Football is a sport that isn’t often associated with patience.
Yet it is the virtue most likely to be needed as Massachusetts high schools kick off an unusual season in yet another uncertain year Friday night.
Patience on the part of the athletes as they navigate training and practice in the COVID-19 era. Patience on the part of athletic directors and school officials as they juggle schedules in reaction to coronavirus-related cancellations. Patience on the part of groundskeepers as they try to keep grass fields playable during the traditional New England mud season. And patience on the part of parents and other fans as they try to figure out which games they can attend and which they can’t as schools try to keep attendance to COVID-safe levels.
Already, the “Fall 2” game plan has changed for many schools. Peabody’s opener was canceled, and won’t be rescheduled. The Tanners are now hoping to hit the field March 20. St. John’s Prep’s game against Malden Catholic was called off Tuesday night, leaving the two-time defending Division 1 champions scrambling for a replacement. They found one in St. Mary’s of Lynn. St. Mary’s schedule opened up when the school had to cancel its game with Bishop Fenwick. Fenwick, meanwhile is looking for a new opponent for its second game after learning Austin Prep, their scheduled opponent for March 19, is in quarantine for 14 days. Georgetown canceled its season altogether.
So why bother with what is hoped to be a seven-game season, with no playoffs, no state titles, no bragging rights? Well, consider what local student-athletes have gone through over the past year, as sport after sport was canceled or severely curtailed. Spring, and more experience with navigating COVID-19 safety protocols, has brought new hope.
“The kids are so excited,” Beverly coach Andrew Morency told assistant sports editor Matt Williams as practices began late last month. “It felt great to be preparing for a game.”
The game itself will look different. Teams won’t be using the locker rooms, and players will have masks on under their helmets. Huddles will be socially distanced, with all players expected to face the same way. There is to be no shaking of hands before, during or after the game. And, under state guidelines, “Spitting, nose clearing on the field, licking fingers, and spitting on gloves during practices and competitions is not permitted.”
Beverly, for one, will be playing on the turf field next to the high school rather than the still-soggy grass of historic Hurd Stadium. Hamilton-Wenham also has a grass field that may not hold up over the course of even a shortened season, with only two home games scheduled. Pentucket, meanwhile, is currently without a home stadium due to ongoing construction at the school and is scheduled to play five games this season, all on the road. That may mean the Sachems will have to play without their fans in attendance, as most leagues are limiting the number of fans allowed at games to two family members per home team player. No visiting fans or other spectators will be allowed.
That has rankled many fans and parents, with a petition asking the Cape Ann League to overturn its decision gathering more than 1,500 signatures. But given the way we have seen COVID-19 spread in our communities after one or two impromptu family or neighborhood events, the cautious approach seems wise.
There is some reason to hope that fans may be allowed later in the season as the weather warms and -- hopefully -- more people are vaccinated and the pandemic continues to recede.
“In some regards we’re at the mercy of our opponents, but I’m optimistic that something could be worked out (to allow fans in the stands),” Pentucket athletic director Dan Thornton told reporter Mac Cerullo. “Things are changing so fast.”
Thornton urged that people have -- you guessed it -- patience.
It has been almost 500 days since the last kickoff at the last high school football game. No one knows how the 2021 season will end, or even how it will look by Week 2. And for those of us who love spending Friday nights under the lights, Saturdays in the weak sunlight, or Thanksgiving in the stands with the promise of a turkey dinner at home, the idea of not being able to watch in person is undeniably frustrating. But the sport is back, and for the hundreds of student-athletes across the region, that’s the important thing.