After COVID-19 diagnosis, Stephen F. Austin coach asks dad to ditch farm for football field

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Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer

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Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com 2-time Sports Emmy winner 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

"For the record, I tested positive first, OK? You make sure Nick Saban knows that."

Colby Carthel is laughing over the phone. So is his father, Don. A week ago, they weren't laughing so hard. They weren't laughing at all. But today, the Carthel family is all smiles. That's what a win does. It makes everything feel better. So does family.

On the morning of Oct. 14 -- yes, the same day that Alabama rocked the college football world by announcing that Saban had tested positive for COVID-19 -- the football offices of Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, were sent into a similar tailspin. Colby Carthel, in his second season as head coach of the Lumberjacks, had tested positive two days earlier and now a rapid PCR test had backed up those results. He was already out of the building and now he knew he wouldn't be allowed back in for at least another week. That also meant he wouldn't be on the sideline for the upcoming home game against his alma mater, the Angelo State Rams.

So what did Colby Carthel do? He called home.

"We had a plan in place to keep things business as usual football-wise," he explains while still bunkered in at home, talking above background noise provided by his three young sons, Major, Bear and Stone. "So, first thing I had to do was call my parents to let them know. Of course, Mom gasped because her son had coronavirus. But once we got over that news, I told her I needed to talk to Dad."

Dad was on his tractor. You see, it's cotton harvest season in the Texas panhandle, and Don Carthel is a cotton farmer. OK, he's actually a retired football coach who has gone back to his cotton farming roots. That's why Colby needed to talk to him. The Lumberjacks needed an interim head coach, and the son wanted to know if his father would like the job.

"I left it running and I told my wife, 'Go shut the tractor off, I'm headed to Nacogdoches!'" Don recalls, half-joking. "I got to town a little after midnight Wednesday night so that I could be at the 7 a.m. practice on Thursday morning."

And how did that first practice go?

"My goodness, I had to jump-start that program," Dad says, knowing full well his son is on the phone, too. "I don't know what in the world they had been doing there!"

Don is poking fun at his boy, but the moment the 68-year-old silver-haired Texas small college legend stepped onto the field at Homer Bryce Stadium, it was an instant morale boost for the Lumberjacks. Every college football program, no matter what size, has been forced to run a pandemic obstacle course this year.

But no tier has been more tried than the teams of the NCAA's FCS division. Every conference at the level formerly known as I-AA decided to move their league schedules to spring 2021, but left the door open for any team who wanted to schedule nonconference games. Dozens of FCS teams salvaged their "paycheck" dates against FBS schools, as well as some traditional cross-conference rivalry games. But while most scheduled only a few games -- in some cases, only one -- Stephen F. Austin has been aggressively trying to fill its autumn calendar.

As late as Oct. 2, SFA was still adding dates to what is as-now a 10-game slate. Opening the season with three straight in-state FBS opponents (UTEP, UTSA, SMU) meant three hard losses, which were followed by the COVID-forced postponement of the Angelo State game (which had been originally scheduled for Oct. 10), and then the head coach's positive test and resulting absence. Enter Don Carthel, a textbook iron-voiced Texas football coach with a sharp sense of humor, infectious smile and a Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame résumé.

"I think having Dad there, on the sideline, just made everyone feel good," says Colby. "Half the coaches on our staff either played for or coached under Dad at some point. So, having Coach Carthel out there, that put smiles on everyone's faces, no doubt about it."

Those smiles weren't limited to SFA. After more than four decades of coaching, from Lubbock Christian and Eastern New Mexico to West Texas A&M and the Amarillo Dusters of the Intense Football League, the elder Carthel is a Lone Star football legend, with former players coaching at nearly every dot on the Texas map. That includes Colby, who followed his all-star stint as an Angelo State linebacker by serving as his father's defensive coordinator at West Texas A&M, where the Buffaloes won four conference titles and made six NCAA Division II playoff appearances in eight years before Don was ousted in a manner that still doesn't sit well with many.

So when word got out that Don Carthel was back in the saddle, even if for only one weekend, the not-so-small world of Texas small college football was elated.

"At this level, college football is still really about family," Colby explains. "Everyone knows everyone and everyone has their families involved in it all the time. Dad has been with me as a volunteer assistant coach since I was at [Texas A&M]-Commerce, where we won a Division II national championship. And he's been a volunteer assistant with us here, too. He tries to poor boy it, but he's a huge contributor."

Don was already making the 550-mile drive down from Amarillo each Friday evening to see his grandsons and then take notes on the Lumberjacks' special-teams play from the coaches' box. Colby says his dad "tries to poor boy his contributions" but explains that Don is in town for two-a-days in August, all during camp, and is constantly doing special-teams breakdown remotely from Amarillo, watching film on Hudl and doing quality control. "But Saturday was an opportunity for Dad to put on the big headset again and take back over in charge."

"My job on Saturday was just to make announcements and keep everything running as smoothly as possible," Don says. "There are things the head coach can do just to make life easier on the assistants, so they can worry about running the offense and defense. I think my experience helped with that."

As Don wore the big headset on Saturday afternoon, Colby wore a smaller one. He spent the game plenty socially distanced, sealed up in his pickup truck and parked a long ways away from the stadium, but still close enough where he could keep an eye on the action, and more importantly, pick up his coaching staff's radio communication. NCAA rules prevented him from any interaction with his staff, but there's nothing illegal about listening in.

The Lumberjacks were caught in a surprisingly tough first-half fight with Division II Angelo State, but pulled away late for a 31-12 win. Rams head coach Jeff Girsch was disappointed in the loss, but the veteran Lone Star Conference coach was also beaming as he met Don Carthel for the postgame handshake. The pinnacle of Stephen F. Austin's postgame celebration was when Don was awarded the game ball.

"The best part of the whole day was just soaking up the energy of the sideline again," Don explains, still giddy days after his first on-field game in eight years. "The energy from the fans and the players, all of it. The view from the coaches' booth on Saturday is a better look at the game, but the energy just isn't the same."

The win was the second straight for SFA, which moved to 2-3 on the season. That's one win each for father and son. This weekend the Lumberjacks travel west to face Abilene Christian in the first NCAA football game to be played at Globe Life Park, the facility formerly known as The Ballpark at Arlington.

Barring any unforeseen issues as he continues to move through the university's return-to-work protocols, Colby should be back at practice beginning Thursday and back on the sideline this weekend. After some initial cold-like symptoms, he says he feels 100 percent again. Don feels better than that. He's still riding the high of the milestone win he never thought he'd have the chance to earn.

"I told him last week, if you lose this game, that goes on your record, but if you win it, it goes on mine, Mr. Interim Head Coach," Colby says as his father quickly interrupts.

"That ain't right!" Don hollers back through belly laughs.

"No, that was Dad's win," the proud son says. "That's his 125th win as a head college football coach. That's a big deal. Meanwhile, I'm still stuck at 63. This weekend I'll get back to trying to catch up to him."

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