Mark Duda is cooking pork loin on a humid August night in northern Pennsylvania.
Normally, he spends his nights indoors this time of year—eating dinner alongside his assistants while grinding over the day's practice film. It's a summer ritual that the head coach of Lackawanna College, one of the nation's most dominant junior college football programs, has lived and breathed for more than two decades.
But with his season postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he finds himself alone in his backyard this year, watching the pine trees sway back and forth.
This is not the August he chose. But when the National Junior College Athletic Association made the decision back in July to postpone many of its fall sports, including football, until the spring of 2021—becoming one of the sport's first major organizations to do so—his life changed.
As did the lives of his players—the ones who enrolled at Lackawanna looking for a place that could keep their football careers alive—and the lives of so many others at the 70 football programs playing in the NJCAA umbrella and 68 more in JUCO's other conference, the California Community College Athletic Association, which also moved football to the spring.
The football dream, in its infancy, never includes a JUCO stint. But for many, including some of the sport's biggest stars, it's a detour they must take to reach the next step.
Before winning the Heisman at Auburn and becoming an NFL MVP, Cam Newton washed out of University of Florida and transferred to Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, where he resurrected his career and won a national championship. Before becoming one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL, Alvin Kamara couldn't get out of Nick Saban's doghouse at Alabama and had to find his footing at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. Even Aaron Rodgers, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play, couldn't get a scholarship offer in high school and ultimately spent a year developing at Butte Community College.
Grades. Immaturity. Injuries. Lack of size. Lack of exposure in recruiting. Every JUCO story is different. But with junior college football programs around the country sidelined this year, those stories are all in a similar limbo right now, and the long-term impact is still largely unknown.
"It's very scary because junior college players have a short window," Duda says. "It's a tight window to show what they can do in the classroom and on the field. It's frightening to all of us, for sure."
The postponement of the junior college season to spring won't be mourned the same way as other football absences. But the impact on the collegiate level will be significant. As will be the angst and desperation for those hoping to play the game they love.
Whether you realize it or not, junior colleges pave the foundation for much of the football being consumed.
In a survey conducted by the NJCAA in 2019, a total of 1,676 junior college football players ultimately transferred to Division I schools over a five-year stretch—an average of more than 335 per year. Another 1,023 athletes landed at Division II and Division III programs in that same timeframe.
The Kansas City Chiefs, current Super Bowl champions, had seven former JUCO players on their 2020 Super Bowl roster. And of the 30 junior college teams that responded to the NJCAA survey, a total of 120 former JUCO players ultimately found a home in the NFL during this period.
"We don't really care what your story or what your need is, we're there," says Christopher Parker, the president and CEO of the NJCAA. "We're there with open arms, with amazing coaches and administrators and people who embrace their ability to change lives. We change lives with an education, and we change lives with the sport. And that's what we specialize in. It's the opportunity."
It is not a level of football that normally produces stars right away. But its existence ultimately provides an opportunity for that stardom to be nurtured.
Each player's needs are different. Academics. Physical development. A healthy environment. Perhaps a combination of the three. One thing is certain: Players come to JUCO in search of something.
"Our job is to first let them grieve a little bit when they get here," Duda says. "Let them know those opportunities are gone for right now, but that they'll come back. We put together a program with hope and try to make them a better player and student when they leave. That's why I still coach. I believe that we can help them."
To Duda, junior college isn't as much a fallback as it is a pause. A player's growth doesn't stop when he comes to Lackawanna, at least not normally.
But right now, it has. And with such a small window to create an impression—normally two years—there is an intensity mounting within programs filled with players hoping to do just enough to spark that second chance.
"Our season will be an eight-game schedule in the spring," Duda says. "Just like it was in the fall. And then we'll have a super quick turnaround back into the following season. This is uncharted waters for us."
That is the hope, at least—that the delay will provide a window next year to play. But at the moment, at a time when major college football programs normally look hard at junior colleges to fill the holes in their rosters, the assembly line has crashed to a halt. And a quiet but integral sector of college sports is being severely impacted.
"It was a difficult decision," Parker says on postponing. "But we talked to all kinds of health care providers. We looked at our schools. And as schools started to make tough decisions, we didn't want to leave our membership hanging in limbo. We've done the best we could, given all the information and changes daily."
Each school is permitted to have 60 days of "action" this fall, according to Parker. What this looks like depends largely on the program, where it's located and the comfort of navigating practice and workouts during the pandemic.
Some have decided to move forward with the plan. Others, who sent kids home in the spring, won't welcome them back until next year.
There are some players entering their second year who desperately need to make an impression before time runs out. There are others who committed to these schools still wondering when this next phase will truly begin.
Being dealt a tough hand is nothing new for Brian Durkin. The fact that he's in a position to impress a coach at some point—whenever that moment comes—is a moment in itself.
