, college and professional sports, and it’s in those pages that a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said is the reason Saturday’s game will not be played.
Nuñez wants to change that. Acknowledging the plight of his county’s rising numbers, he said the math used for UNM should be altered to reflect the positive impact the athletic department’s bubble has had on positive cases.
The football team went nearly two months without a positive test until last week’s outbreak and, statistically, is still well below the numbers shared by Bernalillo County.
He said his department presented an alternative plan to state officials with options that would allow the Lobos to practice, travel and play games at home.
“We’re going to have to continue to have those discussions and see if we could find a way to change the equation or figure out a different way for us to be viewed and show that our kids, again, we’re still doing testing,” Nuñez said. “We all tested [Tuesday] morning. We’re going to test again on Thursday regardless of the outcome. We’re going to continue to test, we’re going to continue to do what we stated we’re going to do.”
Nunez said UNM has the ability to play Saturday’s game. Both he and Gonzales said the team is ready, that there are enough healthy bodies to get there and back without an issue.
“Everybody’s played [the players] like a yo-yo here, and that’s unfortunate because they’ve gone through a bunch of ups and downs,” Nuñez said. “They don’t deserve this, so we’re trying to do everything to put them in a position so that they come in, they do what we ask them to do, what they came here to do and they can actually see their hard work come to light.”