Football in the COVID-19 era: 3 Idaho high school players detail challenges of playing during a pandemic

While some states have delayed the high school football season to 2021 because of coronavirus-related concerns, more than 30 states, including Idaho, opened this fall playing football.

SBLive Idaho asked a panel of three players from different parts of Idaho — Melba’s Henry Clark, Eagle’s Ben Ford and Coeur d’Alene’s Luke McLaughlin — to answer six questions on how COVID-19 has impacted their season. Though they hail from different areas, the virus has had a tangible impact on all three programs. (Feature photo by Loren Orr)

Eagle’s season got a late start after COVID-related postponements. Three days before the team’s first game, the district approved the start to the season. The team had only practiced in pads two or three times.

“It came up on us quick,” Ford said, “but we were all fortunate that we prepared so well.”

RELATED: WHAT IT’S LIKE TO COACH IN THE COVID ERA

Coeur d’Alene, the 5A favorite, typically front loads its schedule with out-of-state and out-of-area non-league teams to provide extra early tests in preparation for the playoffs. But games with North Creek (Wash.), East Anchorage (Alaska), Union (Wash.), Mt. Spokane (Wash.) and Gonzaga Prep were wiped out by COVID. The Vikings instead have played an all-Northern Idaho schedule with several rematches.

“Our schedule took a dip,” McLaughlin said.

For Melba, which just won its first 2A league title since 2004, three players were sidelined for two weeks due to COVID protocols early in the season after they were exposed to the virus, though they themselves did not test positive.

Here are their experiences:

(Answers have been lightly edited/condensed for clarity.)

SBLIVE: What have been the biggest differences between this year and last? How have you seen COVID change your football season?

HENRY CLARK: “Last year, obviously, we were guaranteed games and everything. We’d go week by week, game by game. This year it’s a little bit different than that, especially with coronavirus. We really have to take it game by game now, because we’re not promised the next game, next practice or whatever. You get one or two people to test positive and we won’t have a game, we won’t have practice. It’s a lot different from last year, obviously. We can’t play teams in the “red” and we’re trying to stay as safe as possible. Trying to prevent letting your team down, all the hard work you’ve done, letting it go out the door because of social distancing. So I feel like it’s a lot more needed to pay attention to the little things that you wouldn’t worry about, like wearing a mask at school, just to be able to attend the next practice and next game.”

Melba’s Henry Clark (Photo by Tara Rose/Traditions Photography)

BEN FORD: “The biggest thing for me, and I think everybody else, was just the environment on Friday nights involving fans not being there. The energy was a little different. And it had to be more of a self motivating thing for everybody to come out and just want to beat the other team. Not a lot of people in the stands getting loud and everything, the hype behind it all. We were thinking we were going to play up until two weeks before our first game. So it was it was a roller coaster through the whole summer. We’re just fortunate to be able to play.

LUKE MCLAUGHLIN: “If we’re talking directly in practice, it’s been very similar. We had those face shields for the first half of the season. But besides our plan of how the week goes, it’s the exact same as last year — how we practice, practice schedule, it’s very similar, if not the exact same thing as last year. Outside of practice, the preparation’s a little different, getting ready into a separate locker room for games, and these minor details, like not being able to have team meals. This week, we won’t have a team meal, because of our school district. It’s now two days a week in-person at school. Stuff like that just kind of altered it. It’s definitely a change from being in school for seven hours and going to practice, and having an exact routine. Routine is not really consistent this year.”

SBLIVE: One a scale from 1-10, how would you rate the fear factor around COVID with your teammates?

CLARK: “I’d say seven or eight. At the beginning of the season, we had about three guys who actually couldn’t play because they were technically exposed. They didn’t test positive or anything, but still had to quarantine for two weeks for whatever reason. And I’d say it really affected how we played. I mean, they were three good players. You never know, especially at our school. We don’t have a lot of backups. 2A, small school, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. And if we can’t, then that’s really, really tough. And it’s scary to think about not having some of your starting players being able to attend the next game because of a virus. And obviously, health-wise, too.”

FORD: “I don’t think anybody on the team really fears the virus too much, to be honest. It’s a factor, obviously. But I don’t think anybody is super concerned with the virus per se. We take precautions and make sure we’re wearing masks where we can inside and everything else. On our team, nobody’s gotten tested and not been able to come to a game or practice because they had COVID. That part has been smooth. It hasn’t spread around our team.”

Eagle’s Ben Ford (Photo by Loren Orr)

MCLAUGHLIN: “I’d say it’s a good seven. We’re definitely afraid of it for the sake of our season and if we were to get shut down, to have to wait two weeks or one week, whatever it is, it could really devastate our season. So we’re scared of that fact. So we take our precautions seriously. Practice, we got players who if you don’t have your mask on or your helmet off, somebody’s gonna bark at you, and you can know that for sure. But we take the precautions pretty serious knowing what’s at stake, what we could be missing out on if somebody were to get (COVID), or something could go down where it puts a dagger on our season. Knowing that all of us playing at Coeur d’Alene, we’re all diehard football (players). Especially this season with how it’s changed up, how we had like a very, very tough schedule. And then it went down to just some of our local teams, the 4As, and some of our 5As, we played them twice.”

