Justin Lessel ’21: Seizing the Day

Coming off a breakout year on the football field, Gettysburg College senior Justin Lessel had high hopes for his final season on the turf, but the Centennial Conference’s postponement of fall competition put a damper on those expectations. Despite the setback, Lessel continues to forge ahead and spends nearly every waking moment preparing for his future as a social studies teacher and training for a potential return to competition in the spring.

Lessel was a fixture on special teams and as a back-up safety in his first two seasons at Gettysburg, but he really came into his own in 2019, grabbing a starting role in the secondary and tying for the conference lead with four interceptions. He also racked up 62 tackles and broke up eight passes last season. The highlight of his junior campaign came at Juniata College where he returned one of his two interceptions in the game for a 56-yard touchdown. He was tagged CC Defensive Player of the Week and D3football.com Team of the Week following his performance.

Things haven’t gone as well on the football field since the end of the 2019 campaign. The spring non-traditional segment was stopped before it started because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Deemed a high-risk sport by the NCAA, football was postponed for the semester throughout the Centennial Conference in an announcement over the summer.

Then came the announcement from Gettysburg College in early September which sent most of the upperclassmen home for health and safety reasons following an outbreak of the coronavirus across campus. Lessel, who is student teaching this semester, was one of a select few upperclassmen left behind.

“It’s been tough,” said the native of Orefield, Pa. “I really miss the other seniors that couldn’t be on campus and my heart breaks for them knowing that they’re missing this time. It’s hard to be away from the rest of the guys; they’re like family to me and not seeing them on campus or at workouts is really upsetting.”

The change to the campus demographic hasn’t prevented Lessel from pursuing his career passion. He heads to New Oxford High School each day during the week to teach social studies, specifically focusing on American government. Like many local high schools, New Oxford is in a hybrid format with students rotating from virtual to in-person instruction throughout the week.

Lessel came to Gettysburg undecided on his future, but after taking some history and education courses and engaging students in the local community, he quickly decided to follow the same path as his parents and become a teacher.

“I love being able to teach in the community,” said the history major. “I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some incredible teachers throughout my various field placements and I’ve learned so much from each one. The ability to work in the field early and often is crucial for education students like myself and I’ve really benefitted from the programs that Gettysburg College has offered.”

Adding to Lessel’s excitement is the ability to teach government during an election year. Students have access to an incredible amount of information through the internet and social media, and Lessel revels in the opportunity to help guide them through the process of learning the ins and outs of the democratic system.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better time to teach the content that I’m teaching now,” he said. “I want my students to be curious and educate themselves on these topics so they can make their own decisions and form their own ideologies based on factual information. Helping my students understand the workings of our American government during this time has been extremely rewarding for me.”

Lessel’s schedule has been tight with student teaching keeping him occupied from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day of the week. The football team’s lifting and cardio workouts have been taking place in the morning so Lessel has been unable to completely engage the rest of the team in-person. He works out and meets with the team through Zoom before wrapping the day by studying in the evening.

“It’s a very busy schedule,” noted Lessel, “but it forces me to stay on top of everything and doesn’t allow me to slack off.”

The football team has started practicing and meeting in larger groups, while adhering to safety guidelines. As one of the senior leaders on the team, Lessel wants to set a standard for his younger teammates to follow and help the coaching staff keep everyone working toward the goal of playing in the spring.

“The conference and this college will have to make difficult decisions, but these are decisions that we as players cannot control,” said the senior safety. “So, until we know for sure what the future holds, we’re going to continue to work. Our players, whether on-campus or off-campus, are preparing as if we are going to play in the spring so that if that opportunity comes, we’ll be in the best position possible to succeed.”

Justin and Chris Lessel poise together after a game.

Adding to Lessel’s desire to play next spring is the fact his younger brother, Chris, has joined the team as a first-year. The two Parkland High School grads have never competed on the field at the same time, and the opportunity to do so as Bullets only adds to the hope of having games in the spring.

“It’s cool to have this shared experience, but it would be even more special to be able to play on the same field together,” said the older Lessel. “Being able to play college football is a rare opportunity that few people ever get to experience. If I could share that experience with my little brother, even for a short season, it’d be something special.”

No announcement concerning competition in the spring has been made by the conference and no decision on how many students will be permitted back on campus has been announced by Gettysburg College. Many scenarios have been discussed and rumors abound, but for Lessel, he continues to march on and make the most of the opportunities offered on and off the football field.

“My Gettysburg experience has been nothing short of amazing,” said Lessel. “I’m so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had because of this college and the opportunities I’m going to have in the future. This really is a special place and the people here make you feel like you’re part of a family. That’s what I love most about Gettysburg.”Print Friendly Version

This story was originally posted on the Gettysburg College Website.

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