To mark six months since a pandemic was officially declared, BuzzFeed News is publishing The Lost Year series: six stories of six people from six different age groups across the US. Each day this week, we are profiling a new person to see what toll the coronavirus has taken on their lives. In this second installment, we meet a high school senior in Chicago who dreams of college football.
Noel Raehl thought he’d be spending the Friday nights of his senior year of high school on the football field, making tackles under the bright lights. As a lineman on both sides of the ball, he was gearing up for clashes with the opposing team in the muddy trenches between end zones, blocking their defense from tackling his teammates as they ran the ball for a touchdown, or muscling his way past their linemen to rush and sack the quarterback.
This fall was the Chicago 17-year-old’s last chance to get an offer to play in college — his last shot at an athletic financial aid package to help pay for his education.
But now, because of the coronavirus, that future is in jeopardy.
“It just seems like it's not going to happen because of how things played out,” Noel said.
“If I lose my whole senior year, I just feel like we lost a lot of potential.”
Six months into the worst pandemic in a century, it’s difficult to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the life of a young person like Noel. Since March, he has lost countless hours of learning and time with his girlfriend and friends. Opportunities to show college coaches his skills have vanished.
This week, he starts his last year at Whitney Young Magnet High School online, unsure whether he’ll ever sit in a classroom there again, suit up in his orange Dolphins uniform, or go to prom. Instead of playing football this Friday night, he’ll be bagging groceries at a local Jewel-Osco supermarket. He is supposed to be preparing for college and the leap into adult life, but the pandemic has blurred the path for how to get there. Without football, he doesn't know how he’ll afford college.
“If I lose my whole senior year, I just feel like we lost a lot of potential, you know,” Noel said. “So many things just fell apart.”
Noel didn’t watch much football or play any organized sports as a kid. In 2017, he got into Whitney Young, one of the top high schools in Illinois and Michelle Obama’s alma mater. Noel, then a relatively tall kid on the verge of a growth spurt, thought he might try out for the basketball team. But during orientation for first-year students, another incoming ninth-grader asked him to join the football team.
“He came out the next day and he's been working with us ever since,” said Jahari Walker, 17, now also a senior at Whitney Young.
For Noel, Jahari, and their teammates, the high school football experience has not been without obstacles. Their first-year season was suspended because they didn’t have enough players to field a team. In 2018, they weren’t allowed to participate in the playoffs because the season was cut short the previous year. After playing eight games their junior year, the city’s teachers went on strike, forcing an early end to the season.
But through it all, Noel fell in love with football.
“It helped with my physical health, my mental health — it gave me something to do,” he said. “I feel like a lot of people need stuff like sports in their lives.”
The plan wasn’t always to play football in college. Noel, a straight A student, doesn’t need an offer to play football to get into college. But after watching his older teammates get roster spots and financial aid packages from athletic programs, he realized he could do it too and made it a goal. “If I did get offers or coaches wanted to have meetings … I would definitely take advantage of all of that,” Noel said. “That’s why I keep playing.”
When schools closed in mid-March, Noel wasn’t too bothered by the switch to remote learning. The teen, who lives just west of Midway Airport in Garfield Ridge, said it was more convenient to roll out of bed and get on his laptop rather than having to take public transit for the 90-minute commute to Whitney Young in Chicago’s Near West Side neighborhood.
He thought he’d be back on campus in two weeks — maybe two months maximum. He ended up finishing his junior year in mid-June from his bedroom.
For those three months, the school day was cut in half from eight periods to four, meaning he was only scheduled to meet with his teachers two or three times a week, rather than his usual five. The amount of time with teachers also varied from class to class. Some had video lectures each day but made them optional; others only held one live class a week and made themselves available online for the other days.
Noel said for most of his classes the transition to online classes was easy, but for his two AP classes — psychology and physics — it was stressful. The reduced class time made it more difficult to prepare for the AP exams in May. Because of COVID-19, the test formats changed. Multiple-choice sections were eliminated, and the exams were shortened from two or three hours to just 45 minutes with only free-response questions. “The test ended up being really different than what we prepared for the whole year,” Noel said. “We had two months to change gears entirely.”
