NORMAL, Illinois — Illinois State football coach Brock Spack felt he had no choice.
"I'm heartbroken myself," Spack said of calling off the Redbirds' remaining four spring games because of a glut of injuries. "I'm responsible for this. I know better. This was not right. To continue would not be right."
While transfers and players deciding not stick around until spring had previously thinned the Redbird ranks, ISU has been hit particularly hard with injuries on the defensive line since the spring season began.
Spack said he has been forced to play his remaining defensive linemen more than is wise.
"You can't go into a game with three or four (defensive line) guys. You can't do that," said the Redbird coach. "It's not about toughness. These kids are tough. It's not about wins and losses. It's about the safety of these players. It was insane to keep playing. Sometimes the best decision is a very tough decision."
Jake (Powell) and John (Ridgeway) are as tough as they come. But you could see it in their eyes. They're exhausted. The human body can only take so much. That's why (substitution) rotations are important. They get double teams, down blocks. They might be taking on 650 pounds in a double team. I don't want them to come to me when they're 35 or 40 and say 'I don't feel good and you knew better.' "Powell and quarterback Bryce Jefferson both were disappointed the spring season is over, but said they understand why the decision was made."
No one on this team wants to stop playing," Powell said. "But the facts are pretty evident. You have to understand the situation we're in. We don't have enough defensive linemen to continue playing. It would be extremely rough. From a workload standpoint, it was already getting tough."
Spack called in several team leaders early Sunday to discuss the matter and informed the entire team later in the day.
The ISU coach also held a Zoom meeting with players' parents and "not one of them had anything negative to say. They were thankful and appreciative for thinking of their son's health before the idea of playing."
"It hurt. But after he laid everything out, it was an obvious decision," Jefferson said. "When you get the first win, everybody is excited to ride the wave of a W. No one wants to go into a game with three or four defensive lineman when you really need eight."
ISU had lost its first three games before defeating Western Illinois last Saturday. The Redbirds will not play remaining road games at South Dakota State and Missouri State and home contests against North Dakota and Southern Illinois.
Spack said he expressed his concerns about his team's plight to South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier last week and called him Sunday to confirm the Redbirds would not be playing Saturday in Brookings, S.D.
Stiegelmeier told Matt Zimmer of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader newspaper he has no hard feelings about the late cancellation."
I talked to Coach Spack last week and he was concerned," Stiegelmeier said. "He called me way before they announced it and said 'stop preparing for us because we're not going to be able to play.' I really appreciated that. Disappointed, obviously, but we've probably been blessed to get the ones in we've got so far and we'll try to get the other two in and see what happens."
The Missouri Valley Football Conference announced Monday the remaining four ISU games would be declared no contests with neither team receiving a win or a loss.
A statement said the league "was supportive of Illinois State's difficult decision to opt out of the remainder of its spring schedule."
Indiana State declared before the spring season began it would not play over concerns of playing two seasons in one calendar year. Montana, Montana State and several other FCS programs also are not playing this spring.
Spack said he was wary of suiting up in the spring but, like his players, was excited to return to the action after the MVFC delayed the normal fall season because of the pandemic.
"I wish I had the foresight, but I did not see this coming," he said. "I had an inkling things would have to go just right. Everything had to go perfect to pull this off and it didn't."
One play in a March 6 game at Northern Iowa changed the course of the ISU season when two defensive linemen were injured on one play.Jason Lewan suffered a foot injury that will sideline him until 2022, and Jude Okolo was down on the turf for several minutes and was assisted off the field with concussion-like symptoms.
Another lineman, D'Marco Cross, was slated for more playing time because of those injuries but suffered an injury himself before that could occur.
"When Jason and Jude went down on the same play, I thought we can't do this anymore," said Spack. "The two more games after that I was holding my breath. This is unfair to these guys. There was no way we could recover from it. We need to move on."
After taking this entire week off, the Redbirds will begin offseason weight training. After a break for final exams in May, the team will return June 1 and "hit the ground running," according to Spack.
The next ISU game will be the Sept. 4 season opener against Butler at Hancock Stadium.