Like seemingly everything else in all of our lives today, the 2020 Arkansas high school football season hangs in limbo as a series of unknown and unanswered questions regarding the effects of the caronavirus and the subsequent effects on the next school year and high school athletics hangs in the balance. We all know that the spring high school sports seasons were a complete loss to the players and communities of Arkansas, and many are wondering if this will continue into the next school year. I feel so badly for the spring athletes who lost valuable seasons that can never be recouped in their lifetimes, and the trepidation of fall athletes who wonder if their upcoming fall seasons will be a loss, as well.
None of us know what is going to happen next school year. The fear of the unknown is a large part of the pain and anxiety that everyone is facing. When I think of athletes who cannot attend practices, workouts, and games, I visualize a race horse trapped in his stall and begins to jump up and down, kicking at the walls and the gate to breakout. Not being able to take it any more, the horse has to simply break out and run. I can’t imagine high school athletes, in the prime athletic condition of their lives, suddenly having it taken away. One can only pray that this nightmare will soon be over; the loss of life will stop, and our children’s lives will return to some semblance of normal. This I pray.
In the absences of a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 next school year, it can be easily surmised that through social distancing, fall sports will return in some modified fashion. In my thought, that means that football, volleyball, golf, cross country, and tennis may be able to complete their seasons. All of these sports complete their seasons around November, with the exception of football playoffs that conclude with state finals in early December. With flu season starting around November, coinciding with the start of basketball season, I fear that basketball could be lost with a second round of COVID-19 in combination with Type A & B flu that traditionally occurs in the winter months. I am not a physician, and my opinion is worth as much as anyone else’s, but, this is my fear.
So with this cheerful thought in my mind, I interviewed some area football coaches by text and email to gather their thoughts on the possibility of high school football next fall. I want to thank the following head football coaches that were so generous to share their thoughts: Craig Bentley, Mena, Tyler Clark, Paris, Tim Cothren, Mansfield, and Ricky May, Charleston. These are gentlemen that I have, among others, had the pleasure to know and work with, and they all love football, and most importantly, care and love their players.
To the casual fan, football starts in August with the first games usually the last Friday in the month, or, in the case of teams who have elected to play during “zero week”, have started the week before. But, football is virtually a year-around proposition, with winter off-season beginning immediately after the end of the preceding season. Winter moves into spring with the start of spring football practice. School ends for the academic year, and football programs continue conditioning and playing 7-on-7 summer games until the start of fall practice in early August.
But like a lot of things, the devil is in the details. For example, April and early May are usually times when schools, working with area health providers, set-up mass screenings, or, clinical appointments for any student in grades 6-11 who wants to play high school sports the next year to have their physical examinations made. Schools across the state do this in different ways. But today, regardless of how schools have accomplished this task in previous years, our health system is overrun by COVID-19 testing and treatment, and health care professionals are not as readily available to perform athletic physicals. Combine this with school being closed and it being a greater challenge for coaches to remain in contact with players and students who are not currently playing but desire to do so next school year, and you have a situation that will be a challenge once the sports season is allowed to resume. Remember that the Arkansas Activities Association has proclaimed a “dead period” through May 30, and this means that nothing can take place until at least June 1. The way things are going today, it is very much a day-to-day phenomena for our country, and high school sports is caught up right in the middle of state and nation’s struggles against the virus.
One question I wanted to know from our coaches was how long this (the dead period) can continue before high school football is affected next fall. Coach Ricky May of Charleston responded, “I understand that safety is the ultimate goal for all involved so it is important that we follow the state guidelines. My understanding is that Phase 2 of the reopening plan is that all youth activities get started back, so I am praying that the people that are affected will recover and our nation and state will be closer than ever. I hope that the latest we get started with our summer workouts will be the original dead weeks that would end on July 6, but hoping we get to started a little earlier.Worse case scenario, is that we lose our non-conference games but get to have our conference and playoffs as usual. With the loss of spring workouts and spring football, our kids will not be as conditioned as we like or need to be.”
Craig Bentley of Mena commented that he is just trying to keep his players focused each day during the dead period. “Our philosophy has been to try and not guess what will happen or when it will happen. As far as returning, we are just focusing on each day. We have to realize things are changing, even when we do come back, and we have to be ready for that. That is why we have placed a major emphasis on our guys getting their workouts / speed work done at home on their own. We host virtual meeting with our players and coaches, as well as text and / or phone calls as we reach out to our players each week. Thankfully, I have a great group of assistant coaches and we all share that same vision. When we return to full team activities it is going to be a challenge to make sure we get the guys in playing shape while also focusing on football fundamentals and schematic work that we have missed Everyone (all programs) will be in the same boat, so, it really comes down to how well you are with keeping up with your players during this time off.”
