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2021 NFL Draft: The Opt-Outs are This Year's Wild Cards

2021 NFL Draft: The Opt-Outs are This Year's Wild Cards

2021 NFL Draft: The Opt-Outs are This Year's Wild Cards

Jaylen Twyman watched Pitt’s first game of the season, and he cried. He watched his team’s second game, and he cried again.

The All-America defensive lineman cried in Week 3, and again in Week 4.

“Seeing my guys going out there, making plays,” he says. “Seeing that energy.”

How did he cope?

“I buried myself in the weight room,” he says.

Twyman, who has drawn comparisons to fellow Pitt Panther Aaron Donald, is one of an unprecedented group of players who will change the narrative of the 2021 NFL Draft, and maybe far more than that. He’s an opt-out. Under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, he chose to skip the 2020 season.

“All student-athletes must be allowed to opt-out of participation due to concerns about contracting COVID-19,” the NCAA decreed last August.

Some players opted out with plans to return to their teams for the 2021 season. Others decided to prepare for the draft.

Down in Florida, UCF cornerback Tay Gowan shed tears of his own. His pandemic summer was hellish: He got COVID, and then his girlfriend, Daisy, got sick. Then their baby daughter, Skylar, became ill. (She was never tested for the virus.) The three of them suffered for days, praying over their baby. Gowan lost 10 pounds. He returned home to Georgia, and then his mother got the coronavirus. 

“Did I put my mom in the hospital?” Gowan wonders. “I came home with gloves, with a mask. It was just so bad. So bad. She was two weeks in the hospital. She was FaceTiming me like she was going to go away. Even now she has little problems here and there. She’s never been a sick person. Every time she called, I would apologize. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’”

After all that, Gowan felt he couldn’t take a chance on a football season. Not with a one-year-old.

“Going through COVID, it scared the life out of me,” he says. “We didn’t have much information. I saw what it did to me. I didn’t want to put my daughter in harm’s way. I had to put football to the side. And put her first. Because I love her dearly.”

Gowan opted out, but midway through the season, his teammates asked him to come back.

“I almost gave in,” he says. “I cried a few times. I have been playing football since I was five years old. Them calling me, it hurts, it hurts, it really hurts.”

Twyman has had two siblings pass away prematurely, so family is especially important to him. He wants to take that next step to the NFL and enjoy its financial windfall, even if it means going from 2019 until late summer of 2021 between live games. “I had to take care of my mom,” he says.

Was it a great move? A costly sacrifice? 

“You will never know if it’s a right decision,” Twyman says, “until the draft.”

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Fear Factor

Caleb Farley can relate to both Twyman and Gowan. Three years ago, the Virginia Tech cornerback lost his mother to cancer. The fear of a potentially lethal illness affecting his father, Robert, weighed on him.

“Him having lost his mother, and being concerned about me being as close to him,” Robert explains. “Being exposed to people up-close and personal, he’d never know whether I’d catch the virus. He would never forgive himself if there was some way he caught it. He was mentally disturbed about participating. Better for him to opt out.”

Caleb made news when he wrote about his choice for ProFootballTalk, saying teammates were “going home, going to Myrtle Beach, coming back to campus, and weren’t getting tested.” He added: “We were like 100-deep in our indoor facility, no masks.” (Virginia Tech responded with a statement saying all of its athletes are tested and screened before being cleared for activities.)