‘We’re still going to live our lives’: Gibbs, Halls play first football game amid COVID-19

They entered after their temperatures were checked, through the metal gate, past the signs that listed the symptoms of COVID-19 and that no one with a fever would be allowed.

They were young and old, parents and grandparents, students and alumni.  They walked past the concession stand where yellow X’s were taped on the ground six feet apart and into Halls’ stadium for Tennessee’s first high school football game in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Halls and Gibbs played Thursday in one of five games across the state that provided a glimpse of what the 2020 season might look like.

It had been less than a month since Gov. Bill Lee signed Executive Order No. 55, which allowed contact sports to resume, so long as TSSAA safety guidelines were followed. 

And those safety guidelines were enforced in Halls’ 31-17 win. Halls sold all of its tickets prior to the game and none at the gate, a way to limit human contact. The stadium capacity was limited to one-third, and just over 1,400 attended. Masks were worn, there was some social distancing, and there was a feeling things were going back to normal. 

But there also were questions: Should football be played? Is there concern of playing sports amid a pandemic that has killed 52 Knox County residents and 1,488 people statewide? 

“Is concern the right word?” asked Jennifer Williams, the mother of Gibbs junior cornerback Sylas Williams. “We’re all trying to do what we’re supposed to do, but still live. We’re still going to live our lives.” 

Lee said Thursday that he was for playing football, from high school to the NFL, along with allowing fans. He joined those who thought it was worth the risk, that it was time to get back to normal. 

“It feels good to start doing things again that we’ve always done,” said Brandis Belue, whose son Maddox, was a member of the Halls marching band. “I just hope that other schools get to experience it as well.” 

Belue stood near the fence behind the marching band, which sat behind one of the end zones, instead of in the stands. The band’s metal chairs were spread out, with all members wearing masks. In the stands, the Halls student section crammed together in a section marked off by yellow caution tape.

On the sideline, Halls athletic director Tucker Jackson stood on the watched the student section. No student in the section was socially distancing. But all of them were wearing masks. 

“It’s kind of hard to be socially distanced,” Jackson said. “I’m really just looking to be forcing the masks with our students.” 

Also on the sideline, Halls’ players sat on metal chairs that had their number taped on them with their water bottle underneath. Near the water coolers, a Halls assistant coach coached the offensive line, talking through his mask that kept slipping down his face with every sentence. He kept pulling it up. 

And then, just before 10 p.m., the game finally ended. The players didn’t shake hands, but the Halls and Gibbs coaches fist-bumped and elbow-bumped each other. 

“It felt good to get out here and compete, get the kids’ minds on something else,” Halls coach Scott Cummings said. 

Said Halls senior running back Xander Allen, “I think the weirdest part was we didn’t have school today. It stressed us out.” 

Added Gibbs coach Brad Turner: “You never thought you would get to this point. I’d rather come out here and lose than be at home.” 

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