SBLIVE: Some coaches have made the point that their players are leaders in school following COVID guidelines, in part, because their season depends on it. Do you agree?

CLARK: “Yeah, I’d say so. Volleyball did a good job, too. We had a couple people test positive. And from then on, I’d say we stepped up and decided, we need to wear masks. People have the opportunity to get tested and everything like that. If they have symptoms, they have the opportunity to stay home. But there’s always those couple of people that get tested and in the end come back positive. (Our players) sat next to them in class, so they weren’t allowed to play or attend anything like that, because they were exposed, technically. But the thing is, if we’re wearing a mask, with exposure, we’re good to go. So we needed to step up and wear masks and not be selfish. They like to turn it into a political debate, but for me, I feel like protecting yourself from a virus shouldn’t be a political debate. People aren’t testing positive in Melba right now, so mask wearing has cut down a little bit, but there’s still some people that choose to.”

FORD: “Yes. We take it seriously. I don’t think we all agree in whatever the guidelines are, but we want to take it seriously because we know the importance of us playing all year. We wear masks when we’re in school all day.”

MCLAUGHLIN: “I think we definitely take it more seriously, if not as seriously, as a student body. I think they still understand the effects that COVID could have on sports and all that. But we care, like, if one of our players gets COVID, we’re kind of screwed. So we carry that thought of the back of our mind.”

Coeur d’Alene’s Luke McLaughlin (Photo by Erik Smith)

SBLIVE: Do you feel safer from COVID in a football setting than you otherwise would going about your daily life as a teenager?

CLARK: “To an extent, I agree with it, because if everyone plays their part and social distances like they should, I feel like this setting would be pretty safe, due to the fact that they weren’t exposed to as much of a variety of people as to, say, not going to football practice and going to a friend’s house, and they have some people over and they have Coronavirus. And it’s easily exposed. So I feel like just playing your part and being safe. … it’s hard to say, honestly. But I’d say it’s a pretty safe environment.”

FORD: “There’s definitely something to that. I follow the guidelines because I’m playing football and I want to have the season protected more because I want to play. That’s definitely played a factor.”

MCLAUGHLIN: “Yes. I feel safer in football, because we do spread out. We’re not face-to-face talking. That stuff happens, but not to a degree that happens in school, when I’m talking to people, I’m walking up to a teacher’s desk to ask a question. In football, I feel safer. 

“(Football is) definitely good for us players because it is a safe environment. It is a safe setting that I think (CdA coach Shawn) Amos does a very good job of controlling and making it like a place where we can come together and do these things, build your character and make you a better person rather than going out and messing around friends. I think the football atmosphere around here helps with that a lot.”

SBLIVE: Of all the COVID-19 high school football protocols, which one do you see as the most imperative or important to follow? Why?

CLARK: “Washing your hands and wearing a mask. I’m no CDC guidelines person, obviously, but it’s facts over feelings for me. Masks have obviously cut down on the spread. Washing your hands, too. There’s not much to it.”

FORD: “To have a mask on inside at all times and to social distance.”

MCLAUGHLIN: “It’s definitely knowing who you’re around and trying not to be around that many people. Even if you’re around someone who gets it, you might not be able to play. I think that’s one of the most important things you need to know is who you’re around, try to stay six feet away, try to stay away from these people just in case if they do get it, there’s no reason somebody could be like, ‘hey, you can’t play this week, because you could have COVID.’ If you’re around the right people, and not around a lot of people, then your odds a lot better.”

SBLIVE: What protocol has been the most challenging for you and your teammates to follow?

CLARK: “Honestly, probably wearing the mask is a little bit tough, because it’s a totally different state of awareness and everything. You never think about grabbing your mask before you go to school or anything, which they don’t provide masks at school. But I feel like sometimes, yeah, I’ll forget it. I’ve had to go get one at the local market or something. It’s just hard sometimes to realize, ‘hey, this is a thing and it can really affect your health and it can affect the season.’ And so yeah, that being said, that’s probably one of the more difficult protocols to follow.”

FORD: “Probably eating together, team meals. Usually we’re all together in the cafeteria and now we have to spread out and have three, four kids per table and we can’t all be together. It’s obviously still doable, but it’s one of the things I would say is a challenge.”

MCLAUGHLIN: “I think the biggest adjustment for sure is a mask. It’s such a minute detail, but it’s like such a big change to how you go about your life. Like you typically don’t walk out the door and put your mask on before the COVID era so that’s something that we just do. There are mental lapses where you kind of forget, and then you need somebody to be like, ‘yo put your mask on’ or helmet on or something like that. So I think that’s one of the bigger adjustments. It seems so minor, but it’s a big detail that can just slip your mind.”

Thank you for joining the discussion on SBLive!

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