UD football senior safety Brandon Easterling, who led the team in tackles last year, faces difficult decisions in his future because of the season being pushed back to spring 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Flyer News.
As many college sports continue to remain postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many players like University of Dayton football’s senior safety Brandon Easterling face some daunting decisions in their near future.
Easterling, a six-foot safety out of Fairborn, Ohio, was the leader of UD’s defense in 2019, racking up 140 total tackles and 6 interceptions. He was named an FCS All-American by HERO Sports, the Walter Camp Foundation, the Associated Press and STATS FCS, along with First Team All-PFL honors.
Easterling was also named a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which annually goes to the top defensive player in FCS football, and finished eighth in the final voting.
His most electric play was a 100-yard interception return at Drake on Nov. 16, but the off-season that followed his incredible season has been one of abnormality and “heartbreaking” news when the season was cancelled.
“I mean, I think my reaction was probably pretty standard throughout the team, and it was just heartbreaking,” Easterling said. “One thing I will say, I think (Athletic Director) Neil (Sullivan) and (head) coach (Rick) Chamberlin did a great job of being transparent and realistic with us… it’s not like we knew it was coming, but we almost had a little bit of a preparation. But even then, if somebody would have told us it was gonna be cancelled, you can’t prepare for that… it was a dagger, a dagger right to the heart to say the least.”
Easterling added how he and his teammates play for the love of the game, and to have a season shut down after working so hard after “10-plus years,” is “never fun to hear.”
However, finding out the season was cancelled was just the latest in what has been an eventful off-season for Easterling.
After an impressive 2019 season for Easterling and the team (finished 8-3, second in PFL), the first wrench was thrown when spring ball was cancelled. Easterling said the team had 15 practices cancelled.
“I didn’t realize how tough (quarantine) would be,” Easterling said. “I think the longer I got into quarantine, the more I realized, not being around my teammates, how difficult it is to do. My biggest struggle was just finding facilities to be honest with you.”
Although it was a struggle to find the right open facilities, Easterling eventually settled on a high school friend’s gym in Vandalia, Ohio, that had indoor turf. Easterling was also able to use a field at local Oakwood High School. Through all of the workouts and training, Easterling said the biggest struggle was getting used to working out alone.
“It’s not that I didn’t have motivation or anything,” Easterling said. “But it’s different when you’re with your teammates and your guys, and you’re all going for one mission and one goal, trying to push each other. So, it goes from that to now, you’ve gotta make sure you’re doing the right thing on that field and in the weight room… that was the biggest adjustment, but I was able to almost not skip a beat in terms of facilities and stuff. I had a lot of resources and people willing to help me, which was awesome.”
While trying to balance an altered workout regimen and stay football-ready without being around his teammates and coaches, Easterling also adjusted to an internship with Northrop Grumman, a “defense contractor for the government,” per Easterling.
As a software engineer, his internship was altered, much like his football training. Instead of being part of an on-site assembly program for the summer, Easterling’s internship was cut down to six weeks of computer programming.
“I was fortunate enough to work from home,” Easterling said. “It definitely gave its challenges, because I was working with some languages and code software that I had never dealt with before, so having to learn how to use those over the phone with my mentor or on my own, it was probably a lot harder than it could have been in person, but I was super thankful to just get a shot.”
Because he was able to work from home, Easterling’s schedule was a “little bit more free,” but he said it was still “one of the busiest summers I’ve had.”
“Not necessarily having a strict schedule kinda benefited me,” Easterling said. “It took away a little bit of the stress, and I was able to do what I could when I felt like it, so that was definitely a benefit even though everything was kind of looking down at the time.”
While balancing the challenges that came with the internship, the normal summer break was filled with many more Zoom meetings, which took place 3-4 times per week. Besides keeping tabs and coaching the players, Easterling said these meetings gave freshmen an opportunity to learn the playbook.
One defensive back meeting stood out to Easterling when the coach asked each player to share the biggest adversity they’ve faced in their life and how they overcame that adversity.
Easterling did not share the toughest adversity he’s faced with Flyer News (we didn’t ask him to), but he said assistant cornerbacks coach Scott Horcher called the meeting his favorite and “most beneficial meeting” of the summer, even though they didn’t once talk about football.
Easterling did share his toughest challenge being simply not playing, starting with spring ball being cancelled.
“I started playing football when I was eight years old,” Easterling said. “From eight and on, I had obviously played every single season… so this will be the longest in my life so far that I went without football, and it’s pretty stressful to think about. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but with my teammates, it’ll be alright, we’ll get through it.”
To get through it, though, the senior safety now has to weigh whether to play in the spring or next fall. He said that question has been his biggest concern.
“(Regarding a spring season) my biggest bump in the road that I’m gonna have to figure out is,” Easterling said. “I mean, I have dreams of playing professional football one day, and I think I’ve been fortunate enough to get on some radars… and I have one year of eligibility left. If I play in the spring, by rule of the NCAA, I can’t play any more college football, so I would have to declare for the (NFL) Draft. I would have to have a pro day and all that.
“My biggest thing right now is I would have to figure out, if we were to play in the spring, if that would affect my dreams of playing in the NFL… would it count me out from playing in an all-star game… pro day, not enough time to train for a pro day, (NFL) Combine, et cetera.”
Easterling said this decision is something he is still “trying to feel out” by getting a “better understanding of what’s going to happen.”
With the NFL and the FBS keeping their regular schedules as of now, playing in a spring season would make it virtually impossible for Easterling to prepare for, much less be selected in, the 2021 NFL Draft.
Because of this, holding off and waiting for the 2021 fall season could be the better option for the Fairborn, Ohio, native. As a non-athletic scholarship program, seniors (Easterling included) have to face the difficult decision of whether to come back and pay for a more regular season in their fifth year, or miss out of a final fall football season altogether.
“I want to (come back for a fifth year), I know for a fact I’m going to play college football again,” Easterling said. “I have to find a way… I’ve expressed to you how much I love the game of football. It’s just, I’ve got to really sit down and try and figure out, financially, if I can do it.”
Easterling said he is still weighing his decision, and he still doesn’t know for sure which way he will go.
However, through this difficult off-season and decision-making process, a major motivation for Easterling was when teammate Adam Trautman was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
With Trautman at tight end and Easterling at safety, Easterling was able to get plenty of tough work in at practice and benefited from scouts coming in to see Trautman, allowing Easterling to show off his skills and develop his draft stock.
“(Adam getting drafted) did wonders for me,” Easterling said. “If you play college football, you should look at it as, ‘Why not me?’ No matter what level… ‘why not me’ because you get one shot at football, and when you walk away from it, you’re done.”