As hundreds of Florida National Guard soldiers poured into Orlando last Tuesday night to provide assistance in the wake of Hurricane Irma, they found a temporary haven at the University of Central Florida’s football facility. That night, a group of Knights football players and coaches volunteered to serve the soldiers food in a room that is often reserved for recruiting dinners. The buffet line included cookies shaped like footballs.
UCF Coach Scott Frost has vowed to keep looking for opportunities to help the community rebuild. As his team returned to practice late last week, he also began to pick up the pieces on a season that has been thrown into unprecedented flux.
In terms of scheduling, none of Florida’s seven Football Bowl Subdivision teams were hit harder by the storm than UCF, which had two home games canceled, including last Saturday night’s showdown against Georgia Tech.
The game was called off to accommodate the National Guard on campus, where Spectrum Stadium became a staging point for recovery efforts. Frost gave his players the weekend off before returning to a normal schedule on Monday in preparation for Saturday’s game at Maryland. It will have been 23 days since the Knights (1-0) opened their season with a 61-17 win over Florida International, and it’s anyone’s guess — including Frost’s — what the state of the team will be at that point.
“We’re just excited to play again. I don’t know the state of our team very well, other than how we’re practicing because of unfortunate circumstances, but our guys are excited to play,” Frost said on Monday. “We certainly put their safety at the forefront of all the decisions that were made and the kids are upset that they had to miss some time, but they’re looking forward to playing again.”
While UCF has rescheduled its Sept. 9 game against Memphis for Sept. 30, the program is still scrambling to find an 11th game to schedule in place of Georgia Tech. That game would have to take place during the team’s original bye on Oct. 28. The shuffling has twisted what is typically an extremely regimented schedule for Frost and his staff. They weren’t able to fully recruit during the storm and now won’t have the typical bye week to evaluate prospects — and they’ve had to pivot among three game plans in a two-week span.
But Frost has preached perspective throughout the month, and he released his entire team to tend to their families before the storm hit. Florida natives raced home to spend time with loved ones. Some left the state. Other players stayed on campus and waited Irma out, lifting weights and helping volunteer in the community in the aftermath of the storm. That included former walk-on defensive lineman Rory Coleman, an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient, who helped serve dinner when the National Guard troops showed up at the facility.
“A game is a game, and these are people here. You got to do what’s right and you got to take care of your fellow countrymen,” Coleman said in a school-produced video.
Said Col. Grant Slayden in another video: “When we found out the university agreed to let us use their field house, which can house 1,000 soldiers in very good conditions, indoor, safe and secure, protected from the elements, we were extremely excited.”
UCF returned to practice last Thursday and Friday, sessions that were designed to be treacherous by Frost to knock off rust and reestablish game conditioning. Then he gave the group the weekend off. A strange silence fell over Spectrum Stadium (nicknamed “The Bounce House”) last Saturday, a day that was supposed to be raucous and lucrative for the school.
Frost didn’t sit around and watch college football, either. He instead took his wife to Hollywood Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando. After an emotional two weeks, and ahead of a challenging period of re-acclimation, it was a childlike reprieve. They visited haunted houses and Frost rode a roller coaster.
“Things that I don’t usually get to do in the fall,” he said. “It was a pleasant night.”
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