What having Tennessee high school football back means to the players taking the field Friday night

Dallan Hayden, like many Tennessee high school football players, has been anxiously awaiting the start of the season for months.

The 5-foot-11 athlete from Christian Brothers has been getting his football fix through watching game film and lifting at home.

As one of the top recruits in the Memphis area for the Class of 2022 with offers from Notre Dame, Tennessee and Florida State, among others, he was worried he wouldn’t get the chance to show off his progress to college coaches.

But with the season set to start on time this week, he’s feeling relieved and thankful that Gov. Bill Lee made an exemption through executive order No. 55 that allowed the TSSAA to have football this fall during the pandemic.

Christian Brothers will open the season at Houston on Friday.

“I was at the edge of my seat worrying like ‘are they going to let us play’ or ‘are they going to push it back?'” Hayden said. “Thank God that the government is letting us play because we need football.”

This season will almost certainly be one of the most unusual in recent memory. The state’s two largest public school systems, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville, will not be among the teams playing this week. Others like those in Montgomery County and Madison County have postponed games for two weeks. Others are opting out the first couple weeks or must sit out due to COVID-19 cases that have forced them to quarantine.

See who is playing: Tennessee high school football schedule for Week 1

But for the athletes who are getting ready to play, such as Brentwood quarterback and Auburn baseball commitment Cade Granzow, it’s a reminder of how lucky they are to have the opportunity. 

Brentwood plays at Nolensville on Friday.

“When we had our baseball season canceled it was kind of a wake-up call in life in general,” Graznow said. “We don’t know how much time we have left. Things can change in a snap of a finger. Things can be taken away. I need to play every single game like it’s my last. I need to practice like it’s my last practice. This is my senior year. I don’t get a next year. This is it. I’ve got to make the most out of everything I do.”

Many school districts have begun the school year online-only, which means that there aren’t as many opportunities for students to interact with friends in person outside of practice. Several players mentioned how they missed the camaraderie of being in a group setting until football came back. Knoxville Central’s Kalib Fortner, an Army linebacker commitment who led the Bobcats to back-to-back state titles, said that it feels strange to have football without in-person classes.

“With us not being in school yet, it doesn’t feel real,” said Fortner, whose team opens at Cleveland on Friday.

Keaten Wade, a four-star junior linebacker who helped Summit to the Class 5A state championship game, said that he’s excited to show what the team can do this year. Summit plays at Independence on Friday.

“It means a lot, from where we came from to where we are at now,” Wade said. “From starting at quarantine and all the hard work leading to the game this week. (I’m) just excited to play and see my team succeed as well. (I) can’t wait to a make another run this season and show my skills and see how much I’ve gotten better and show them what our team can do.”

And regardless of how the season finishes, the players say having the opportunity to play at all has been a big morale booster as they begin to face a school year unlike any other.

“It’s a gift to have it back. I’ve got so much excitement for it because we have so much hope,” Graznow said. “The preparation that we went through we know it meant something. Whether it means we get this one game in and something happens. We don’t know what the future holds. It could be one game. It could be two games. We don’t know. We are going to play it one game at a time. We’re just blessed to be able to play this game.”

Contributing: Tom Kreager and Aaron Torres

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