The storms had passed, the worst was over. It was time for football.
This matchup between the Seahawks and Robinson was one of about 50 games played across the D.C. area last weekend — the official return of fall football. The sport brings both widespread eagerness and lingering uncertainty. But more than anything, it is surrounded by an excitement that had long been stifled.
“The buzz has been in the air. We’ve been feeling it,” South Lakes Coach Jason Hescock said. “Everyone’s excited to be in class during the day and then coming out here and doing sports like normal in the afternoon.”
The Seahawks and the rest of Northern Virginia were lucky enough to get a condensed spring season last year, but it was nothing like this. Marred by protocols, attendance restrictions, a chilly training camp and the occasional pause because of coronavirus exposure, it felt like an ill-fitting placeholder for the real thing.
The real thing arrived Friday as South Lakes students filed into their section as the distant rhythms of the approaching band grew nearer. The white-clad students paraded in with a range of props: a drum, boas, a few wigs. One boy carried a green-and-blue oar. Some had handwritten signs.
When it was time for the team to come out, cheerleaders lined up in front of the tunnel. They held a banner that said “Better Together.”
“It’s so nice to have,” Hescock said of the traditional environment. “No, nice isn’t even the right word. The right word escapes me. It’s invigorating. It gives you energy, and it gives you hope.”
When South Lakes took the field, it was led by a boisterous mascot with a smoke bomb in each hand. The large, furry Seahawk ran through the banner, but it did not break, instead staying wrapped around his midsection as he sprinted around the field with blue smoke coming from one hand and green smoke coming from the other.
The smoke lingered for a few minutes in the humid evening, giving the air a blue-and-green tinge during the coin toss and the presentation of colors. It faded by the time the special teams units appeared. The night looked perfect as the ball was kicked off and the season began.
For all of its dependable traditions, high school football can be especially unpredictable. South Lakes would discover that as its celebratory opener went south, with Robinson running away with a blowout win.
This season is also special for the same reason it is precarious: The pandemic that canceled last fall’s season still looms over this one.
In many places, football this season occurs at the crossroads of two eras: Fans pack stadiums to watch games, and teams play without restrictions. But masks and social distancing are still around, and vaccines and testing are regular discussions.
Still, especially in the District, where pandemic-related restrictions were as strict as anywhere in the country, any football warranted excitement.
“I mean, it was a struggle — a struggle,” Gonzaga Coach Randy Trivers said. “All the restrictions here in D.C., and with our school even, from an education standpoint, all of the distance learning and the hybrid learning and easing back to certain things.”
When Gonzaga and Friendship Collegiate met in the heart of D.C. on Saturday — delayed from Friday night because of the storms — Gonzaga mandated masks for all spectators, and the vast majority complied. According to Trivers, every Gonzaga varsity player is fully vaccinated. Friendship Collegiate continues to test all of its players every Monday, Coach Mike Hunter said.
“It’s definitely our main priority, just so that we can get through an entire season without any closures or guidelines or anything like that,” Gonzaga quarterback Carson Petitbon said. “As long as we continue to follow what D.C. and our school has, then we’ll be fine throughout the rest of the year.”
After Gonzaga’s 37-0 win in which he scored two touchdowns, running back Joseph Hammond Jr. recalled the bleak days of last fall and spring, when the Eagles couldn’t practice on their home field near the Capitol and instead had to travel to Virginia.
Back home again, Gonzaga is sticking with masks indoors, even for the fully vaccinated, as the delta variant still poses the threat of breakthrough infections.
“I feel like if we keep wearing the masks, soon this will be over,” Hammond said.
As high school stadiums across D.C. and Virginia flipped on their lights Friday night, Wise quarterback Jayden Sauray was at home waiting. Public schools in Maryland don’t kick off until Friday, but Sauray has grown accustomed to football being just beyond his reach.
The Pumas have long been considered the best team in Prince George’s County, one of three local school systems that went without football competition of any kind last school year, joining Charles County and the District.
There were no games, no scrimmages. Contact between the Pumas’ coaching staff and their players was limited. Coming off his first year as a starter, Sauray saw it as his responsibility to be a de facto coach when needed. He spent the year organizing team runs or going through routes at a local park. Sometimes he would FaceTime a teammate just to quiz them on the playbook.
He did everything he could to be sure that the Pumas, five-time state champions, would not be a step behind whenever they were granted permission to return to the field.
“Being a quarterback here at Wise means being a leader,” Sauray said. “It’s not about the championships. It’s about the brotherhood. And being the leader of a brotherhood means a lot.”
The Pumas returned to two-a-days this summer and hope to have a full season ahead of them. The one thing Sauray will not be dealing with is senioritis. As the first game grows nearer, he has found himself more excited than ever to return to school and football.
“I’ve never been so excited to run sprints or to go to two-a-days and just die,” he said. “I’ve never been so ready to work out, to do anything. So how will I feel for the first game day? It’s hard to explain how eager I am.”
A new beginning
When Gonzaga won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title in 2018, the game-ending Hail Mary was a national highlight. When the league’s powerhouses played last spring, they matched up with incomplete rosters, fluctuating schedules and few spectators.
The Eagles finished undefeated, posing a grim philosophical question: If you win an unofficial championship and almost nobody’s there to see it, did it really happen?
To those inside the program, the spring title meant a great deal.
Gonzaga made T-shirts commemorating the run. They read, at the top, “2021 Undefeated Covid Season Champions,” and include the scores of wins over DeMatha, Good Counsel, Ryken, Avalon and St. John’s, plus one more opponent: “Gonzaga 2021 Covid 0.”
“A lot of times appreciation isn’t realized until you lose something,” Trivers said. “The guys that played in the spring, they lost that whole fall camp and being with the student body and playing football as they knew it. Playing in the spring, they were able to really appreciate being able to play, just being able to practice.”
Saturday afternoon in the searing heat at Buchanan Field felt much like a normal game day. Gonzaga’s students packed into the bleachers, erupted at every score and removed their shirts at the end of the third quarter. Other fans gathered behind the west end zone, and a few residents watched from the balconies of an apartment building overlooking the field. A full team emerged from the locker room at 2 p.m.
Trivers is one of the more stoic coaches in the area, known for pacing the sidelines wearing a purple shirt, a Gonzaga necktie and a straight face. But as he led his team out of the tunnel Saturday, he broke into a smile. His players stormed onto the field, powered by the promise of a new beginning.