They’ve been stuck inside, leaving their Ladera Ranch home only for periodic trips to the physical therapist. They check in with coaches through computer screens and study film via screen sharing. They listen to virtual lectures at the kitchen table and follow virtual workouts on Instagram.
Everything is changing for college football in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with spring camps canceled, workouts on hold and those involved clinging to whatever normalcy they can, as a sport meant for wide-open space adjusts to the closed confines of self-isolation. But for USC’s McClain brothers, Abdul-Malik and Munir, this new normal has actually resulted in something good.
After three weeks of prayer and brother-versus-brother push-up competitions, they say the isolation is making an already close family even tighter.
“We’re getting better as a family through all of this, even though we’ve been with each other forever,” Munir McClain said. “We’re having fun through this. We’re just trying to get through, to enjoy what we can.”
Growing up, the brothers spent most of their time together. They shared a bedroom, played on every sports team together, even shared many of the same friends. Munir committed to USC four weeks after Malik signed in December 2018, and the following fall, they lived together on campus.
Before both went down with injuries in a game against Arizona last October, it seemed Munir, a freshman receiver, and Malik, a redshirt freshman edge rusher, might even share a breakout final month of the season.
But since their isolation began, it hasn’t been only Malik and Munir sharing space at the kitchen table. By the time the brothers rise around 9 a.m., younger brother Mansur and younger sister Alaa’ Khadijah are already in their respective virtual classes, while their mother, Shan, conducts conference calls in the next room.
“We’ve found a routine,” Shan said. “We’re making it work as best we can.”
Routine is a bedrock of the big-time college football experience, with a player’s time meticulously meted out, day by day, hour by hour. With lifts and treatments and training tables and position-by-position meetings planned out beyond the time spent on the field, the routine often leaves little time for much else.
But that schedule has quickly shifted in the new conditions. Players now have an abundance of free time, leaving coaches across the nation scrambling to keep them engaged.
At Alabama, that meant handing out Apple watches this week to monitor how players perform during workouts the NCAA purposefully required to be pre-taped. It doesn’t figure to be long before other programs find their own ways to take advantage of similar loopholes.
At USC, coaches have tried to stay in constant contact. Position groups continue to meet routinely over Zoom. Strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus created a private Instagram feed to post workout plans. Academic advisors check in on a daily basis.
“They’ve done a pretty good job with the athletes,” Shan said. “I hear Munir and Malik online speaking with their advisors and the coaches every day. They’re pretty disciplined in that area, so that’s a great thing.”
The brothers have settled into their virtual classes and their virtual workouts, using a nearby park when they need more room to roam. Three times a week, they make the trip to the physical therapist, where Malik strengthens his right shoulder, which required offseason surgery, and Munir rehabilitates his left knee, which was operated on for a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
But players are struggling to accept certain parts of this new normal. For USC, it has made teaching the Trojans’ new defensive scheme especially difficult.
“It’s harder now,” Malik said. “We learn better when we run through it, but we’re still getting concepts through Zoom.”
When they’re not in virtual meetings or virtual classes, the McClains are more than likely playing virtual football. That much, at least, has remained the same. Though, with all three brothers together, a new Madden champion has emerged.
“Mansur, he’s actually the best,” Malik admitted.
Every chance they get, the brothers have tried to keep competing, in hopes of keeping cabin fever at bay. They challenge each other to push-up contests, the last of which was won by Munir.
But as her sons settle into isolation, Shan can’t help but wonder if they grasp the weight of their normal.
“They’re young,” she said. “I don’t think they really, fully understand what’s going on. It’s affecting everyone. It doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can get this virus.”