BigO Tyres

At some colleges, you play football. At others, football plays you. Zachary Van Bennekum, of West Ranch High, probably wouldn’t be packing up his...

At some colleges, you play football. At others, football plays you.

Zachary Van Bennekum, of West Ranch High, probably wouldn’t be packing up his heavy sweaters to attend Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, if it weren’t for the game he loves.

He will watch videos and lift weights and practice just like they do at Penn State or Pittsburgh, if not quite as often.

But he will treat football in context, as an extracurricular activity, not the hub of all human experience. There was no panic at Carnegie Mellon over the uncertainty of the 2020 college football season.

Van Bennekum was a 4.55 GPA student at West Ranch, and the valedictorian, and was named to the Team of Distinction by the National Football Foundation. Other members: Lance Keneley of Mission Viejo, Drake Metcalf of St. John Bosco, Cade Miller of Diamond Ranch and Anson Pulshipher of Temecula.

“It all came down to time management,” Van Bennekum said. “After practice and weights, I’d jump in the shower and start work right away. I’d usually get it done by 8 or 9 o’clock, and then I’d have the rest of the night.”

Time management wasn’t a problem during the games. If the clock was ticking, Van Bennekum was playing. He was a running back, a helpful receiver and an outside linebacker who supervised the entire defense.

“He was my coach on the field,” said head coach Chris Varner. “He got everybody in position. I really think he might have a chance at major college football, but he was a good lacrosse player, too, so he didn’t devote the whole year to the game. It’s clear that he made the right decision.”

The Wildcats never had won a playoff game before last fall. In the second round they endured two 21-point deficits, yet slipped past Long Beach Wilson, 57-56. Weston Eget fired seven touchdown passes, and Van Bennekum had eight catches.

That was also the night West Ranch ran onto the field waving the Saugus flag, supporting the rival school after a school shooting that killed two.

“Everything about that night was unbelievable,” Varner said, “but I remember Zach getting open, making first downs, taking us down the field.”

The Carnegie Mellon coaches had seen Van Bennekum at the New England Elite Camp Clinic, at Tufts University. Rich Lackner, a Carnegie Mellon grad, has been the head coach since 1986.

At various times CMU has been ranked No. 1 nationally in computer science. It takes only 14 percent of its applicants. Its drama school is represented by Ted Danson, Leslie Odom Jr., Holly Hunter and Steven Bochco, who stocked the TV series “Hill Street Blues” with CMU alums. Another Tartan high-achiever was Gerry Fraley, who turned in a perfect score on the math portion of his SAT and then became America’s best baseball reporter, right up until his death in 2019.

Carnegie Mellon’s all-time football highlight came in 1926. Notre Dame came to town, but coach Knute Rockne was so blase that he chose to scout the Army-Navy game instead. Led by the defense of Lloyd “The Plaid Bull” Yoder, the Tartans jolted the Irish, 19-0, in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.

Van Bennekum admits the Pittsburgh climate might be problematic, but also says he sampled the Primanti Brothers sandwiches, which feature French fries in between the bread. It is not known whether the NCAA considers that an illegal inducement.

He plans to study information systems.

“There’s some coding, a little business,” he said. “It’s the ‘people side’ of computer science.”

Meanwhile, the college football franchises that wear the costume of higher education are freaking out, and the authorities are performing contortions worthy of Simone Biles to say they will play something of a “season.”

The Big Ten did away with its nonconference games, and the Pac-12 and ACC are considering it. That means USC-Notre Dame would be scotched for the first time in peacetime since 1926.

As the positivity rates continue their gallop, all this scrambling seems moot. Seventy thousand or so people will not be gathering, cheek by flask, in the storied venues of college football this fall.

Either they play in the spring or they restrict attendance, and thereby atmosphere, in a way that most SEC and Big Ten audiences will find unacceptable. Whether college football’s edifice complex can survive, along with its endless gravy train of marketeers and other non-essential personnel, is questionable.

But the virus doesn’t pick on the bluebloods.

On Wednesday, Van Bennekum was going about his business with an eye toward an Aug. 6 arrival in Pittsburgh. That afternoon, he got the call. Carnegie Mellon won’t be playing football in 2020.

He’ll find something to do.