Soon to be second year Mansfield head football coach Tim Cothren was asked how long the AAA’s dead period could go without affecting the 2020 season. Like most coaches I have talked to, Cothren thinks there is still time to have football next fall. “I’m thinking that if we get into August and we’re still into this (dead period), then you’re getting down to splitting hairs as to when, where, and how. The pressure will be on the kids to prepare themselves for the most part. Of course, we have been communicating with them digitally, reminding them of workouts they can do at home. But my best guess is that if we don’t get this thing started (football practice) sometime around the first or middle part of August, the season would be in serious jeopardy. I think to get the ten game schedule in as scheduled, the first or second week of August is going to be pretty critical. If nothing else, the acclamation to the heat, the conditioning, are a couple of huge factors, little alone the games themselves. I’ve heard rumors of different ideas involving perhaps the forgoing of the non-conference games. For schools our size, that means that perhaps we would have to play a conference game in week two. So, that would be pretty difficult for the players. The key factors are going to be the heat and the conditioning of the players. You can tell kids to get out there and do it, you can text them, do whatever, but if they’re not out there doing it, then you (coaches) still have a responsibility to make sure they are conditioned and acclimated before they are ready to get to game time. Due to the dead period, there is going to be a back log of things that have to be done, such as school physicals, once the dead period is lifted.”
The issue of physicals for fall athletes is a subject that also concerns Paris head football coach Tyler Clark. Clark mentioned that his program is fortunate to have a school-based clinic at Paris High School that will be a vital asset to helping the players get their required physical exams. School-based clinics such as the ones at Paris High School and Mansfield school district are operated by the Mercy Health System and provide vital medical care for local students and athletes. Coach Clark commented, “That (access to school physicals due to the effect of the virus on our health systems) is definitely a concern. I have not thought about that too much because at Paris are done a little differently. We have a wellness clinic at the high school and instead of doing all physicals on one day in April or May like a lot of school districts do, we always just keep track of our kids’ physicals whether they do them in August, December, February, or July, we just send them to the wellness center and the medical staff there always do their physicals. So I don’t think this affects us as much.” With respect to when Coach Clark believes football can resume this summer to not endanger the season as schedule he said, “I think we still have a while. Summer work is crucial to everybody; the workouts, the team camps, 7-on-7’s, but, you’re not missing too much if everyone else is missing it too. So, I think, in worse case scenario, that we are back by the beginning of August, and still let us acclimate kids to the heat and be safe with heat-related illness and things like that…the product on the field might not look as good as if we had been practicing all summer, but I think we could still have games and it would be safe from the heat standpoint. As far as the virus goes, who knows? I can’t speak to what that would mean. Of course, if it is not safe to go back (from the virus perspective), then of course it would be a bad idea. It would take some adapting by coaches (to protect kids from the virus).
Coach Clark, like all of the coaches I have talked to, has spoken informally with many of the area coaches in the state regarding ideas on how the schedule would be modified next year if needed. “I haven’t spoken to any of the conference coaches regarding what might happen with the conference schedule next year (Paris plays in a new football conference next season), but I have heard certain rumors of some things being talked about. I’d rather not say because at this point they are just rumors.” Coach Clark echoed Coach Cothren’s comments about the possibility of playing just a conference schedule, but neither coach wants that to happen and remain hopeful that the entire ten game schedules will remain in place for high school football next season. Coach Clark perhaps said it best when he said, “At the end of the day, everyone just wants to play; to return to some sense of normalcy.”
Normalcy; something we are all craving right now. So, it may seem trival to be talking about football when their are still grave concerns about the health of so many Americans due to the caronavirus spread in our country, the possible resumption of football and all sports is a signal of a return to normalcy for our stressed and fatigued country who has been through so much over the past two to three months. May we all pray for a quick return to normalcy where once again, we can drive the streets of our communities, eat at our favorite restaurants, not be afraid of others, and once again, drive past the ball fields and hear the chatter of kids, the cheers of our parents, and know that once again, all is good with the world.
With God’s grace, and by working together, I believe that day is much closer than we fear. A day when we will all get a break from the constant barrage of bad news on television about people dying in our country, and instead, get to watch and listen to kids do what they love to do, and to cheer on all the great things that sports bring to our children.
Yes, I believe that day is coming. Hang on everyone; we are going to see that day, and when it comes, we will all have much to celebrate. What a day that will be.
Stay safe everyone, and God bless us all.