High school football in Georgia finds a way through pandemic

The picture of high school football in 2020: Because of the pandemic, parents' smiles are obscured by masks and, for Mays High, senior night had to be held Friday on the road, at Marist. Here the Wimberly family - Quajulan, Kaleb and Carey - make the best of it.
The picture of high school football in 2020: Because of the pandemic, parents' smiles are obscured by masks and, for Mays High, senior night had to be held Friday on the road, at Marist. Here the Wimberly family - Quajulan, Kaleb and Carey - make the best of it.

Credit: Steve Hummer

Credit: Steve Hummer

It was football as unusual Friday night at Marist, the end of the irregular season, another game reshaped by the coronavirus. In a slight chill, the home stands were lightly populated, a fraction of the normal audience for a Class 4A powerhouse. Cheerleaders wear masks in 2020. Bands are scaled down or disbanded all together. It’s high school football with the volume turned way down. But they played on just inside the Perimeter on Friday night, a victory in itself.

“Your biggest worry is whether you’re going to have a game on Friday,” Marist coach Alan Chadwick said earlier in the week. “You put your head on the pillow and just hope something good is going to happen and we can at least play a game.”

The abject strangeness of this pandemic season played out even more on the other side of the field. For there, senior night for Mays High was a road game.

This meeting originally was scheduled for Mays. But Atlanta public schools haven’t allowed fans this entire season. If Marist, a private school with different pandemic protocols, hadn’t suggested they move the game here, neither fan base would have gotten to see its young men play. And for Mays, a three-win team that had no playoff game awaiting, that would have meant some parents missing their sons’ last game ever. An irretrievable moment lost.

Imagine how difficult a season like this has been for a family like the Wimberlys, who have watched three sons now play football at Mays, priding themselves on being there every step each one has taken on the field. But for the last of the three, Kaleb, the Raiders senior center, it has felt all wrong this year with so many games off-limits.

They could only watch a streaming broadcast of the season’s opening game when Kaleb went down with an ankle injury. “My heart just sunk,” said Quajulan Wimberly, the mother who so badly wanted to be there.

“You just don’t feel part of it,” said Ted Weaver, whose son Cameron is another senior on the Raiders line.

“That’s why it’s so good to be able to cheer him on now,” said Donnetta Weaver, “to hear our voice in the stands. You know what they say, no matter how many mommas are cheering, your boy always hears your voice.”

This is the season of adaptation and improvisation. The kind season where if you must, you pack up the balloons and the signs and the flowers and celebrate senior night at halftime on someone else’s field.

When the subject is high school football and the setting is Georgia, it is difficult to get any kind of dispassionate read on the risks and rewards of this season. Because dispassion has never visited a southern high school stadium on a Friday night.

The decision to play football this fall was rooted in equal parts stubbornness, faith and an ever-changing conversation between the science of the pandemic and the almost primal desire to preserve a tradition of young men coming of age on a gridded field.

And, yes, finances factored, too, because football is the breadwinner for all athletic programs.

“People were chomping at the bit to get back to sport and were willing to do what it takes for us to be able to offer this to the kids. I think it has been really good,” said Robin Hines, executive director of the Georgia High School Association, the umbrella under which high school sports are played.

“This has reinforced that when you have something you think is worthwhile, it’s worth working for, worth pushing for,” he said.

The numbers tell a story of dogged determination. According to Todd Holcomb of the Georgia High School Football Daily, some 420 GHSA teams played an average of 8.93 games this season (10 is the norm). That does not include a handful of programs that canceled all games up front because of the pandemic.

Holcomb found that 190 schools played the full 10-game schedule, and 109 were able to play nine games. Still, the majority had their schedules altered by the pandemic.

In addition, players, families, coaches all had to weigh the potential health risks of playing and practicing a contact sport in the midst of an ever-increasing viral spread. These concerns could hit very close to home.

Blessed Trinity coach Tim McFarlin’s wife was diagnosed with cancer in early spring, leaving her especially vulnerable. “I was willing to step away (from coaching). But we made the decision to press on and try to live our lives as best we could through all this,” he said. His wife has remained untouched by the virus and responded well to her treatment, McFarlin said.

In South Georgia, Lowndes coach Jamey Dubose fell ill with the virus in mid-October shortly after a rivalry game against Valdosta, in which the stands were packed. He was hospitalized for four days – his wife also contracted the virus, but her symptoms were milder – and his team was shut down for two weeks.

Not surprisingly, when football coaches start weighing the risks versus the rewards of playing football within the vortex of a pandemic, they tend to take a stand on the reward side of the equation.

Even Dubose arose from his hospital bed defiant in the face of the virus. “I would do it all over again,” he said.

“I think it’s very important because it gives us some normalcy to life,” Dubose said of the decision to play on. Ever more so in his little football-mad corner of Georgia.

Blessed Trinity had a particularly difficult time getting any traction this season. It lost the first game of the season, Alpharetta, when Fulton County decided to back up the season by two weeks. Then it shut down for two weeks when a player tested positive, losing two more games against Marist and Forsythe Central. Then St. Pius shut down just prior to its game with Blessed Trinity.

“Our first four games were just gone,” McFarlin said.

In time, McFarlin learned to embrace the turmoil. “On the field now with our kids there’s a real sense of gratitude because we have pulled together,” he said. “It took a lot of people – coaches and players both – changing the way they were living their lives. We all had to make some sacrifices and changes in order to get here.

“I look back I’m glad we went through that because it made a strong impression on what it was going to take to get through this.”

When Blessed Trinity final did get around to playing – it will enter the playoffs with a 6-0 record – McFarlin was sure to have his senior night on Game 1. Because, he said, “We played every game thinking it might be our last one.”

Teams such as Lowndes and Blessed Trinity and Marist now prepare for the playoffs – if they happen. There are weeks more doing this awkward dance with the virus, of dressing out in the locker room in shifts, of gathering outdoors rather than in meeting rooms whenever possible, of practicing for a contact sport while trying to maintain as little contact as possible. And weeks more of breath-holding that players can get through a holiday and navigate the world outside the practice field without catching the virus. Because now there is no more room to reschedule. Now if the disease comes calling, you will just fall off the playoff bracket and into the unknown of next year.

The GHSA exec seems confident football can make it to a proper, championship conclusion. “I do,” Hines said. “We made it this far.”

“Five weeks to go. I don’t know,” Dubose said. “Temperature change and the rise in cases is making me a little nervous. Can we make it to the finish line? We’re doing everything we can to make it happen. But it’s tough.”

However the next few weeks turn, Blessed Trinity’s McFarlin would suggest they will not be the measure of teams this season.

“Usually it’s about trying to win games and winning region and going deep in the playoffs – all that took a back seat this year,” he said. “Our goals became let’s keep everyone safe. I think we’ll judge this season as we get down the road, looking back on it: Did we make it through and did we handle this stuff honestly?”

On Friday, though, was the end of the football trial by COVID-19 for Mays. Its displaced senior night ended with a 59-21 loss to Marist. By this point, the Raiders coach was well past worrying just about the scoreboard.

“Like I told my kids, it doesn’t come down to wins and losses for me now,” Niketa Battle said. “The losses I don’t mind. Are we learning?”

The Raiders center said he will look back and count one fact as a big win.

“It’s been stressful and difficult thinking the season is going to be cancelled. You stop. You go right back. You might be a little bit rusty,” Kaleb Wimberly said. “We got through it. At least we finished the season and COVID didn’t stop us.”

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