The Lackawanna College offensive lineman played his entire senior year at Valley View High School in nearby Archbald on a torn ACL a few years ago. His knee gave out on him during summer workouts before the season. But doctors told him he could play if he could tolerate the pain, and for 13 games, he did just that.
Despite his efforts, the recruiting interest never came. His grades weren't an issue. Being a 250-pound, undersized offensive lineman was. Coaches liked his game, but they couldn't envision what the final product would look like.
After his senior year, Durkin's knee was repaired. And although he thought he was done with football, the opportunity to play at Lackawanna was too good to pass up.
"I figured I would just go for it," he says. "Just take a risk. Just put all them chips in the middle of the table."
He arrived and spent his first year developing his game as part of one of the best offensive lines in the program's history. And then in March, as he geared up for one of the most important seasons of his life, he was sent home.
Since then, he's been working out in his high school gym at night. He's also been eating. And when he does return to the field, he will do so at least 40 pounds heavier than he previously was.
As it stands now, he will still have eight games to make an impression.
Hopefully no one gets sick and there are enough games to produce good tape. Hopefully there won't be fewer college roster spots to go around in 2021-22. Hopefully there won't be reason to postpone again or cancel in the spring.
"It definitely sucks," Durkin says. "But at the end of the day, there's nothing you can do about it. I'm just going to keep having the same mindset, keep working out and being ready for when we do put the pads back on. I really hope that I get on a Power Five team, because that's always been my dream."
Lackawanna made the decision not to practice this fall. Instead, they meet over Zoom. And the classroom work, certainly a necessity for many, doesn't change even though the process has.
"Football players are more important than football," Duda says. "I believe that our players are more important than the game itself. And if we can't really protect them, then we have to do things differently.
"I've been doing this for 28 years, and the players are the most important part of this game. And I hope people understand that."
Some of those players likely need another season of film for an offer. Others, like De'Jahn Warren, were able to capitalize on one year at the JUCO level. Warren, in his second year at Lackawanna, is the No. 2-ranked junior college player in the country, according to 247Sports.
And while he recently announced his commitment to Georgia ahead of his second season at Lackawanna, Warren knows many of his teammates will still be looking well into next year.
"One thing a lot of people don't understand is this is our last chance to pursue football in college," Warren says. "I was able to put myself in that position because there was no pandemic, and it hurts me to know that they can't showcase their talent right now.
It is the first day of fall classes at Hutchinson Community College. Although there will be no games played until next year, the football program, which is ripe with new faces, has found a rhythm during summer workouts.
In the weeks ahead, Hutchinson will practice for the 60 days it has been allocated. And it will do so without the 40 players from last year's team who landed at four-year programs—more than half of whom found a home at FBS schools.
Drew Dallas was promoted from the offensive coordinator to head coach late last year. With the promotion came a vision of what his program and first year would look like. In March, when the pandemic hit the nation, those plans were abandoned. And since then, everything has been written in pencil.
"I think we're all hopeful that by next fall, everything's kind of back on track," Dallas says. "I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't uncertainty or fear that those things may change from our players. But I'm proud of how they've handled it."
There are many concerns, but the chief one for Dallas is getting his players the exposure they need. To garner interest from schools, having game tape is normally a prerequisite. And without it, the system that has been good to so many doesn't operate like it normally does.
"The inability to get the film needed against outside opponents is a huge question," Dallas adds. "But those are all things that we can't control."
So much of it is out of the coaches', players', teams' and conferences' control.
The NCAA has already announced that all fall athletes, whether they play or not, will retain an extra year of eligibility. That means rosters likely won't churn the way they normally do. And while rosters will almost certainly expand to accommodate the circumstances, the unanswered questions complicate things moving forward.
"It's a massive holding pattern across the nation, at every level," Dallas says. "But I do think as there's more certainty with what the future holds, we'll be right back into the swing of things. It's just a matter of when, and not so much if."
If all goes according to plan, the junior college season will begin in late March. Teams will play an eight-game season over a handful of months. They will then break for close to three months before competing in the fall season.
Players with one year of eligibility left will try to maximize a unique window. Those who have yet to play a down at the junior college level will exhaust their eligibility in one calendar year.
"I mean, the pressure's on them," Duda says. "They're going to have 16 games. If they produce in those 16 games, they could go to an Oklahoma. If they don't produce in those 16 games, they're going to fall by the wayside. And for some, their entire life comes down to one eight-game period in the spring.
Football will continue to be played this year. At the high school level, collegiate level and professionally. The sport will not stop. Schedules will continue to be altered. Games will be postponed or canceled entirely. But football will move forward, albeit under different circumstances.
For those looking to advance their careers through the JUCO route, players who may be easily forgotten, their time will come. When and what it looks like will depend on the coming months, but they will get their chance.
The window will be small. The possibilities large. And the pressure to keep their dreams alive will be massive…which won't feel that different at all.