It’s a Tuesday night at Chaparral High School and football players are arriving at the field, pads in hand, ready to start practice. Normally, they would walk straight onto the field, cluster near the sideline benches, joke around while padding up, then head into the end zone for warm up.
This year, everything is different.
Senior linebacker Joey Balducci walks up to the field’s entry gate, has his temperature checked by one of the assistant coaches and is asked whether he has experienced any symptoms related to COVID-19. After responding in the negative, he walks along the track to the opposite side of the field. Here, a small group of other defensive linemen have gathered to get ready for practice. Every player is wearing a mask.
Offensive players join one of the other three groups gathered in each corner of the field. Throughout practice, these groups remain together almost exclusively and return to their designated corners each water break.
Despite all the regulations, protocols and modifications, practice is the best part of Balducci’s day.
“I have nothing to do all day since online class is pretty slow,” Balducci said. “I really look forward to football practice.”
High school football practices began in Scottsdale Unified School District on Sept. 7. Since then, players, parents, coaches and administration have faced challenges regarding changing regulations, protocol implementation and much uncertainty regarding COVID-19 and football.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) has been advising high schools across the state on a return to fall sports since July. The AIA first released guidelines for a phased in return of football on Sept. 2. These guidelines include recommendations, protocols, and sport specific modifications to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
These guidelines are intended to “give (players) some season,” said David Hines, AIA executive director. “We’re trying to do it while being as safe as possible.”
However, some of the recommended guidelines have caused frustration and confusion among the football programs within the district.
For example, the AIA recommends all football practices be non-contact until certain COVID-19 case metrics in the community are met. In the first iteration of their guidelines, the required metric to return to contact gameplay was less than 10 cases per 100,000 people within the district.
“We thought the 10 to 100,000 metric was completely unrealistic,” said Jerry Black, head coach at Coronado High School.
Chaparral head coach Brent Barnes shared Black’s concern saying the metric was “unreasonable.”
Coaches and parents across the district echoed dissatisfaction with the case metric guidelines.
The AIA guidelines, however, act only as recommendations. Each district has their own power to decide whether to apply the guidelines or not when implementing a return to fall sports.
“In Scottsdale, we are doing our very best to follow the guidelines,” said Nathan Slater, the athletic director for Scottsdale Unified. “I don’t think our guidelines differ at all from the AIA.”
This has also caused concern among the district’s football coaches about unfair advantages when it comes time to play games.
“We won’t see an even playing field since each district sets forth their own metrics,” said Arcadia head coach Vance Miller. “Some schools will be much more prepared and some much less prepared.”
Some coaches have also expressed concerns about injuries, since players haven’t had contact practices to prepare for in-game tackling.
“We haven’t been able to teach them the proper position so I think the first game of the year is going to be sloppy,” Miller said. “Unfortunately this leads to more injuries.”
After weeks of complaints and negative feedback, the AIA cleared teams for contact and competition, changing the case metric requirement to less than 75 cases per 100,000 people.
Competition is set to begin Oct. 2. Hines said he thinks this will be enough time for teams to “get caught up” and prepare for games.
When game day finally comes, however, the gridiron will look very different.
One factor still being considered is whether there will be fans in the stands during games.
“The things you experience and feel when the stands are packed and you’re running through the tunnel,” said Chaparral football booster club president Aaron Minor, “we don’t know if we are going to have that.”
Minor said this is an integral part of the high school football experience and it may have an effect on the outcome of the games.
Despite this, the football programs in the district believe having a season is worth all the protocols and regulations.
“Immediately when we started practicing, the parents noticed a dramatic difference in the players behavior,” Arcadia booster club president, Matthew Richardson said.
The mental health of athletes is the driving factor pushing football forward.
“The kids have been cooped up all summer, told they can’t go anywhere with their friends, told they have to stay at home,” said Miller. “This is their outlet.”
Since Sept. 15, when the AIA raised the required case metrics, teams throughout the district have been hopeful that games will commence. However, uncertainty remains as guidelines and COVID-19 case numbers change on a weekly basis.
“If the rug gets pulled out from under us it’s going to be heartbreaking,” said Miller.
For many seniors, this will be the last chance they have to play football. Following the guidelines is all they can do to push their senior season forward.
“If we follow the guidelines, we’ll get what we want,” Balducci said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to play.”