Imagine if every game ended with your team on the opponent’s 3-yard line trailing by six points. That’s what the last six months have felt like to every football coach around the area.
The 2020 high school football season now has two weeks under its belt. Week 1 came with a massive sigh of relief for most, but for a couple of area programs, a loud groan billowed from the bowels of the proverbial quarantine rooms throughout northeast Georgia. Those programs, East Jackson and Lakeview, are back on the field, and East Jackson will play its first game of the season this week against Banks County.
Week 2, however, was a success for the area's teams -- no last-minute cancellations.
Still, though, considering all the forced changes due to COVID-19 over the past six months should be cause for supreme optimism.
But it does beg the question: How difficult is it to be a high school football coach in the COVID-19 era?
In a typical season, coaches spend more of their time doing normal things like roster building, roster shuffling, game plans, normal illness, travel plans and homestands. The list is almost endless.
Yet, nothing has compared to the constant bombardment of unrelated football tasks during the time of COVID on almost a daily basis. Many coaches could almost be considered pre-med students at this point with unsolicited knowledge of proper temperature taking, daily medical updates, quarantine regulations, and the like.
The stress and exhaustion of it all show in almost every interview, but based on the coaches’ reactions as we reached out to see if that was indeed the case, maybe it’s not as bad as we think?
“A legendary retired coach told me recently that he is so glad he isn't having to lead a program in a pandemic,” Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart said. “It has been overwhelming at times for all of us and it certainly feels like it is way later in the year than us just preparing to play our first game.”
Cathcart expended a lot of offseason energy just trying to rebuild a schedule after the state of South Carolina delayed its season. The Dragons were set to face two South Carolina opponents. It also set off a chain reaction on other games that nearly left them with only half a season of games. But ‘All's Well That Ends Well’ as they say. He was able to secure a full slate of games after much wrangling and haggling with other teams that also had been left in a lurch by South Carolina and other state programs.
East Jackson coach Cameron Pettus -- whose Eagles found out four days before their opener against West Hall on Sept. 4 and had to cancel because of a small COVID-19 outbreak at the school -- agreed with Cathcart.
“It has been a challenge. Missing mostly all of your team or staff for practices is a daunting task but we work through it day-by-day,” Pettus said. “It has already been an extremely long season and we have not had the chance to play a game yet. But our players and staff have responded well through all of this.”
East Jackson’s mandatory 14-day quarantine also meant they would miss the Week 2 showdown with cross-county rival Jackson County. The Eagles’ first game now will not be until Sept. 18 at Banks County.
However, Cathcart said it is making them reexamine, in a good way, their drive and love of the game.
“(The virus) is challeng[ing] us to refocus on 'why' we do what we do and to embrace that we coach young men, before we coach football,” he said. “While there are days the (enthusiasm) flame may flicker a bit, it never goes out, as we are reminded every day we are genuinely blessed to have the privilege of getting to do what we do.”
Chestatee coach Shaun Conley said they also are trying to find the silver lining in it all.
"To be honest, at first it was very frustrating because it seemed things changed daily with what we could and couldn’t do," Conley said. "Finally, I realized, I personally needed to do what we preach to the kids to do -- control what you can and be ready to adjust. It’s been different but I do believe it has made us better in the way that we approach everything."
As for the medical side of things, coaches are being tasked to take on extra duties almost like an extra health care provider on campus.
“There are certainly times that the majority of your time is devoted to medical issues and protocol, rather than football,” Cathcart said. “But we are fortunate to be a part of a program that will put the best interest of the young people entrusted to our care first and foremost in every decision made on behalf of the program.”
“Well, maybe not a medical technician but more like an emergency crisis manager,” Pettus said. “Each day you have to adapt and overcome what COVID throws at you.”
Flowery Branch coach Ben Hall, whose Falcons missed two weeks during the summer due to quarantine, said the uncertainty was tough to handle but has helped him garner a greater appreciation for the little things.
“I stressed for the kids because, as coaches, we will be able to coach in the future; the kids will not get this opportunity back,” he said. “We have a greater sense of appreciation and seem more enthusiastic about smaller things.”
AccessWDUN sports reporter Jeff Hart contributed to this story.