Pulling up to school and having to complete a health screening before even exiting the car may seem like something pulled from television or a movie.
But it’s a new normal for the area’s high school football players, many of whom are set to compete against other schools for the first time this year.
Checking to make sure they are not infected with COVID-19, which is a means of protecting their teammates, coaches and opponents, is something players have to do before they can even pull on the pads used for their own protection.
“There’s new norms, and everything is different for sure,” Dulles High School head coach Shane Byrd said.
Byrd and the Vikings are among multiple Fort Bend ISD schools that will be playing scrimmages later this week in preparation for the opening of the delayed regular season the week of Oct. 1 as the Houston region continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Though coaches and players alike are relishing the chance to play again, Byrd knows they’re not out of the woods.
“They know what they’ve got to take care of off the field – who they’re around, being smart and masking up and all those little details so that we can play for real in a few weeks and try to get all 10 games in for our seniors,” he said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”
So, too, is Fort Bend Austin head coach Mike Arogbonlo, whose Bulldogs are scheduled to scrimmage Spring at 6 p.m. Thursday at FBISD’s Mercer Stadium.
As of Sunday, Fort Bend County health officials had reported 15,789 cases of COVID-19 among county residents. At least 180 have died from the disease, and 14,719 patients have recovered, according to the county.
“Our kids and coaches are excited to be out here, but we can never get too excited,” Arogbonlo said. “Because if we do, we lose sight of what’s important – which is all of these protocols that are in place to make sure we don’t lose (the season).”
In addition to answering questions about COVID-19 symptoms, players at both Dulles and Austin are temperature checked prior to entering the athletics fieldhouse and must bring their own water bottles to practice. If players are not actively involved in a play or drill, coaches are requiring players to wear masks.
Further, Arogbonlo said he and his staff send players to the locker room in waves according to their position group so as to avoid having too many people together at one time, and sanitize equipment after each use. He said players have not raised a fuss over the protocols, because they know their season could be at stake.
“They’re just happy to have the opportunity to be playing,” he said.
Byrd echoed the sentiment.
“For the most part, once you get through that and get out on the field it doesn’t feel much different. I know our players and coaches have appreciated that and thrived on simply being back out there,” he said. “… (The kids) can play the game that they love, they enjoy being able to get out here with one another.”
As the Bulldogs and Vikings prepare to kick off their season, they will also have to do so without fans, at least initially. Byrd, whose Vikings are looking to bounce back from a 2-8 campaign, said FBISD has prohibited fans from attending any scrimmages around the district this week in efforts to mitigate any potential spread of COVID-19 prior to the regular season.
Both coaches said the primary obstacles presented by the delayed start of training camp and regular season have not been so much physical, but mental as players and coaches suit up for the hopeful beginning of their 2020 campaign.
“We have a 10-game schedule, but I can’t promise anything as far as the games go,” said Arogbonlo, whose team finished with a 3-7 record last season. “That part of it – preparing and not knowing if you’ll get to it – has probably been the toughest challenge.”
Added Byrd: “The uncertainty day-to-day and week-to-week has just been new. You have to recreate plans and thoughts – the old way of doing things is kind of out the window.”
No matter the size of the crowd or necessary precautions, however, Byrd knows one thing as he prepares for Thursday’s scrimmage and their Oct. 2 regular season opener opposite Willowridge.
“It’s certainly going to be different no doubt, with smaller crowds and sorting everything out,” he said. “But our guys will be ready and focused.”
Ultimately, Arogbonlo said all he and his team can do is stay focused on what they can control day-to-day. That purpose is simply now twofold with football and the world of COVID-19 to make sure things break their way.
“Football is a lot like life – great things can happen, and some bad things are going to happen,” he said. “It’s our job as coaches to keep them focused and locked in on the fact that we have to do things right. Nothing is promised.”