Wiedmer: College football's return is what the South lives to see

AP photo by Jake Crandall / Austin Peay football fans cheer on the Governors during Saturday night's game against Central Arkansas in Montgomery, Ala.

The quote could be found in an ESPN.com story about Saturday night's college football game between Austin Peay and Central Arkansas inside the historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.

Said fan Matthew Butler as he tended to his tailgating duties before the season-opening matchup between Football Championship Subdivision programs coming off playoff appearances last fall: "In the South, it's a part of life. Football is not an option, it's a lifestyle."

This from a man who, according to the article, has lost friends to COVID-19.

Which makes you wonder if his statement could have been even stronger, as in: "In the South, football's not a part of life. It IS life."

We can all argue whether or not what we're witnessing is smart or prudent in the face of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. The United States has now accounted for almost 6 million cases of the virus, with more than 182,000 dead, according to Sunday's daily update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But whether it's ultimately wise, we're attempting to play football in the South, so it was somewhat fitting that the first of those college games to take place was the FCS Kickoff, an event the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga helped inaugurate in 2017 with a 27-13 loss to Alabama's Jacksonville State in that same Cramton Bowl.

That night was a warm, humid affair in which the school from Tennessee lost, just as Clarksville's Austin Peay lost 24-17 to the Bears of Conway, Arkansas, on Saturday in a game that went down to the wire.

But it started off for the Governors about as well as any game could, with running back CJ Evans Jr. taking an option pitch near AP's 20-yard mark, sprinting down the sideline, cutting back across the field and winding up in the end zone on the first snap of the night.

That play also included, according to ESPN, a referee shouting into a microphone he didn't know was on, "(Gosh darn) masks!" Or something close to that.

Welcome to college football in 2020.

Of course, for those of us who are viewed as overly cautious about COVID-19, who wonder if we as a nation have lost our minds by having high school kids participate in a contact sport and then come home each night to parents or grandparents who may be at a much higher risk to be severely sickened, or worse, by the disease, there are also the arguments for playing, if only for the athletes.

As one Tony Lester, whose son Tony Davis coaches the defensive line for Central Arkansas, told ESPN.com: "I mean, life is taking a chance. I don't want anyone to get sick, but I'm ready for football. We fear (COVID-19), but we aren't going to let it control all of our lives."

You could argue that we've lost control of our lives on all fronts in 2020. That everything is by chance, the luck of the draw, the fickle finger of fate. There are people who wore masks, social distanced and washed their hands repeatedly who are no longer with us, victims of the coronavirus, despite their best efforts to avoid it. There are other folks who hit the bars and beaches and lived to tell about it with nary a symptom.

There is economic calamity for some, weather disasters for others, rising tensions of racial unrest for most and a sense that every day will be worse than the one before. With words that we can all identify with, ESPN basketball analyst Jay Williams said last week, "I'm tired of being tired."

photo Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Lookout Valley football coach Josh Payne shouts instructions to players from the sideline during a Sequatchie Valley jamboree matchup on Aug. 16, 2019, at Grundy County.

But while tracking high school football finals Friday night for the Times Free Press, I reached new Lookout Valley coach Josh Payne after the Yellow Jackets' last-second 25-21 win at Mt. Juliet Christian.

Last year, in Payne's first season, the program lost all 10 of its games. This season started off with a forfeit victory over Grace Academy due to the coronavirus.

"This is crazy," Payne said over his cellphone Friday. "This is my first real win as a head coach. My kids just wouldn't be denied."

He listed several of those kids and their accomplishments in the win, then hung up. But he called back a few minutes later, asking me to add something to the roundup.

"Christian Chandler had two interceptions, not one," he said. "If you could get that in there, I'd appreciate it."

That's the upside of players playing and coaches coaching in this pandemic. The leadership. The camaraderie. The will to win against all odds.

Lookout Valley quarterback Blake Ferguson had to convert a fourth-and-long pass to Jaylen Bates just to keep the final drive alive. Out of timeouts, Payne saw fullback Jacob Winchester plow over the goal with seconds to spare. It's a scene sure to be repeated atop high school fields all across the country this fall, COVID-19 willing.

Toward the close of ESPN.com's article on the Austin Peay game, a family friend of Governors running back Jariel Wilson talked of the passion for the sport shown by the redshirt freshman from Franklin, Tennessee.

"That's his dream, football," she said. "He lives football, he thinks football, he sleeps and eats football."

Because that's what we do in the South. At least that's what we want to do if the coronavirus will cooperate.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.