Former Occidental football players manage program cancellation

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A statue of Jack Kemp at the entrance to Occidental College’s Jack Kemp stadium in Los Angeles, CA, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. Dominic Massimino/The Occidental.

After Occidental’s football program was canceled in October 2020, roughly half the athletes on the team transferred to play football elsewhere, according to former quarterback Thomas Mercogliano (sophomore). Mercogliano said former players still attending Occidental continue to grapple with the team’s discontinuation.

Jackson Skaff (sophomore) was among those who transferred. He said football heavily influenced his decision to attend Occidental and, when the team was cut, he no longer felt he had a home on campus.

“I knew I wanted to play football. I didn’t necessarily know where or how it was gonna look,” Skaff said.

Skaff said if the school had handled things differently, perhaps he would still be at Occidental. He now attends the University of Puget Sound, where he plays as a linebacker on their football team.

Mercogliano said team bonding is essential to success on the field, and Occidental’s players became very close very quickly and call each other brothers, which is why it was so hard to see so many athletes transfer. Mercogliano said it was like splitting up a family.

“Even my one year of playing football at Oxy, I really felt like I’ve developed some incredible friends that I would have never met without football,” Mercogliano said. “It’s a bummer that we can’t develop our relationships even further.”

Having sat out due to illness his first year at Occidental, Skaff said he was sad not to have had more time to play with the team and further build their friendships.

Rodrigo Nieto (sophomore) said close bonds with teammates characterized his memories of his time at Occidental. Nieto transferred to Rhodes College and plays on their football team. Nieto said he has yet to meet everyone on his new team at Rhodes, but at Occidental he knew every person on the team by their full name within weeks and lived with his teammates in the football house off campus.

The hills above Jack Kemp stadium at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. Dominic Massimino/The Occidental

“We were all there for each other no matter what,” Nieto said. “Whether it was on the field or off the field, we would always drop something for one another, to go and help our brother.”

Mercogliano said the college’s decision to disband the team took a toll, both physically and mentally. He said he felt more anxious than ever in the months following the announcement, and no longer felt driven to maintain the good habits that came with prepping for a season.

“I have no motivation besides self-health and looking good, which is great, but I had something bigger,” Mercogliano said. “I had to stay in shape so that I could help my team win games.”

Nieto also said the decision of whether to stay at Occidental weighed heavily on his well-being.

“Thinking about not playing football was just very, very hard on me,” Nieto said. “I didn’t realize how much of a role football played with my mental health and how important it is for me to play.”

Nieto said his decision to transfer ultimately came after discussions with his family who helped him realize he was not ready to give up the sport.

Both Nieto and Skaff said they enjoy the schools they transferred to and are both working hard during spring training with their new teams.

“We are currently in the middle of a football season so we’re having practice five times a week and a game on Saturdays,” Nieto said. “It’s not back to normal, but it’s more normal than it’s been since last March.”

Mercogliano, who still attends Occidental, is using his newfound free time to explore another passion — acting. He said that while he is excited about pursuing acting more seriously, he is sad to have lost his college football career.

“I’m taking two acting classes right now, and I’m seeking out talent agencies and agents in order to make auditions and go do movies hopefully — that’s the dream,” Mercogliano said. “I’ve had aspirations of acting for a long time and now I might be able to more pursue them. But I get something and I lose something.”

Nieto said that while he is settling into his new program, the pain of losing the relationships he built on the team at Occidental will take time to fade.

“There’s a bunch of great kids here at Rhodes, a bunch of new friendships that I’ve made, but I just really really miss playing football with my best friends at Occidental,” Nieto said.