The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where high school football has no offseason, there has been a lot to tackle

The Wise Pumas take the field to take on Eleanor Roosevelt at a game in 2019. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The rhythms and rituals of American life disrupted this spring include one of the most American of all American pursuits: high school football, that deeply cultural habit practiced fervently all around and even more fervently in the Southeast.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has closed schools and their weight rooms, nixed spring practices that usually sprinkle across three weeks, lent a loneliness to players’ conditioning and jarred the college-recruiting process. But as three state championship coaches scattered across the region spoke of their inconveniences, they tell of edification and improvisation.

From Georgia to Tennessee to Louisiana, realities have varied while similarities have appeared. Coaches have let their hopes outweigh their fears, as ever, for a sport whose meaning exceeds mere Friday nights to stretch throughout the calendar.

In eastern Tennessee, where Maryville High basks in a 17th state title as of Dec. 7, school lunches remained available through the school year. For those players and students lacking transportation to access them, 12 Maryville coaches made deliveries.

“It’s been humbling,” said Derek Hunt, the third-year Maryville coach and former Maryville quarterback who also runs the school bus system and knows every swatch of pavement in Blount County yet learned still more.

“You realize there’s poverty right next door and you might not even know it,” he said. “The hard economic times like the coronavirus has put us in shines the light on that, and it’s hard for those kids to fit in and hide. Number one, it’s sad, but number two, I think it evokes a stir in our hearts. That’s been a silver lining, to realize we’ve got to do something.”

At Acadiana High in Lafayette, La., when the Wreckin’ Rams’ banquet of March 29 couldn’t happen and the players couldn’t get their 5A title rings from having thwarted Destrehan on Dec. 14 by the glorious throwback score of 8-3 and as some seniors began prepping to head for the military and other ventures, the school adapted.

It held a drive-through ring ceremony.

Players and families rolled up to a circular drive May 14, lowered windows, received rings, budged on, hopped out and posed quickly for distanced photos with coaches and educators.

“It was really cool,” said Cam George, a junior defensive end with a glistening grade-point average and offers from 22 colleges from Penn to Air Force to Louisiana and back to Navy. He arrived in a car with his parents and two siblings. “It was, you know, just cool to see some guys again and be around some coaches.” He found it refreshing “just to be able to say hi to some people.”

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And amid a national din of appropriate misery, a voice such as that of Rich Morgan of Georgia 7A state champion Marietta High in suburban Atlanta might remind why some people become coaches. Five months after his Blue Devils’ 17-9 win over Lowndes of Valdosta gave Marietta its first state title in 52 years and Morgan his third in two states (counting Virginia, with Oscar Smith), Morgan’s voice rang with a well-honed encouragement.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “We never, as kids, had to deal with anything like this. This whole generation of kids is having to go through something we as adults never had to go through.” In that, he found positivism essential and said, “What do these kids have to look forward to if we don’t have this outlook?” He has made frequent use of the words, “We’re going to get through this.”

So the champions of December 2019 have forged through the spring of 2020 while frequenting Zoom or FaceTime or none of the above.

Marietta football has lived and breathed in various video veins, with Morgan’s players and coaches sometimes conducting 40-person meetings featuring players, coordinators and position coaches, occasionally reminding participants young and less-young to “unmute” themselves while speaking.

In Tennessee, where the school district gives each student a laptop, Hunt has opted mostly for the elder invention of the phone call. “You see coaches doing some Zoom video, conferencing with kids,” Hunt said. “I’m just not a big believer in that,” and soon he added, “Our playbook is on the field.”

In Louisiana, Coach Matt McCullough told of “probably the longest period ever when we didn’t see the athletes, for three months,” but said of video, “A lot of our guys don’t have that capacity. Either they don’t have Internet, or they don’t have the Zoom meetings.” With “right around 103 or 104 players,” he said, there’s a routine barrage of calling and texting.

Virtual reality

The divide between video life and real life might ache most in that crucial aspect of American life, recruiting, the lifeblood that brightens or dims the moods in American college towns desperate to beat the living hell out of various loathed rivals as well as less-loathed others.

