Florida A&M football was scheduled to depart via charter Friday at 11 am from Tallahassee International Airport to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for the Week 0 game at North Carolina.
That was until the Rattlers received jarring news from the NCAA.
Thursday night, FAMU was notified around 20 players were declared ineligible for the season opener and possibly for multiple games.
The list was not made public but did not include newly-named starting quarterback Jeremy Moussa, according to coach Willie Simmons.
The confusing and stunning information caused the flight time to be delayed for 6 hours, 9 minutes while also putting the game against the ACC opponent in jeopardy.
The opener for both programs is billed as an “HBCU Celebration Game,” celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
FAMU will receive a $450,000 payout and kickoff is 8:15 pm on the ACC Network.
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“Late last night, we received word that a lot of our guys we anticipated to make the trip to Chapel Hill were deemed ineligible for myriad reasons,” Simmons said. “We worked through that this morning and got a few of them cleared, so some things have started to move a little bit.
“After looking at the list, there were some critical positions that we were undermanned in, so we had to assess the viability of playing a game for the safety of our student-athletes.
“We’re going to go to war with these guys and work to get the other guys back by this coming week to accomplish our ultimate goal in winning a SWAC championship.”
News of ineligible players was an eye opener
Players lingered around Galimore-Powell Fieldhouse upon hours waiting on a playing verdict. Charter buses that were scheduled to transport the team to the airport at 9:30 am arrived and departed empty.
Simmons alluded to dissatisfaction within the program and by its players in response to the eventful Friday.
“It’s been a rough and trying day, but a day that hopefully opens a lot of eyes to some things that surely need to be addressed if we want to continue to provide a first-class experience for our student-athletes,” he said.
“Right now, they don’t feel that they’re receiving that.”
According to FAMU’s website, the athletics program features one compliance director and two NCAA faculty representatives.
Why are the Rattlers still taking the field at UNC?
The competitive nature of FAMU football drove it to continue as planned and attempt to defeat the Power Five Tar Heels.
“The players,” Simmons said.
Simmons sat down with his 39 graduate students and seniors and allowed them to decide whether to play or not to play the game.
At first, the players were reluctant as emotions ran high knowing that they were going to be without their beloved teammates.
However, after praying, led by Bethel Missionary Baptist Church’s Reverend Dr. RB Holmes Jr., the Rattlers changed course and voted to play.
FAMU Interim Director of Athletics Michael Smith said in a text to the Tallahassee Democrat around 3 pm that “FAMU will be playing in North Carolina.” When asked if he had a statement regarding the travel delay, Smith did not respond.
The team quickly gathered, loaded on replacement buses and headed to the airport to board its Allegiant Air charter flight. The flight departed at 5:09 pm and was scheduled to land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport at 6:34 pm
UNC coaches, meanwhile, kept to their regular Friday pregame preparations.
“I probably had about five or six meetings with the seniors and leaders on this team to lay all the facts and leave it up to them,” Simmons said.
“They’re men of voting and drinking age and many of them have their college degree already. They deserve the right to decide what conditions they play under and at one point, they decided that they didn’t want to play.
“After some further conversations, talking, and even prayer, they came together as a group and decided that we had to fight and overcome adversity since we’ve been here and this is the latest form of it and we’re going to fight together to put the game on.”
Staying focused on the trip to Chapel Hill
It’s hard to even fathom what’s going through the minds of the FAMU players who range between the ages of 18-to-23 years old.
Although their trip got pushed back, the Rattlers will have ample time to shake off Friday’s events.
Simmons and his coaching staff will assist in clearing the minds of the players in order to leave the hardships of gameday eve in the rearview.
“Thankfully, we don’t play until 8:20 tomorrow night, so we still have over 24 hours to mentally get these guys back into a good headspace,” he said. “I think for the most part, the guys are eager to get this day behind us.
“All of us are disappointed that key guys aren’t going to make the trip, but the ones that will go will fight and battle for this football program because that’s what they’ve done since they were here.
“The closeness of this group was evident today more than ever and I’m proud of them and honored to be their leader because of what they displayed and exhibited today in the midst of this adversity.”
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Gerald Thomas III covers FAMU athletics for the Tallahassee Democrat. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @3peatgee.