In Georgia, Friday night football is king, known as much for the talent on the field as the small-town traditions that endear even those with little interest in sports.
Parents man concession stands as marching bands provide the evening’s soundtrack. Cheerleaders move to their own voices.
Thousands of fans across the state sit in the stands, hearkening to days long past of their time on the field. Some personally scout for their town’s next big thing, likely headed to UGA and, maybe, the big time.
The coronavirus could make all that go away.
Social distancing and other health department-mandated restrictions could see some traditions go away, at least temporarily. Already, officials are deciding whether to remove the traditional coin toss, captains meeting for a handshake on the field, and even spectators in the stands.
“I’ll be sad if people don’t get to watch me,” said Randy Britt, 17, a rising senior at Gwinnett County’s Norcross High School. “But as long as we get to play.”
Schools are allowed to begin voluntary off-season practices and drills on Monday, based on guidance from the Georgia High School Association which includes limiting the number of players in different drills as well as sanitizing equipment between athletes. For many, it will be the first time seeing their teammates since mid-March, when school districts closed buildings and cancelled activities to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Some districts have announced their drills will begin later. Fulton County Schools will begin off-season practice on June 15. The DeKalb County School District has not announced a date for drills to begin.
“High school football plays a big part in the culture of our state,” said Steven Craft, Fulton County Schools’ director of athletics. “We want to respect the hard work and dedication of the student athletes, coaches and parents who care deeply about the sport by being prudent about how we come back in the fall. It is imperative to have safety precautions in place before these activities begin.”
‘I have dreams about it’
When the season begins in the fall, GHSA would set minimum guidelines for teams to use. Those guidelines will depend on where the state is regarding the coronavirus, whether cases are under control or numbers are continuing at a steady pace. Officials have discusses the idea of temperature checks for all players and on-field personnel, and extending that to spectators. Talks have included requiring masks, maybe social distancing in the stands.
“I think the biggest thing is the fan portion,” said Patrick Ingram, a booking secretary with the Georgia High School Association. “Cheerleaders, sixth- and seventh-grade girls who go to hang out. It’s a social event as much as it is anything else. The Friday Night Lights feel for some of the bigger games where you have the large crowds and energy.
It would be very different to walk out there and have crickets as your atmosphere.”
Players have been given instructions by their coaches during the downtime to focus on their nutrition, as well as workouts for their specific positions and conditioning to stay in shape.
Kim Jones Snipe’s son, Spencer, spends hours on Zoom conferences with his coaches and teammates from the Woodward Academy, where he’s a rising sophomore. Coaches have given him workouts and an entire meal plan that meant a separate shopping trip for his needs.
Woodward Academy officials have told parents no official practices are planned until at least July.
The school is “committed to following recommendations, watching public health statistics, being in contact with the state,” Jones Snipe said.
Randy, from Norcross High School, said he has been working out every day since March, running around his neighborhood and doing some weight training at home. He’s taken some cues from UGA’s football staff, which posts workouts on its social media and other web pages.
Kaece Supples is still worried his junior season could be jeopardized as officials are still unsure how the coronavirus will affect the upcoming season. Many students depend on the sport to jump start their dreams, be it to eventually make it to the NFL or just for the scholarships that would pay for college.
“I have dreams about it sometime, if (COVID-19) cancelled all this, how hard it would be for a lot of people,” the 16-year-old linebacker said. “How many kids wouldn’t be able to show what they had and get the exposure they need to make it to college.”
‘We want to be there’
The coronavirus already canceled spring scrimmages, where Tucker was set to square off with district rival Stevenson High School. Coaches have been constantly feeding players with information but, Kaece admits, it can be hard sticking to nutrition and workout plans without coaches present to hold players accountable.
“Once the season starts back up, it’s eat or be eaten,” he said. “If you weren’t working, it’s going to show.”
Randy said he recently began meeting up with former teammates from DeKalb’s Tucker High School — which includes Kaece and a couple other former teammates — running drills and motivating each other through laps around the school’s track. Football, itself, is a contact sport. Still, he said, the teens do their best to protect themselves.
“We’ll bring hand sanitizer, but while we’re out there, we’re out there,” he said. “We feel like we haven’t been going out during quarantine, so we’re straight.”
While Jones Snipe said she’s not the mom wearing face paint and cheering the loudest in the stands, she attends most of Spencer’s games to support him and make sure he’s OK. She and her husband have decided he can play, for now.
“I’m the daughter of a public health professional,” Jones Snipe said. “I understand fully viruses and I have a lot of dear friends who are CDC employees. If he’s in his full uniform, he’s going to have on gloves and his helmet. If they’re saying it’s respiratory, he will be exposed to COVID-19. Having said that, is that a risk my husband and I are willing to take? I personally would rather not have him exposed to that, but I’m not the only person that makes decisions.
“I pick my battles and I wait and see.”
Randy’s mom, Tywanna Bailey-Britt, said she won’t miss a moment of his senior year.
“We’re waiting to see what the officials say,” she said. “We will sit in the stadium social distancing and whatever. If we have to stand outside the stadium to watch. We don’t care. We want to be there. I’m going to have to make that happen by any means necessary.”
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