On top of his own schoolwork, Noel, the oldest of eight kids, was helping homeschool his siblings, guiding the elementary and middle schoolers through their homework and watching over the baby or the toddler while his mom sat the others down for video calls with their teachers. “Everybody had to be involved with the e-learning,” said Noel’s mom, Nora Flores, 33.
The shift to online was especially hard on Flores. After working overnight stocking shelves at Jewel-Osco, she would go home, sleep for two hours, and then wake up when her husband left for work to get the little ones set up for their video calls. “It was really hard, but I was really motivated,” said Flores, sounding exhausted but resolute. “I didn't want them to fall behind.”
“You’re only a kid for so long. You’re an adult for the rest of your life.”
When she found out Noel’s senior year was going to be online again, she cried. She didn’t want him to miss out on any more of his high school experience, all those memories that come with senior year — something she herself didn’t get to enjoy because she stopped going when she got pregnant with him at age 16. “When I dropped out, I felt like this empty void,” Flores said.
She later reenrolled and finished her credits, but along the way she lost the end of her youth. Now, she felt as if her son was losing his, too. “I felt really bad, like they lose something — part of their childhood,” she said. “School is a huge part of it.”
Flores raised Noel alone for most of his life. After growing up around gangs in Chicago, she steered her children away from the gun violence that has plagued the city for years. The experience forced her to grow up fast and led to Noel’s biological father, whom he’s never met, ending up in prison.
“I didn't want my kids to ever see the things that I’ve seen and that I went through growing up too fast and getting involved with things that our minds were not ready for,” she said. “I wanted my kids to enjoy their youth because you’re only a kid for so long. You’re an adult for the rest of your life.”
The gun violence on the streets of Chicago has continued during the pandemic. More than 100 people were killed this July — the city’s deadliest month in nearly three decades. The surge in gun violence prompted President Donald Trump to send more federal agents to the city to help combat violent crime. But Noel has avoided all that.
Instead, it’s the pandemic that has pushed Noel into adulthood earlier, according to his stepdad, Carlos Flores, 41.
“It’s kind of cheated him out of his senior year,” said Carlos.
Now, Noel wonders if he’ll have to finish high school remotely, missing out just like the preceding graduating class on all the milestones that come with 12th grade: the senior luncheon, college decision day, prom, graduation.
The lost time in the classroom also weighs on him as he begins working on his college applications. He registered for two AP classes this year and is concerned he’ll have to do a lot of extra work on his own to prepare for the exams next spring.
“I don't want to say I lost my whole high school experience, because I was there for two and a half years already — but I lost sort of what I thought would be the climax of the best part of the best part,” Noel said. “Senior year is stressful, but at the same time, it’s senior year. You’ve got to go away to college, like, it's really exciting at the same time.”
His girlfriend, Viviana Montes, a 16-year-old junior at Whitney Young, can see the disappointment in his face when they talk about whether he’ll be able to take her to his prom. “Whenever he brings it up he tries to play it off as like, Oh, it’s probably not going to happen so I’m not going to worry about it,” she said, “but I think it gets to him, thinking that it’s not going to happen and not being able to have that moment and memory.”
It’s unclear what the recruiting process will look like for Noel or if it will even happen at this point. This summer, he was supposed to be working out in front of hundreds of coaches from Division One, Two, and Three programs across the country at showcases hosted by local colleges.
Due to COVID-19, all of those camps have been canceled.
While most top Division One–bound players have already been knee-deep in the recruiting process, Noel was just getting started. His coach, Daniel Finger, said that while he could definitely compete at the Division Three level, his junior year performance wasn’t remarkable enough to attract any offers.
His senior season was supposed to be his breakout year, Finger said. But the Illinois High School Association postponed the football season to the spring, meaning Noel won’t be able to play a full football game until after college applications are due. “Nobody’s going to see us play,” Noel said.
It’s frustrating to not be able to compete this fall after Noel worked so hard in the weight room last winter, having put on about 35 pounds of muscle between December and now and having worked out nearly every day at home this summer to become a better and a stronger player.
