Davidson College head coach Scott Abell had some news for Cade Vela before the season.
Abell had chosen him as one of the team's captains. Vela certainly made an impact his first two seasons on campus, helping lead the Wildcats' renaissance, beginning his freshman year with the program's first winning season since 2006.
But Abell gave a word of warning to his newly minted captain.
"He said that this has got to be one of the hardest years to be a captain," Vela said. "Not only are you given the responsibility to help lead a team, but you're also given the responsibility to make sure all the players are doing everything right off the football field, in terms of COVID guidelines. We're still in college, so a lot of the kids at the small, private college that we go to — there's only about 2,000 kids — a lot of the events are held on campus. With the administration's eyes heavily on student-athletes, one of the hardest things was just making sure that nobody was doing anything against the norm of COVID requirements on and off campus."
Davidson successfully navigated through its spring season, winning four of its first five games, including Pioneer Football League games against Stetson, Presbyterian, Morehead State and San Diego.
The only real hiccup came ahead of an April 17 rematch with Stetson, after a COVID-19 breakout inside the Hatters' program forced them to cancel their game with Davidson.
To Vela and the Wildcats, that meant they were PFL champions.
"The competitor in you always wants to play every chance you get, especially in college ball because you never know when your last down is going to be," Vela admitted. "There was definitely a brief moment of longing for that game, but once Coach Abell said, 'Well, it does mean that you're PFL champions' — you work so hard just to have that title, just to have a ring. So, whenever we found out that we were the PFL champions, jubilance and joy sort of took over my emotions. I was definitely more excited than anything. I was excited for the program as a whole."
It's a program that went 2-9 in 2017 when Vela was a senior at West Forsyth.
That marked Davidson's second straight winless conference slate and its fourth in five years.
Davidson's academic prestige lured Vela to the school — it was either there or the U.S. Naval Academy. But when Abell arrived on campus as a first-year coach, Vela noticed a shift in culture.
"It was definitely [academics], but when Scott Abell's coaching staff came in, we found that out after December-January after I'd committed, so going into my freshman year," Vela said. "Whenever him and his coaching staff took over, he called me. I was one of the first recruits he did call, and he wanted to introduce himself and say, 'Hey, it's a fresh start and we're starting new, but I'm coming here to win and I want you to win with me.' Just having that attitude of winning, of wanting to be great, of not settling for losing in general, that was awesome."
Now, in Vela's three seasons at the school, Davidson is 18-12 after going 9-68 from 2012-17.
"We came so far in the three years I'd been there at that point," Vela said. "Whenever I was getting recruited as a senior in high school, Davidson football went 2-9 that prior year. Then my freshman year we have our first winning season in a decade or so, going 6-5, then my sophomore year going 8-4, then finally just being able to say that you're the champions, especially in COVID and in the first season of spring football in who knows how long — if ever. It was just a lot of emotions coming together, and I was just so happy for the whole department and school."
Davidson's resurgence was on display April 3, when the Wildcats traveled to the University of San Diego and handed the Toreros their first conference loss since 2015 with a 31-25 victory.
Vela started at free safety and made a pair of tackles, leading a Davidson defense that forced San Diego quarterback Mason Randall to throw two interceptions and complete just 55 percent of his passes.
"It was incredible. It was definitely one of the best feelings I've had playing college ball so far at Davidson," Vela said. "I would sort of relate it to playing ball in Forsyth County. With me going to West, the two teams that I always looked forward to playing most were South Forsyth and Lambert. Those were sort of our rivals, and they also just happened to be the top dogs in the county whenever I played high school ball. That's what it's like going out to play San Diego, or them coming to our place."
Vela kept a close eye on West's Elite Eight run during the fall, tuning in during the Class 7A quarterfinals to watch his alma mater face Grayson.
"It was very cool to see a lot of the players play from when I was a senior and they were freshmen or sophomores or in middle school," Vela said. "It was very, very cool to be able to sit back and watch them do what I got to do a few years ago, and go further than I ever did at West. I'm really proud of them, and every time I see them at the local gym or on the football field training, I always make sure to go up to them and tell them congrats and that the community and the county is very proud of them for what they did."
Vela finished with 17 tackles in seven games this season for Davidson, adding a tackle for loss and fumble recovery.
In 24 career games, Vela owns 57 total tackles, plus an interception that came his freshman season against San Diego.
However, one of the toughest tests of Vela's football career awaits as he approaches his final football season. Davidson will begin its fall season in September, leaving Vela about four months to recover from the spring season, which ended in April.
In the midst a grueling nine-month period, with two football seasons essentially stuffed inside one calendar year, Vela is adamant this fall will be his final football season. But knowing that allows Vela to appreciate his senior season even more, and take stock of those around him at Davidson.
"My body hurts, man. It's definitely the last one," Vela said with a laugh. "Just knowing that after this, I'll just likely get a job hopefully in the Charlotte or Atlanta area, closer to home or closer to Davidson, it just gives me more of a reason to work harder. It gives me more of a reason to leave no doubt and to give back to the school and the football program that has helped me become the man that I am now. I owe it to my teammates who have helped me through a lot of times in my life, and to the school, the professors, coaches, trainers and administration who have done so much for me to be where I am today."