GRAYLING — With the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) expressing its determination to have a full fall sports season, every football team in Michigan applauded in appreciation.
But, there is a caveat. And it’s a big one.
As thrilling as it was to learn fall sports would be held as usual, these are highly unusual times with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 showing no signs of slowing down or even hitting a plateau.
So the MHSAA did note in its letter to the high schools that there is the possibilty the season could be interrupted at any time, and it should be noted that there are 18 days between the start of practice and the first regular season game on Aug. 28.
But, for the present anyway, high school football teams are preparing to start getting ready in case they reach the regular season without any hiccups and begin to play for real.
Teams have been conditioning since Governor Gretchen Whitmer relaxed the restrictions on the number of public gatherings to allow for up to 150 people to congregate.
Grayling’s Vikings are coming off a 3-6 season, 2-4 in the Northern Michigan Football League Legends Division. It was the second straight year the Vikings had a three-win season.
But the coronavirus has made getting ready for the season an entirely new and unique experience.
“Obviously, it’s different, it’s new,” Vikings’ head coach Eric Tunney said in a phone conversation. “But, it’s given us a chance to get a little creative, and maybe focus on some things we haven’t been able to (before).
“Like speed training, and agility training. More of that. Obviously, we have a set of questions to ask the kids, and take their temperatures (to see if anyone is running a high fever) before anyone can get into the stadium.
“We disinfect things. That’s all new and different. But, we’ve had a good number of kids come out. I think they missed being together, and being on a routine. Personally, it was good to see all the kids again the first night. It had been quite awhile.”
Using the weight room poses some more issues as far as cleaning and limited numbers, but at least the kids have been able to work out and forge those team bonds again.
Everyone is hoping all goes well and there can be football this fall. But, there is also the realization that the virus could interfer with those plans. If that happens, there is a very real possibility football could still be moved the spring.
“I just want the kids to have a football season,” Tunney said. “We’ll make it work, whatever date we start. Especially the seniors. I can’t imagine them having to lose a season. It would just devastating to them.
“My fear is we start, and we get a game or two in and then we have to shut down. Nobody wants that. If the choice is we play in the spring and we have a better chance of playing a full season, then I’m all for it.
“It’s a huge decision … it’s a tough decision … they’re going to have to make regardless of whether we keep it in the fall or move it to the spring. If we do move it, obviously there are more challenges there. We’re going to have snow on the ground the first few weeks of practice, or the first month.”
Through the month of July the Vikings, as with all the other football teams in the state, have not been permitted to hand the ball off to a player, linemen are not permitted to block each other and they can’t use hand shields or any equipment.
But the coaches have been focusing on some drills that improve footwork and reactions, building the core principles instead of jumping right into blocking and tackling.
“It’s challenging us as coaches, but it’s making us better in getting back to some basic stuff,” Tunney said. “It’s easy to sit here and say ‘we can’t do this, we can’t do this and we can’t do this.’
“I told our coaches ‘Let’s stop thinking about what we can’t do, and just focus on what we can do.’ And the kids have been great. We paint dots on the field where they stand, and we do body weight stuff. We put cones on the track.
“For the most part they’re doing a great job of staying six feet apart from each other. A lot of it falls on us as coaches and players to see if we can have a season. (The) school year has its challenges, too. Busing, lunches and class rooms. I teach PE (physical education). Life is challenging.”
Whenever the football is touched by anyone, it has to be immediately wiped down afterward or often.