Finger said Noel’s gotten faster, more coordinated, and would have been able to tackle the most difficult and complicated schemes.
“I’m getting bigger. I'm becoming an adult man,” said Noel, who stands at about 6 feet tall with a broad-shouldered frame that makes him stick out in public.
Because of social distancing restrictions, he and his teammates also haven’t had any physical contact at the few practices they’ve been allowed to hold — and it’s literally Noel’s job as a defensive end and offensive tackle to make contact with other players. “I can’t demonstrate what I'm capable of for these coaches to actually come and see me,” he said.
“I’m not sure if there's any scholarship offers coming after December,” he said.
While Division Three programs don’t technically offer athletic scholarships, most student-athletes receive a package of merit- or need-based grants and scholarships with their offer to play. It’s an opportunity that’s especially attractive to Noel, who fears being saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from student loans.
“If there's ways to get rid of that future debt where I didn't have to deal with that, like with playing football or having the straight As and the high test scores,” Noel said. “All those scholarships ... almost takes a lot of that away and makes it less scary.”
His mom and his stepdad probably won’t be able to cover the full cost of tuition. They haven’t asked him to figure it out on his own, but Noel doesn’t think it’s fair for them to pay for it. “For me to put that burden on my parents, like, I need you guys to pay for my college. I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “I just don't want them to worry about problems that could be avoided with scholarships and other ways to pay for it.”
He also wonders whether his parents would be able to give his seven younger siblings any money for school in the future if they help him out.
“My mom had eight kids, and if each of her eight kids asked for help for college, that's like thousands upon thousands of dollars. And it’s like — I don’t think people can actually handle stuff like that,” Noel said. “If you had to pay, like, $40,000 every year, 18 years in a row … that’s a lot of money.”
While no one in Noel’s immediate family has gotten sick with COVID-19, the impacts of the pandemic on the Latinx and Black communities aren’t lost on him. Nationwide, the disease has affected communities of color at much higher rates than it has white communities. In Illinois, Latinx people, who represent about 17% of the state’s population, account for 27.4% of cases and 20.2% of deaths, according to the state’s health department.
“Deep down it kind of hurts that there are people suffering because they’re stuck in poor neighborhoods and nobody’s really doing much about it,” said Noel, whose mother is Mexican American and biological father is Puerto Rican. “There's definitely a lot of attention that we need to put onto the way that things work with healthcare and [ensure] stable jobs for everyone.”
Noel and his family are among the lucky ones. His parents' jobs have been largely unaffected by the economic downturn. His mom, who works part time, said initially her hours were reduced but she has been able to take on more shifts at the supermarket. His stepdad, who works at a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, hasn’t seen an impact to his job aside from the additional symptom screening, masking, and distancing measures.
Even before Chicago Public Schools nixed its hybrid learning plan to go fully remote for the fall, Noel was planning to do online learning five days a week. It didn’t seem worth the health risk — or the cost of transportation — to go in person for only two days. “People are still sick out there, and [public transit] costs like a good amount of money for just two days,” he said.
After the state pushed back football to the spring, Noel applied for a part-time job at the same store where his mom works to make a little money. It’s a good, classic job for a teenager looking to get a bit of work experience, earn some independence, and learn the value of a dollar — but Noel also quietly hopes he might be able to help his parents out if they ever needed it. ”It’s less pressure on them, too,” he said.
Coach Finger graduated from Whitney Young himself in 2012. Going through the recruiting process between his junior and senior years introduced him to programs and schools he didn’t even know about, opening his eyes to the world beyond Chicago. Now, he gets fulfilled by watching his players enjoy the same experience. “It was fun to lead some of our seniors through that last year and watch them end up at different spots,” said Finger, who played Division Three football at Hamilton College in upstate New York. “[With] Noel, we were going to go through the same thing.”
It’s upsetting to him that Noel and his fellow seniors won’t get that opportunity.
“Weighing ‘what do I want to study,’ ‘what do I want to do with the rest of my life,’ and ‘where is the best place for me to begin that journey’ was really exciting for me and why I got into coaching,” Finger said. “To know that no matter how hard I work, how hard we work, there are going to be doors that would have been open under normal circumstances that are closed is heartbreaking.”
