If Dabo Swinney’s players were safer with him, why did NFL prospect Justin Foster, 22, have to retire from football due to COVID?

Justin Foster, a player at Clemson and NFL prospect, has given up football due to complications stemming from his bout with COVID.
Justin Foster, a player at Clemson and NFL prospect, has given up football due to complications stemming from his bout with COVID.
Image: Getty Images

“This is the safest environment we could have our guys without a doubt … These guys are safer here ... We feel like this is the safest place that we could all be.” — Dabo Swinney, Aug. 10, 2020

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In early August, Clemson head coach, Dabo Swinney, told reporters that he believed players were safe, with him, at Clemson, playing football. In that same month, Justin Foster contracted coronavirus and sat out the entire season. Yesterday, the 22-year-old retired from football citing his battle with COVID.

Foster, who expected to play at the start of the 2020 season, had underlying conditions that made his COVID infection worse. In a statement posted to Twitter, Foster spoke candidly about being born with asthma and allergies, and how that impacted his COVID diagnosis:

“For those unaware, I was born with asthma and allergies that, when active, affect my ability to breath normally. The combination of those conditions, along with contracting COVID, made for a severe difficulty to perform physically.”

While he notes his “situation has improved,” he adds that he’s, “not in a position, nor do I see that position soon, to step back on the field. After consulting with multiple medical professionals, my focus is more so on recovering for the long term.”

“While I still have a way to go, I feel confident that I will fully recover,” he continued.

Coach Swinney echoed those statements in media availability yesterday. “Justin is a guy who has always battled asthma and allergies,” he told reporters. “When he got COVID last summer, that really set him back. He just wasn’t able to do what he needed to do. He’s way better than he was back in August. But he’s still kind of working through that.”

Foster was an All-ACC player in his last season and was considered an NFL prospect. “I think he could play at the next level,” Swinney said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

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But Foster’s football career is over now. Instead of playing, he will forgo a fifth year to focus on his future. “He’s got a great opportunity that’s in front of him doing what he really wants to do,” Swinney said.

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You may have already forgotten, but 37 members of Clemson’s football team, nearly a third of the roster, tested positive for the coronavirus during the 2020 season, despite Swinney’s assurances. Defensive end Xavier Thomas also had a months-long bout with coronavirus after testing positive in April, causing him to miss fall camp and the first few weeks of the season.

While Foster’s condition was not publicly known till recently, he was featured on inactive lists as early as August 15 for an intrasquad scrimmage. He and 15 others did not play for “various reasons.” On Sept. 4, Swinney said Foster hasn’t missed a day of practice,” but had been limited ... and hoped to get him back in full soon. Foster was then inactive in the Tigers first game against Wake Forest, and the week after against the Citadel. As late as November 25, there were still questions about whether or not Foster would return for the season. “We’re hopeful [he returns]” Swinney said at the 11/25 media availability. “He’s had some challenges, but some things that he’s really worked through,” he continued.

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Clemson would not provide the details of Foster’s initial diagnosis or COVID history due to federal privacy laws. “It’s important to us to make sure that we are protecting our student athletes’ privacy,” Jeff Kellin, Clemson’s Associate Athletic Director told Deadspin. “It’s on us to make sure that we’re doing that and making sure that we’re in compliance with federal law and the disclosure of medical information.”

Clemson, like most other colleges, says it’s up to the student to publicly disclose medical information. Some high-profile names, like Trevor Lawrence, have publicly stated when they had COVID, “but we have had others that have chosen not to,” Kellen said.

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While Swinney is the head coach of a team that saw dozens of COVID cases and now one early retirement, Foster spoke admirably of his head coach and the Clemson football program for making him “the man I am today.”

Despite hanging up his cleats far too early, the construction science and management major said he has “excitement and confidence for my future.”