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Rusty Wright doesn't need a University of Wisconsin study to tell him his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team is feeling anxious and frustrated over whether or not the coronavirus pandemic will keep the Mocs from playing football this fall.

"You don't have to do a study," the second-year UTC head coach said last week. "Just watch them walk around these last two or three months. It's clearly on their minds. It's on everybody's mind."

COVID-19 and its dangers are on everybody's minds all of the time. Will it eventually cost us the sports we love this fall, beginning with football across the board, as well as prep sports such as cross country and girls' soccer? Will it cost us our jobs as more and more businesses struggle to survive? More important still, will it cost us our health, even our lives, as well as the health and lives of our friends and loved ones?

Against questions such as those — economic stability, health, life — the short-term future (hopefully) of sports, especially football, doesn't seem overwhelmingly important.

Then again, athletics is what so many young people do. This is their identity.

Or as Northwestern athletic director Brian Smith told The Associated Press a couple of weeks ago: "It's a big part of kids' lives. It's a big part of their routine, playing sports, playing school-based sports. There's an increase in anxiety and depression and more students are dealing with that."

Dr. Tim McGuine, a member of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which joined UW in the study, went further in explaining the concern about 65% of the study's 3,000 participants showing anxiety symptoms, with 25% of those rated as moderate to severe.

"Mental health is not just a one-off where it's affecting these kids in the short-term," he told AP. "The mental health experts I work with say disorders that manifest themselves in youth and adolescence really become problems not just then, but later in life."

The playing life of most athletes is relatively short. Most are done after high school. Almost are all are finished at the conclusion of their college careers.

Looking to the uncertainty of any football this fall, UTC junior offensive lineman McClendon Curtis said, "It would be devastating if we don't play, especially for a lot of guys who wouldn't have a senior season. But I believe it will all work out if we do our part, wear masks, use hand sanitizer, social distance when we can."

A lot more people have had hand sanitizer to use because of Curtis and his father.

"He's a pastor, and he started making his own for our church," Curtis said. "It's really pretty easy. Aloe vera, 90% alcohol and essential oil. You can mix it up in two or three minutes. It's not as solid as Germ-X, but it works great."

Thanks to his "Nanna," Curtis also has a custom mask that works great.

"She made me a big cloth one in UTC colors," he said.

UTC is reportedly recruiting McCallie senior Eric Rivers, who might be the only player in the area who could wind up making all-state as either a quarterback, running back or wide receiver, depending on where Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter decides to play him this fall if the TSSAA allows football to be played.

"It's stressful not being able to know for sure," said Rivers, a key member of McCallie's Division II-AAA state title team last season. "Especially being a senior, you want to play so bad."

He also wants to show his skill set to college recruiters, who have been communicating with him but can't visit him and can't allow him to visit them.

"This is my last year," said Rivers, who is also a Division I basketball prospect. "You start worrying if you're going to get to show colleges your talent."

Like Rivers, Signal Mountain soccer player Camilla Mincey led her team to a state title last fall, its second straight TSSAA Class A state title. She was also this newspaper's choice for its Best of Preps girls' soccer player of the year.

"I'm not a super emotional person," she said Friday regarding the possible cancellation of the fall soccer season. "I'm not super worried. I would be upset if I did not have a senior season, but I'd understand why."

Girls Preparatory School soccer coach Patrick Winecoff believes more attention should be paid to the Wisconsin study.

"It's definitely an underreported aspect of the whole situation," he said. "It's a big deal. It's not just not playing a sport. Kids want to interract with each other. Our kids haven't really seen each other in two or three months. They're so excited to be at practice, much more so than usual this time of year. They're ecstatic to be back, and that's with us running the heck out of them."

If any angle of this issue is underreported, it may be the threat to coaches, especially those in Tyner football coach Wayne Turner's age group.

Now 66 with a five-bypass heart surgery in his rearview mirror, Turner said COVID-19 "is definitely something I don't want to see. I try to wear a mask, wash my hands several times a day and keep social distance. I know my risk is probably a little more than (the players). It's definitely a concern for coaches, especially older ones."

But what concerns him almost as much is the uncertainty that remains as we approach mid-July.

"My kids are frustrated about not knowing what they're going to do," Turner said. "Are we going to play or not? I just know I don't want to practice for two months and not have a season."

On that point, if no others, everyone involved in athletics — high school, college or pro — is almost certain to agree.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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