Robert Stevens, General Assignments Reporter
Two teams lined up at the 34-yard line. The score is 28-30. With only two seconds left on the clock, the state title is on the line. Stephen is lining up for the final kick of the game. He knows football players dream of these moments. He knows his brothers are counting on him to hit this kick right between the uprights. He has put his blood, sweat and tears preparing and has done this kick millions of times. He takes a deep breath. He takes in the moment. He feels the cold sweat dripping down his forehead and his hands shaking. The snap is taken and contact is made. All eyes are on the ball as it flies through the air. The final seconds tick off the clock and it’s good. Stephen gets trampled by his teammates as they have finished the job. They are champions. But he realizes something. The stadium is silent. He looks around and sees nobody in the stands except a few with clearance and a negative COVID-19 test. Suddenly, Stephen’s joy turns bittersweet. He knows this year is different. Friday Night Lights are no more.
Stories like these are going to become all too real when the 2020 football season comes to a close. COVID-19 has once again reared its ugly head and impacted one thing many believed to be untouchable; football. COVID-19 and football don’t mix due to the disease’s high risk, the inability to maintain social distancing on the field and the direct contact players have that can spread respiratory droplets at high rates. Communities, students, coaches and players are feeling the effects.
Just before the football season’s scheduled beginning in August, some state officials throughout the country released their guidelines for this upcoming season. Some teams are still awaiting the green light to play the game they love so much. Others have received the news that their season will be postponed. Many teams in New York are awaiting March 1 of next year to have their season, including Whitesboro High School.
“Our kids were disappointed with the decision not to play this fall,” Whitesboro High School Head Coach, Curtis Schmidt said. “However, they have quickly moved forward and have their sights on March 1. They have shown great maturity throughout the whole process.”
The most pivotal part of Friday Night Lights is what occurs during the off-season. The preparation determines whether a team will walk out with the agony of defeat or joy of victory. In order to maintain guidelines, practices have been a bit lackluster in routine but excessive in regulations.
In Whitesboro, students and athletes are being screened daily to ensure there are no symptoms that could spark an outbreak. The equipment for the players is being constantly sanitized before and after usage. As November begins, the team has only been able to conduct limited light fitness workouts.
“We have been meeting on Zoom since the pandemic started,” Schmidt said. “The process has been long. Safety has been the number one goal for all involved and rightfully so. We are following all the rules provided to us by the New York State Department of Health.”
Just below the southern border of New York in Pennsylvania, Friday Night Lights can be characterized as sporadic, inconsistent and challenging, but it’s still happening. In order to limit the amount of potential exposure to the virus, football schedules for some schools were pushed back and limited to five games, pending test results. Coaches and players are continually walking into their offices and classrooms not knowing if they will be able to play their game that week or even practice a full week. While this scenario is scary, it makes the concept of never knowing when one’s last play might be all too real. This allows for many of the players to love and appreciate the game just a little bit more.
“At first it was a pretty negative thing with losing a lot of our summer workouts and starting late and really they didn’t know if we were going to have a season or not,” Susquehanna High School in Pennsylvania Head Coach, Kyle Cook said. “Every practice could be our last practice if we get a case in the school. So, we’re really stressing that to them. For most of these kids, they’ll never put pads on again, so we’re really emphasizing to prepare in practice as hard as they can and for the most part, they’re dealing with it pretty well knowing it’s coming to an end.”
For Coach Cook, even film sessions have changed dramatically. Due to social distancing regulations, the team has had to be quick to act in reserving the largest rooms in the school to ensure the whole team can participate and prepare for their next game.
As wearing a mask becomes muscle memory, Cook is constantly amazed at how much has changed on the practice field to meet regulations including social distancing and constant sanitation.
“In practice, as coaches we have our masks on constantly whether we’re speaking or not,” Cook said. “Really the only time my mask would be down is when I blow a whistle. When we’re playing on offense, I talk to my quarterback. He gets the play and runs in and I have to get away from everyone.”
The lives of high school students, especially in times such as these, can be difficult and overwhelming. Some high school students turn to football to vent their frustrations and have an organized outlet away from school and home. Without an outlet or purpose as grand as this, many players feel lost.
“I have a lot of kids who this is their release,” Cook said. “A lot of them too it keeps them going academically because they have to perform in the classroom in order to be able to play.
COVID-19 touched the untouchable in high school football. It is a crucial battle in this long war that is 2020. Regardless, 2021 is looking optimistic for Friday Night Lights to return in the minds of schools around the nation like Whitesboro.
“Mentally we are sharp and ready to go,” Schmidt said. “We just have to continue to follow the rules and I believe we will be playing football in March.”