“To know that no matter how hard I work, how hard we work, there are going to be doors that would have been open under normal circumstances that are closed is heartbreaking.”
Finger has been meeting with college coaches on Zoom to learn what they’re looking for in recruits and show the seniors virtual tour videos of college campuses and football facilities, but it’s hard to replicate that experience remotely. He’s still trying to make connections with coaches at a wide range of schools across the country — from Occidental College in Southern California to Bowdoin College in Maine — that might be a good fit for Noel and his teammates. Finger’s plan is to help Noel apply for any school that shows an inkling of interest so that when the time comes for them to play in the spring he’ll be ready to commit. “He would be a contributor to any college campus — to any college football program — and I believe people will see that regardless of getting a look at his senior film, regardless of being able to see his times at a combine, or shake his hand in person,” Finger said.
Jahari, the Whitney Young senior who first convinced Noel to play football, recently received offers to play at Iowa’s Grinnell College and Indiana’s Rose–Hulman Institute of Technology. Jahari said he’s seen how the possibility that his friend might not get to play football has only made Noel more motivated.
“He still has the mentality that he has to be ready regardless,” Jahari said.
It’s a mentality that has carried Noel throughout his life. As a middle schooler, Noel was already incredibly goal-oriented, according to Andrew DeMuro, who worked with him through Guitars Over Guns, a youth development program that pairs kids from disadvantaged communities with musician mentors and provides a safe space for them to express themselves through music. “This kid’s a warrior,” said DeMuro, regional director for Chicago at the nonprofit. “I haven’t seen a goal that scared him away yet.”
Chris Mallette, who coached the varsity team during Noel’s sophomore year, said the teen never missed a weight room session, never skipped a practice, and was always hungry to absorb as much about the game that he could. He, too, is devastated by what the pandemic has done to kids like Noel who’ve done everything right. “I hope he gets an opportunity because he deserves an opportunity,” Mallette said. “He's worked his butt off.”
Navigating the college application process outside of school has been challenging. Noel had been looking forward to attending his school’s college fair to get more information about his options last spring, collecting the glossy pamphlets from schools across the country showcasing their ivy-covered buildings and happy first-year students. All of that was canceled because of the pandemic.
“Not being able to see our counselors and teachers, we had to come up with these choices kind of on our own,” Noel said. “The information we could have got we just didn't have access to.”
He hasn’t finalized a list of schools yet but thinks he’ll end up applying to a mix of Division Three schools, where he would have a shot at playing football, and some other universities with Division One athletics, like the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, UCLA, and Howard University, where the level of competition is most likely too high for him.
He plans to study engineering and hopes to become a mechanical engineer for NASA, SpaceX, or another tech company.
Ideally, he’d leave Chicago, though he’s open to staying close to home. He is also considering going to community college for a couple years and then transferring to a four-year university if he doesn’t get into a school that’s a good fit or can’t figure out the financial side of it.
If football isn’t in the cards, he said, he’ll make peace with knowing that it will still be a part of his life in some capacity, either as just a fan, a volunteer coach, or a parent cheering on his future kids.
“I'll definitely feel down about it, but I don't think it will stop me from doing anything else,” he said. “Football is obviously a big part of my life right now, but it doesn't bother me too much if it's not later in life.”
Sports were one of the first things to be upended by COVID-19. On the same day the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic, the NBA abruptly suspended its season after a player tested positive. Within two weeks, the Olympics had been postponed. For months, ESPN and other networks played reruns of old games, a surreal reminder of life in the Before Times. The return of professional sports in the US this summer, albeit with no live crowds, soon halted in fits and starts as players tested positive. The question of whether to resume college football became a political flashpoint.
But all that belies a more fundamental loss: Kids around the world stopped meeting friends in parks to kick a ball. Basketball hoops were removed from playgrounds. And young athletes like Noel, who has continued to play simply because of his love for the game and the doors that football could open for his future, faced a devastating and possibly life-altering prospect.
“It was potentially either my last year playing organized football or the one year that would make me stand out and allow me to play in college,” Noel said. “Both of those ideas are really big for me.” ●