• Garrett Gross, a graduating senior at Bellefontaine High, was all set to play at Urbana in the fall and he couldn’t wait. The 205-pound running back’s senior season had been derailed by a knee injury. And although he had qualified for the state wrestling meet this March, COVID 19 wiped out the tournament just a few days before it was to start. His track season and then graduation ceremonies were victims of the pandemic, as well.
“It’s been a heck of a year, but I figured at least I had football coming in the fall,” he said.
He was wrong.
Gross won’t be able to showcase himself this fall at Urbana.
Nor will McKee be rooming with his brother there. And Johnson’s mom won’t finally be able to see her son “Carry the Sword” as was the rallying cry for Blue Knights athletes who rose to the moment.
On April 21, Urbana University – with its campus already closed down because of the coronavirus epidemic and classes moved solely online – announced it was permanently closing after the spring semester ended.
The school – founded in 1850 thanks, in part, to the efforts of the famed Johnny Appleseed (the Swedenborgian missionary John Chapman); a school that had been a trailblazer as only the second higher learning institution in Ohio to admit women; a school that was taken over by Columbus-based Franklin University in 2014, a school that offered 16 sports at the NCAA Division II level and was planning to add two more in the fall – said it was ceasing operations due to declining on-campus enrollment in recent years and the current uncertainty brought on by COVID-19.
As for McKee, Johnson and Gross – three of some 90 Miami Valley area athletes at the school – they have been lucky.
Each already has landed at another school.
McKee said he’s gotten a full ride to Division I Murray State in Kentucky. Johnson is headed to D-II Tiffin University, which had recruited him in high school, and Gross has gotten academic scholarship money and other grants to enable him to go play at Wittenberg, a D-III powerhouse.
They are some of the lucky ones said Tom Heffelfinger, Urbana’s direct of player personnel and something of a recruiting guru. He noted it’s late in the school year and most colleges have their rosters full for next season. And COVID-19 has many schools scaling back their athletic operations.
Wright State has been told it needs to cut $1 million from its athletic budget. Sinclair Community College just cancelled all sports for the 2020-21 school year and the University of Cincinnati recently disbanded its men’s soccer program.
While a substantial number of Urbana’s 117 football players and incoming recruits have been contacted by other colleges and several have been offered chances to play football, only about 20 or so have accepted offers Heffelfinger said. Often the hang up is the amount of money the player and his family will have to pay out of pocket to go there.
Urbana’s 10 coaches are in a similar state of freefall. Head coach Tyler Haines and his wife Logan have three daughters under the age of 10. Defensive coordinator Joe Nemith just built a new home outside of Columbus. Heffelfinger, who like Haines is a Piqua High grad, is getting married Aug. 8.
Miami Valley athletes made up over 25 percent of reported 350 students living on campus at Urbana. (Nearly 1,000 other students take online classes through programs like College Credits Plus. post baccalaureate, MBA and in classes offered at the London Correctional Institution.)
The Blue Knights football team had 18 players from the Miami Valley on the spring roster and another 11 high school seniors from the area were joining them in the fall.
Thanks especially to Heffelfinger’s efforts, the program also added numerous grad transfers and former walk-ons from FBS schools like Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Purdue, Kentucky, Oregon State, Colorado, Ball State and Eastern Michigan.
This coming season they were adding another dozen D-I transfers from places like Alabama, Auburn and the Miami Hurricanes.
Urbana went 7-4 last season, its first winning season in six years, and the prospects were even better for the coming season. Adding to the good vibe was the fact that in the last three years Urbana had added a new turf field, a new weight room and new lights to the field.
The players and coaches both said they had no idea things were about to fall apart.
Urbana assistant coach Tom Heffelfinger. CONTRIBUTED
“We were recruiting kids the morning they made the announcement,” Heffelfinger said.
“It was one of our typical Zoom meetings with the school that morning, so I had my laptop open, but I had on Good Morning America, too. Then they dropped the bombshell and I was like, ‘Wait! Did I catch that right?’
“It blindsided all of us. It could have been handled a lot better.”
Haines quickly informed his players, who were in shock. Running back Isaac Pettway said many of his teammates were in tears.
Others were in shock. McKee called his dad to make sure he was correctly understanding what just had happened.
“It’s like when you were a kid and you built this beautiful thing from a LEGO set and then your bigger brother comes by and just tears it down.” Heffelfinger said. “Next thing (your parents) are giving it all away because all it does is cause more fighting. All of a sudden, it’s just all…gone.”
‘I built some real friendships there’
Coming out of Wayne — where he also competed at the state track meet on the 4x400 meter relay team – McKee said he had just two football scholarship offers: Cincinnati Christian and Urbana. Ohio University invited him to be a walk-on, in part because of his bloodlines.
His dad, Rashad, had played basketball for the Bobcats and so had his grandfather, Gerald McKee, a Dunbar product, who then was taken by the Washington Bullets in the 11th round of the 1969 NBA draft.
“My parents didn’t want me walking on, so I went to Urbana,” he said. “There’s not a lot to do there, it’s a small town, but our team got close. We were like family. We went bowling, had house parties, did everything together. I built some real friendships there.”
That chemistry and sense of family is also what lured many of the transfers from much bigger schools. Since the program has folded, some of those departing players have sent Heffelfinger notes of thanks.
Former Urbana defensive back DaVontae McKee (No. 3) from Wayne High School is now headed to Murray State. CONTRIBUTED
“Of all the schools (even though I’d never heard of Urbana) I felt that this one needed and wanted me without looking at me as just a number,” wrote Rashaad Poindexter, a defensive back from Indianapolis who had transferred in from Ball State.
Athletics was a huge part or Urbana University’s identity.
Franklin University said the on campus enrollment was 350 and the athletic rosters this spring listed 308 athletes.
“Urbana was great,” Heffelfinger said. “President (Christopher) Washington was awesome. The instructors were wonderful and so was admissions. I just don’t think Franklin realizes what this school meant to so many people and to the community.
“It feels like a huge slap in the face. We were out selling the school and convincing kids to come here. Then this happens and we didn’t have a clue.
“It just leaves a sour taste. It makes you feel like you did a disservice to (those players.) It makes your hands feel dirty, that’s for sure.”
Running back Garett Gross of Bellefontaine, once an Urbana recruit, will now play collegiately at Wittenberg. CONTRIBUTED
‘I found a blessing’
It should not said some players.
“Our coaches treated us great,” McKee said. “And now they’ve been trying to help all of us find a new school.”
He said Nemith helped get him considered at Murray State: “Coach Dean (Hood) knew Coach Nemith and said he got some good words from him about me and (after that) he said he didn’t want to miss on the opportunity.”
McKee had several offers from D-II ad D-III schools and three from D-I programs: Chattanooga, Eastern Illinois and Murray State. His brother, meanwhile, has an offer from Wayne State in Detroit.
He said he chose Murray State because it was a full ride to a Division I school, he wanted to get out of Ohio and he wanted to live someplace a little bigger than Urbana, though Murray, Kentucky (19,348 to 11,372) isn’t that much larger.
Actually McKee has never set foot on the campus. The COVID-19 travel restriction have prevented that.
“They sent me a virtual tour though and I took that and it looked pretty nice,” he said.
But as for when he’ll see his new school and begin practice with the Racers, he said that’s still uncertain:
“Right now it’s all up to COVID. That’s made life pretty wild the past month. But I’ve been lucky. In the middle of all of it, I found a blessing.”