Landon Wirt

Dear reader,

I know, I’m probably the billionth person on Earth to tell the hackneyed “one year of COVID-19” story. 

Let’s face it, the past year really has sucked. At this time last year, COVID-19 felt like a threat but didn’t feel tangible. Now, most of us can’t imagine living our lives without the constraints a pandemic presents.

I’m not here to talk about that, though. At least not entirely. While the world seemed to be headed toward inevitable panic around this time one year ago, all I could focus on was figuring out how to cram four people and their luggage into the back of my 2008 Honda Pilot.

On March 10, 2020, myself and four of my Daily Nebraskan coworkers headed to Indianapolis to cover the 2020 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament. I was ecstatic. The trip was supposed to mark my first “real” collegiate journalism experience. 

Sure, I’d covered a host of on-campus events in my year and a half at the Daily Nebraskan, but the Indianapolis trip represented an opportunity to be treated like a real media professional even though I was trapped in the shy body of a 19-year-old. 

Right away, though, I knew something was off. Had I been paying closer attention to the news the following morning, I would’ve seen that the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic. However, my mind was wholly consumed with basketball and the trip itself.

We stopped at Butler University for a late lunch, and campus was dead due to spring break. The restaurant had a pub-type atmosphere and served typical bar food. On a normal day, it seemed like a great place to catch a game.

As we were finishing up with our meal and preparing to head toward Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, we got to talking with our server. He told us that while business suffered during spring or winter break, it got rolling again when classes were in session. The nature of the pandemic, though, made that difficult. 

Our server confided in us his fears that the looming pandemic could negatively impact his employment. He was unsure of whether or not they would remain open or be able to serve the campus community at some point down the line. The moment was incredibly real, an intimate conversation shared with a complete stranger.

Following that moment on the afternoon of March 11, the fears the server confided in us became reality in the span of what felt like the blink of an eye.

As we made our way downtown, it was announced that the 2020 NCAA Tournament would proceed without fans. As we sat through the night’s first game between Minnesota and Northwestern, the Big Ten announced that the conference would not be having fans at conference-sanctioned sporting events for the remainder of the athletic calendar. 

Such a thing seemed preposterous to me. How could you remove fans, such an active part of the sporting culture, from the game? 

I began to feel uneasy. It felt hypocritical to rule that hosting fans at a sporting venue was an unsafe venture, yet allow thousands of Indiana Hoosier fans to trickle into the arena ahead of their game against Nebraska. 

I tried not to focus on it and instead focus on the on-court play. For a while, that worked. I immersed myself in what was a back-and-forth contest between Nebraska and Indiana while enjoying the roars of the crowd for as much as the gallon-sized dispensers of hand sanitizer near the court allowed me to. 

Then the bombshell broke. The NBA postponing its season was the moment COVID-19 became tangible. To me, all the fears our server talked about at lunch seemed to be coming true. Social media turned into a chaotic mess, and it became hard to focus on the action on the court.

All the while, the arena went berserk as Indiana built and held on to a second-half lead. Fans vehemently booed the in-stadium announcement as the Hoosiers managed to beat the Cornhuskers by 25 points. 

The arena reached its crescendo when Noah Vedral and Brant Banks, two Husker football players that accompanied the basketball team to the tournament due to roster attrition, checked into the game with just over a minute remaining. Their presence distracted the crowd so much that hardly anyone had noticed that Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg left the floor minutes prior, looking unwell. 

If the NBA’s cancellation was what made COVID-19 tangible to me at the time, Hoiberg’s departure from the game made it even more so. Neither team shook hands postgame, and the Huskers didn’t come out for their postgame media availability.

Nobody knew the status of Hoiberg, and it felt like a foregone conclusion that the tournament would be promptly cancelled. As I wandered the bowels of the arena searching for updates on Hoiberg or the team, I couldn't help but feel like I was in a horror movie. I was terrified, with no clue as to what was going to happen next. 

Somehow, I composed myself to write something publishable, and following that I called my mom from the arena’s press room and nearly broke down on the phone. I couldn’t compose myself for much longer.

Thankfully, Hoiberg didn’t have the coronavirus — the lone respite to a stressful night. Unfortunately, it was our last night in Indianapolis as the Big Ten postponed the remainder of its conference tournament the following morning.  

From there, well, you know the rest. As the five of us travelled back across empty Midwestern farmland, the cancellations and closures didn’t even phase us. First, it was every collegiate and professional sporting event, including the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Then, it was restaurants, movie theaters, bars and gyms. Finally, it was colleges and universities.

The rest is history. 

Sitting in a hotel room in Indianapolis today writing this letter, it’s pretty surreal to think back on the lessons I’ve learned over the past year. As I prepare to cover the 2021 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament, I know I need to make the most of this incredible opportunity.

At times over the past year, it’s been hard to stay focused with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve felt unmotivated, lazy and sometimes downright depressed amidst the quarantining and isolation.

Having sports come back has certainly helped, as they’ve been a nice distraction from the struggles of coping with a pandemic. While I realize I’m not doing the most important work in the world, having the opportunity to cover Nebraska athletics this season is an opportunity I don’t take for granted — and won’t during my remaining time in college. 

In the meantime, I’ve got a game to cover.

From Indy with love,

Landon Wirt

Landon Wirt is an assistant sports editor. Reach him at landonwirt@dailynebraskan.com.