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If you want to talk loneliness during a long COVID-19 college football season, take a glimpse inside Charlie Mangieri's apartment near the Northwestern campus. The Wildcats tight end and his teammates had been isolated -- quite successfully, it turned out -- since late August.

That meant Mangieri wasn't home for Christmas, three hours south in Peoria, Illinois. He and two teammates were in their apartment avoiding the coronavirus and missing their families' loving arms.

"My buddy's mom brought over burritos," Mangieri said. "We ate some burritos and watched 'Austin Powers'."

Merry freakin' Christmas. That isolation may have been the hardest part of Northwestern's success in 2020. The Wildcats went 7-2 and played for the Big Ten title for the second time in three years. But perhaps none of it would have been possible if coach Pat Fitzgerald hadn't convinced his players the seclusion was worthwhile.

Because of the Wildcats' adherence to COVID-19 rules, Northwestern made it through the season with only one positive case. While that is a laudable achievement, there were consequences beyond missing Christmas.

"Players always sacrifice the normal college experience," Fitzgerald told CBS Sports. "It was a whole 'nother level this year. Not just here; it led to a lot of our guys being homesick. The mental health side is talked about but it's kind of hush, hush. I think it's major."

"Mentally it was tough on a lot of guys," said Mangieri, a rising senior from a close-knit family who scored his only two career touchdowns in 2020. "It was definitely a grind. I don't necessarily blame some of the guys or schools opting out."

In the end, Northwestern did one hell of a job stiff-arming the coronavirus. Fitzgerald, who signed a new 10-year contract with the school this month, somehow got his players, coaches and support staff to obey health protocols the general public is still having problems following: wear masks, isolate, don't go out.

"We held each other accountable, which was the theme all year," Mangieri said.

It doesn't matter if the Wildcats were lucky and/or adherent. They showed that it could be done.

In that sense, all players across the nation were the success stories of the just-completed season. They put their bodies and health on the line to play the game they love without compensation. They went through sometimes daily testing. Some contracted COVID-19 and battled back. Others were removed from teams for being close to someone who had the coronavirus through contact tracing. They went through the uncertainty of not knowing if there would be a practice or game that week -- or that month.

"Even the coaches had a chance to go home and see their families," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said.

Mangieri didn't get to be with his family from late August until after the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day. His parents would go to games and wave from the stands, but that was it. And it hurt.

"You could see it in his eyes," said Charlie's mother, Theresa. "'I want to see you guys but I can't come anywhere near you.'"

Mangieri wasn't the only one. None of this is meant to judge, but it would be insensitive for anyone in college athletics to take a COVID-19 victory lap. The season got played. Good for everyone involved. But college football in 2020 wasn't a place to keep score except on the field.

It couldn't measure the hope in Mangieri, who someday wants to be a captain, or the longing in his father, Pete, who had a brother-in-law play with Fitzgerald at Northwestern.

Northwestern's achievement will never be formally recognized. You don't do much preening during a pandemic. We all understand the real heroes are the first responders, health care professionals and those in the military who protect us.

Certainly not every player spent Christmas in an off-campus apartment, but in this microenvironment, the players deserve credit for persevering. This is meant to tell part of their story through Northwestern's eyes.

"By no means do we have it tougher than someone who has a child in the service," Pete Mangieri said. "But Charlie told me, 'Dad, I'm glad I'm not a freshman. It really sucks for them.' You think about that. Your worst semester of your life is your freshman year. You can't touch or feel your parents that much. No one is washing your clothes, no one is making your bed, no one is giving you three squares a day."

"You're missing all the big holidays," Charlie Mangieri added late in the season. "I missed Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's without seeing my family. The toughest part was during Christmas time not being able to see anybody. You go on social media and see all the pictures of people having fun with their family and friends. I remember talking to one of my buddies [and saying] that all of that is good. Social media has a certain perspective where everything looks fun. A lot of people would rather be doing what we're doing right now, playing football and having a chance to win the Big Ten championship."

Phillips was empathetic. "It's hard for me to truly think of a group that sacrificed more and were more disciplined than what I witnessed through this summer and into the fall," he said. "To live a life that was unlike any college experience that you've ever seen."

At a sixth-grade parent-teacher conference, Fitzgerald was alerted to the gravity of the situation through his son Brendan. He recalled the conversation:

"The teacher says the only negative is, when we asked Brendan what he was most worried about, he said, 'Getting COVID so his daddy couldn't coach.' It was real. It was deeper than just us. It was our entire families, and our player families. We had families stay away if they thought they thought they had any inclination of getting sick."

Like a lot of teams, Northwestern football was reduced to itself: online classes, training table, practice. That was their campus experience. Did Mangieri ever feel like an employee?

"That's a good question," he said. "Not really. If you sign up to play for a football program in college, you kind of know what you're expecting already."

After games, Northwestern parents and sons would pull up next to each other in separate cars 6 feet away, roll down their windows and communicate as best they could. Players would text Fitzgerald with pictures of the restaurant setting if they dared go out with their parents following a game.

"We didn't tell them they couldn't go to dinner or anything," Fitzgerald said. "We just said, 'Sit socially distanced away and wear a mask.'"

Northwestern's only COVID-19 positive emerged sometime between the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 19 and the Citrus Bowl. Fitzgerald had pounded into his coaches, staff and players that it was worth it to adhere to the guidelines.

Clearly it worked, but not without monumental messiness. The Big Ten season was canceled in August then was reconsidered in September.

Northwestern was as at the center of it. President Morton Schapiro, the chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COPC), reconsidered the decision to play. Phillips was on the conference television subcommittee regarding return to play. Fitzgerald was one of four coaches on the scheduling subcommittee.

Ohio State's Ryan Day and Nebraska's Scott Frost had loudly voiced their support for playing in the fall.

"Everybody is a little bit different," Fitzgerald said. "I work at the pleasure of the president here. I think at some other schools some of the guys in my role think the president works at their pleasure. The last thing I was going to do was come out against my president. God bless Ryan and Frosty for doing it, but I sure hope they talked to their presidents."

The only hole in Northwestern's schedule was the game Dec. 5 game at Minnesota. It was canceled due to COVID-19 issues with the Golden Gophers. 

"Everybody in our program was just so incredibly diligent and disciplined," Fitzgerald said. "Once we got to about 4-0 and 5-0, everybody said, 'I don't want to be that person to be the reason we don't play a game.'"

Christmas came in January for the Mangieri family. After returning from the bowl game, Charlie waited out an ice storm in Evanston, Illinois, before finally making the drive home.

"It was crazy," his mother said. "We were laughing. Our stomachs were hurting. The look on his face, the hug. It was awesome."

And then it was over. A couple of weeks ago, Charlie went right back to school.

"Then the whole thing starts all over again," his father said.