When Ramon Henderson signed a national letter of intent with one of the country's top college football programs, there weren't many people more excited than Mason Brinsfield.
Sitting in his high school auditorium, Brinsfield was grinning ear-to-ear as Henderson, his best friend and a former two-way star at Liberty, officially committed to Notre Dame on National Signing Day in 2019.
While excited for his friend, Brinsfield's smile was also sparked by the future he was envisioning for himself. Then a junior at Liberty, Brinsfield expected to find himself in the same position one year later, sitting on a stage, putting pen to paper on a Division I NLI.
But as 2020 Signing Day came and went last Wednesday, Brinsfield and countless others didn't get the moments they were expecting.
As COVID-19 has continued to ravage the United States, high school football in California has been one of its many casualties. With teams unable to play in the fall, hundreds of Division I hopefuls were unable to put together the film they needed to impress college coaches.
Brinsfield, a linebacker severely hampered by a shoulder injury in 2019, was among the seniors affected. And with his first opportunity to land on a D-I roster gone, he's at times struggled to handle the reality of his situation.
“I just had hopes of this senior year being my one last chance of getting where I’ve wanted to be since I was a kid," he said. "It seems like everything just went away in a matter of seconds.”
Such problems extended to the junior college level, impacting players like David Stevenson.
A two-way senior starter who helped lead Bakersfield Christian to a 3-A state title in 2019, Stevenson planned to spend 2020 sharpening his defensive back skills at Santa Barbara City College before finding greener pastures on the transfer market.
But like the CIF, the CCCAA shut down all competition in the fall.
Without football and forced to stay home and take online courses, Stevenson has also struggled mentally as he tried to adapt to a first college semester that was nothing like he expected.
"I could have had film. I'm a qualifier for the NCAA so I would have probably signed at a D-I already," Stevenson said. "Right now, I'm just missing on scholarships and an opportunity to get film. It's real tough having to sit back and watch other people sign their national letters of intent."
There may not be any immediate relief coming either. While the release of a vaccine has created hope that coronavirus cases may soon be curbed, there is major concern that scheduled spring football seasons in the CIF and CCCAA may not be played.
Discouraged by California still being in the most restrictive COVID tier, Stevenson is particularly pessimistic, outright saying "I don't think we'll have a season."
There's also about to be much more competition on the recruiting trail, as a whole new incoming class will lead to more players battling for fewer available roster spots.
With little to do but workout, that's what Stevenson and Brinsfield are doing.
To keep himself in shape, Stevenson has spent his down time playing in as many seven-on-seven games as he's been able to find in Bakersfield.
Saying his shoulder is back at 100 percent, Brinsfield has practically lived in the weight room since the end of last season, putting on 25 pounds of muscle to bulk up to 225 pounds.
Without new film to show off, that physical transformation may be enough to get Brinsfield's foot in the door. After some preliminary talks with coaches, he says he's "99 percent sure" he'll walk on at the University on Nevada next season.
A year after watching him sign with Notre Dame, Brinsfield is again using his good friend as motivation. Despite a lopsided 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday, Henderson and the Irish still appear on the brink of securing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Confident he too will get to experience the thrill of playing Division I football, Brinsfield says he's willing to play the long game to get there.
"One thing I've had to battle is wanting instant gratification," Brinsfield said. "To sit here and say I've never been frustrated, angry at the world is a lie. But it's a matter of how you react. My time's yet to come, but it's coming soon. I just have to be patient with everything that I do."
Stevenson, who hopes to be in Santa Barbara for team workouts in January, is equally confident about his future prospects and has a message for anyone interested in following his progress.
"Keep listening for David Stevenson," he said. "In a couple years, I should be on someone's D-I field. Nothing's going to make me stop."