DeForest Buckner comes face-to-face with media, Colts’ COVID-19 situation

Indianapolis Colts

DeForest Buckner #99 of the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

WESTFIELD – On a bright, searing Tuesday, “personal decision’’ seemed to be the phrase of the day.

But first, a personal observation: DeForest Buckner is a big man who casts a long shadow.

He’s even larger in person, socially distanced from the media, of course.

We got our first up-close look at Buckner Tuesday morning as the Indianapolis Colts converged on Grand Park Sports Campus for the start of training camp. One trivial byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic that played havoc with all facets of life last year was zero face-to-face contact with players as the season unfolded.

Zoom was the conduit, until Tuesday.

“This feels weird,’’ Buckner said. “It’s been a whole year.

“This is my first time, so be gentle.’’

The pleasantries out of the way, things got serious.

And in today’s NFL, that meant discussing whether this player is vaccinated, or why that one might have opted against it.

The overriding theme of the day: it’s a personal decision.

Buckner, nickel back Kenny Moore II, running back Nyheim Hines and linebacker Zaire Franklin are among the vaccinated. Wideout Parris Campbell has received his first shot with the second on his schedule. Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton remains on the fence on the vaccination debate and wore a mask. Safety Khari Willis wore a mask and declined to elaborate.

“That’s a personal decision,’’ he said. “I think our team is in a good spot.’’

Running back Jonathan Taylor also didn’t specifically reveal his vaccination status, but lowered his mask when he spoke with the media.

“With this (Delta) variant, there’s no telling what this variant can do,’’ he said. “I’m wearing a mask until this thing is completely, 100% gone.

“I don’t want to touch COVID at all. I’m just protecting myself. I’m not going into details. I’m doing what’s right for me. I’ve seen some dudes who’ve been in very bad shape and I do not want that to be me, don’t want to hurt the team, either.’’

Buckner? Sans mask. That allowed his smile to radiate.

“Yes sir, totally vaccinated,’’ he said. “And I see a lot of you guys not wearing a mask, so I guess you’re all vaccinated. I love it.

“It’s a personal decision for everybody. Everybody has their reasons why they get them, why they don’t.’’

Buckner has quickly settled into the role of one of the team’s unquestioned leaders since being acquired in a March 2020 trade with the San Francisco 49ers. General manager Chris Ballard then reaffirmed his expectations by giving Buckner a four-year, $84 million extension.

It was an investment in the player and the person.

Teammates never hesitate to approach Buckner for advice, and he’s quick with it.

“I’ve had teammates come up to me and ask why I got vaccinated and I told them,’’ he said.

With COVID-19 protocols in place but no vaccine available last year, Buckner tested positive for the virus heading into the Colts’ week 12 meeting with AFC South rival Tennessee. He was asymptomatic but forced to miss the game. He had plenty of company: end Denico Autry, linebacker Matthew Adams and Taylor also were COVID-19 victims.

“I felt like I let my team down when I got it,’’ said Buckner, who led the Colts with 9.5 sacks and earned his first first-team All-Pro recognition. “You’re following protocols and this and that, (but) it’s a virus. Eventually somehow it’s going to get you or whatever. If you haven’t gotten it, you’re very fortunate.

“It was terrible because I could have done my job that Sunday. I was at home watching the game. I was frustrated. I know I could have played a part and could have helped up win that game.’’

The Titans rolled 45-26, and the outcome was significant. Indy and Tennessee finished with 11-5 records, but the Titans won the AFC South based on a tiebreaker. The Colts had to settle for a wild card berth and a first-round trip to Buffalo, which they lost 27-24.

This season, the NFL made it clear if a game must be postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak and ultimately cancelled because it can’t be rescheduled, the team causing the cancellation will be handed a loss. Also, players on both teams will not be paid their game checks.

Buckner described that possible scenario “a tough pill to swallow. That’s going to hit home with everybody. Everybody wants to get paid, especially with what we go through every day, what we put our bodies through.

“I know we have the right guys in the building to follow those protocols.’’

When making the decision to get vaccinated, Buckner initially thought of what might have happened had he not known he had tested positive last year since he showed no symptoms. He could have infected his grandparents.

“I would have felt terrible, you know what I mean?’’ he said. “Passing it along to other people and not knowing. That’s the main reason I got vaccinated.

“Also, I mean for moments like this. I get to see all you guys’ faces . . . not even wear masks, just getting some normalcy.’’

Moving forward, the question is how close to normalcy might the Colts actually creep. They remain one of the NFL’s least-vaccinated teams. Ballard said Monday more than 60% of the roster is vaccinated.

But that means roughly 30 players aren’t vaccinated, although Campbell’s late decision and Hilton’s indecision are signs more vaccinations are likely as training camp unfolds. Also, Monday the team revealed coach Frank Reich tested positive. He’s asymptomatic but won’t be allowed to be at Grand Park until he has consecutive negative tests.

The individual vaccination decisions ran the gamut.

Hilton: “It’s a personal decision. I’ll just leave it at that.’’

Players have held spirited meetings with both sides of the issue being discussed.

“It’s always good dialogue whenever you get a chance to see both sides of it,’’ Hilton said. “Especially like being in the middle (and) you don’t know what side to go on. It took some guys off the fence.’’

Which side of the fence is Hilton on?

“I’m in the middle,’’ he said.

Hines: “Yes, I have (gotten the vaccination). Truthfully I really didn’t want to get vaccinated. It’s a business decision. The protocols and things like that, I just wanted them over with.’’

Unvaccinated players must be tested every day; vaccinated players once every two weeks. Unvaccinated players face significant restrictions in the team facility and on road games.

Campbell: “I’m halfway vaccinated, but I think it’s a personal decision across our team, across the league. I respect everybody’s decision.’’

Campbell will take the second dose when it’s appropriate.

“A lot of variables went into it, a lot of personal stuff for me,’’ he said.

Willis: “Everybody’s looking to follow the protocols, vaccinated or not, and I am as well whichever category I fall (into).’’

Moore: “It’s a personal choice. It took me awhile to come to grips with what I wanted and what I wanted to feel around other people. If I was to talk to anyone else amongst the organization, I’m not pushy. I’m not telling them to do anything. They’re grownups, too.’’

Franklin: “I don’t care to share, but I don’t have a mask on, so I am vaccinated.’’

Franklin made it clear his decision was personal.

“For me just dealing with my family,’’ he said. “One of my favorite things about the NFL honestly is when I get to travel to another city and kind of get dinner, go out to a mall, or just kinda hang out unlike college where you have meetings all day.’’

The Colts travel to Arizona to play the Cardinals Christmas Day, and Franklin’s fiancée has travel plans to meet him. Unvaccinated players are prohibited from leaving the team hotel on the road.

“I didn’t want to have a situation where I (couldn’t) spend time with her,’’ Franklin said. “My fiancée is vaccinated, her mom is vaccinated. It just made the most sense for me personally.’’

Taylor: He missed the Titans game after being placed on the COVID-19 list due to close contact with an individual who tested positive.

“So I’m watching the game and regardless of the outcome I’m like, ‘Man, I’m supposed to be on the field with those dudes,’’’ he said. “It sucks. That’s why I’m doing everything I can to try and prevent that from happening again this year.’’

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