Military Bowl cancellation ‘painful to digest’ for ECU

East Carolina takes the field during a game earlier this season. The Pirates’ Military Bowl game on Monday won’t be played because of a COVID outbreak among their opponent, Boston College (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

East Carolina ended a seven-year postseason drought when it was invited to participate in the Military Bowl. Because of COVID-19, the Pirates will have to wait at least one more year to actually play a bowl game.

ECU’s anticipated matchup against Boston College in Annapolis, Maryland, on Monday was called off only 24 hours before kickoff because of a lack of available players.

According to published reports, the Eagles have 42 players that have either tested positive for COVID – including at least one entire position group – are recovering from season-ending injuries, have opted out to prepare for the NFL draft or entered the NCAA transfer portal.

“Unfortunately, due to cases of COVID-19 rising within our program since our arrival, along with season-ending injuries, opt outs and transfers, we just do not have enough players to field a team,” Boston College athletic director Pat Kraft said in a statement. “We are disappointed not to be able to finish the season together as a team, but the health and safety of our program is our highest priority.”

The Eagles’ disappointment doesn’t come close to matching that of the Pirates.

ECU has been waiting since 2014, when it lost to Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, to get back to the postseason. It’s a goal third-year coach Mike Houston’s team realized by winning four of its last five regular season games to finish with a 7-5 record.

But just as the Pirates were about to reap the reward for their accomplishment, the excitement was dashed by an announcement Houston described as “painful to digest.”

Quarterback Holton Ahlers summed up the reaction of his teammates with a Tweet that said simply: “That’s weak, BC football.”

“I’m hurting for the young men representing our football program,” Houston said. “We are crushed that we can’t compete on Monday and allow our seniors one final opportunity to wear the Pirates uniform.

“Everybody with our program has persevered through adversity over the past two years during this pandemic, so it was extremely difficult to tell them the 2021 season is complete. This is a special group of young men who will be remembered for their hard work, sacrifice and determination to restore the prominence of our football program.”

The Pirates arrived at the bowl site on Thursday and have been splitting time between practice and pre-bowl activities since.

They spent Christmas Day taking in the sights of Washington D.C., including a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They also participated in a community service project in which the players put together care packages to send to deployed military members overseas.

Houston said he “felt good about being able to play the game” right up until it was canceled thanks to the precautions taken within his program and the motivation his players had to play the game. Athletic director Jon Gilbert said that the Pirates are fully vaccinated and were “in a very good place where we could have played the game and wanted to play the game.”

The mood, however, changed abruptly Sunday morning when the news that his team’s opponent would be unable to participate began to circulate.

Houston said that the most difficult part of the situation was telling his players the game wouldn’t be played.

“Our seniors were heartbroken,” he said. “Taking over three years ago, where the program was and then where we are today, it’s those seniors that have been kind of the glue that’s helped us through this. It’s been their motivation to get in a bowl game and play in a bowl game. I hate it for them. It’s just not a good situation for our young men.”

The Military Bowl provided each player with a gift card, wireless headphones and an Action Face personalized action figure of themselves.

As for the program itself, Gilbert said it’s too soon to know how much, if any, of the $2.67 million payout ECU will receive. He added that because of the logistics involved, there is no chance of the Pirates playing another team whose bowl has been canceled or other replacement opponent.

“I am anticipating little to no payout,” Gilbert said, adding that “there are quite a few expenses we’re going to have to absorb. The expenses are going to be significant.”

ECU fans who oversold their team’s ticket allotment and made hotel rooms in Annapolis and its surrounding area impossible to find, can at least expect to get the cost of their tickets back.

Refund information is expected to be announced within the next 24 hours.

“This is a terrible situation obviously,” Military Bowl executive director Steve Beck said. “We appreciate everyone who worked so hard to try to make the game happen. Of course, the health and safety of the players and coaches is top priority. The decision not to play is understandable, but disappointing.  

 “The Military Bowl Foundation’s mission is to raise funds for and support the nation’s service members. The Bowl is a big part of this, so it is devastating to think that it could impact our ability to make a positive difference for those who serve our nation.” 

This is the second straight year in which the Military Bowl has not been played because of the pandemic.

It is the fourth game during the 2021 postseason to either be canceled or altered as a result of the spike in COVID cases caused by the Omicron variant. The Hawaii and Fenway bowls were also canceled while the Gator Bowl was forced to find a replacement opponent after Texas A&M opted out.