Acadiana’s spring practices would have brimmed with “50 or 60” college coaches, McCullough said, so all those visits have gone shoehorned into phone calls, during which McCullough lends insights about players. To help with this, McCullough credits school instruction leader Suzanne Dupuy for designing a system wherein college coaches can click a player’s name and observe video clips, height and weight, grade-point average and transcripts. Some of McCullough’s spring — and not the part when he painted his house — has involved getting fresh video clips to college coaches, especially when they wish to see, say, a lineman try some linebacker drills.

George, the defensive end with the 22 offers, found this reality more a workable avenue than a burden. “I feel like [it shows] there was another way to do it,” he said. “Luckily, my recruiting has been really great and has really taken off this spring.”

Most of the frustration, if any, might rest with the college coaches, those sticklers who know in their bones the difference between video and reality. “Film is great,” Morgan said from Georgia, “but everybody likes to see in person how he practices, how he interacts with teammates. ‘How big is he really?’” For himself, he said, “The hardest part is just getting everybody to make sure they have the correct email addresses.”

Reality has wreaked some curiosity and some worry. “Especially for the guys who rely on the school meal program. You’re just wondering how much they’re eating, what kind of nutrition they have,” Hunt said.

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One of Hunt’s wide receivers, Thomas Fry, feels he has thrived as well as he can even as he misses seeing everybody. He is up Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5:30 to lift weights at 6 at an open local gym where the trainer/owner assists mightily. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Fry sees teammates at the school track, where they both run (that old verb) and distance (that new verb).

“After that, you kind of do your schoolwork whenever,” he said, pinpointing an efficiency in staying put every day: “It’s easier compared to being in school, so you just kind of knock it out [the assignments] in an hour, an hour and a half.”

The Maryville coaches arranged barbells and dumbbells for the players, so there will be Fry sometimes, in his family’s front yard, lifting, neighbors shouting encouragement a time or two.

Among teammates, “The biggest way we’ve talked is through PS4,” he said, referring to the vital PlayStation4 chat element.

Goals to go

Next come bits of normalcy, edging in shortly, mingled with the trappings of unforeseen 2020. At Marietta in Georgia, they plan physicals for for fall sports June 1 — with full Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines such as masks. McCullough told of the coming player temperature checks in Louisiana, with anyone registering 100.4 Fahrenheit or above U-turning for home. In Tennessee, they will get back to pads and whatnot city by city and town by town after the state recommended school-by-school purview, with Maryville probably among the fastest given the county’s paucity of coronavirus cases.

If all goes well, they will all see how football goes without the mainstay of spring practice, which, as Hunt said from Tennessee, “would have been a huge deal for us, trying to see new faces, trying to see who’s going to step up.”

Might the devoted patrons of American prep football spot more sloppiness come late summer, more penalties or turnovers, less precious?

Would anyone even care at this point?

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On that topic, coaches wondered mostly about tangents. Morgan noted the difference between good shape and “full shape” born of ideal repetitions. McCullough said from Louisiana, ahead of workouts slated for June 8, “I don’t think there will be that big of a difference. The biggest scary thing for me is any setbacks from there,” meaning, “Once we start, if a player gets the virus or a coach gets the virus, what happens to the rest of the team? I don’t know what the rule is on that.”

And then, curiously, the coaches seemed to think things could go ideally even after less coaching.

Morgan foresaw “easing into it a little bit” and “a more gradual approach,” but even with 18 seniors graduated and 16 signed at colleges (including two with national champion LSU — tight end Arik Gilbert and outside linebacker BJ Ojulari), Morgan said, “We’ll be fine.” And said Hunt: “I might be in the minority here. I don’t think there will be a huge difference. I really do not. I think as coaches, our egos get in the way. We think we’re maybe a little better than we are. Kids win games, man.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals to limit viral spread. A new study on long covid suggests many people don’t fully recover even months after infection.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. You’re eligible if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. The FDA has cleared updated coronavirus booster shots for children as young as 5. An initial vaccine series for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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