Since March of this year, we have all seen our lives go through dramatic changes that a year ago would have seemed unthinkable. We locked ourselves in and watched in horror and fear as everything we took for granted was taken from us. Most of us had to give up the very thing that brought us joy and allowed us to keep our sanity after a long day at work or school.
For high school student-athletes, a demographic already prone to emotional instability for obvious reasons, the pandemic brought the uncertainty of what would happen to their upcoming season. For many of these kids, football players in particular, the fall season is the highlight of the year. For seniors, it is the highlight of their lives. I wanted to have an idea of what kind of impact the pandemic and all that came with it had on not only the athletes, but also the school itself, the coaching staff and the communities that are intrinsically linked with high school sports. Even more so in Florida.
With this in mind, I paid a visit to Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville.
I had the pleasure of having a sit-down with the Athletic Director at the high school, as I did with a few student-athletes. One of the first things I felt curious about was whether or not these kids felt this season was different from all the ones that came before. Asked about this, Shawn Coley, a senior linebacker, said: ‘’Honestly, I miss the big crowd. But besides that, during the summer we were scared the season might not start. Then in July we first heard that we would play. After that, once we started coming to practice, everybody knew what they had to do and we all got locked in, same as always’’. Coley’s position is a candid reflection of human nature. We all love routine. Take it from us and we feel lost. But as soon as we find anything remotely similar to it, we cling to it and do all within our power to get things back the way they were. And from what I was told by the Athletic Director at the school, these boys have been grinding since day 1 of practice and taking things as seriously as ever. Understandably, I had a lot of questions for Coach Sullivan. These are some of the answers he gave me that I believe are worth listening to:
As we heard from Coach Sullivan, the restrictions that the virus forced onto their preseason routine were quite disruptive. They were, however, not nearly enough to bring down the spirit around the school and the community when football time comes around. Some may think that with all the headaches of different types that the pandemic brought, it is foolish to worry about something as trivial as high school football.
During my visit to Andrew Jackson High, I also had the chance to speak briefly with Mr. Darius Martin, the father of a varsity basketball player at the school. In the eyes of Mr. Martin, the cancellation of the fall season could have been downright catastrophic for some families. “It is sad to say, but specially here in Jacksonville, you never know what some kids might end up getting into if they do not have a healthy way of spending their time. And for us parents that know this, that is enough of a reason to make the risk of playing during all this worth it”.
While Coach Sullivan mentioned that, in general, the parents at the school adapted well to the “new normal”, this may not be the case in other schools. On this subject, there are few more qualified than Dr. Kyle Yost, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at UM School of Medicine that also serves as a team physician for many of the squads at the University of Maryland. According to him “the main thing for parents to understand is that when talking to kids about the pandemic they need to stay supportive of their children and keep encouraging them to stay positive”. In the view of Dr. Yost, it is of paramount importance that high school student-athletes have something to look forward to.
An op-ed in Texas Perspectives, a news outlet for the University of Texas, said it best: “During a pandemic, high school sports might be even more important than ever before”. This virus brought darkness, and in this darkness, high school sports can serve as a beacon to many. The Florida High School Athletic Association would do well to keep this in mind as the winter season approaches, still with an asterisk next to it.