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Staff photo / A fan waves a UTC flag during a football game against Jacksonville State on Sept. 6, 2014, at Finley Stadium.

This time last week, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Mark Wharton was struggling mightily to find a ray of hope amid the doom and gloom of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I haven't slept in two weeks," he said at the time. "Our (football) season-ticket sales are down 30%. We're at least $1 million short of where we expected to be, a lot of that due to the $460,000 we didn't receive from the NCAA basketball tournament before it was canceled. Donations are down. And there are just have so many more questions than answers."

One week later, Wharton's attitude had changed dramatically.

"I'm more encouraged," he said Thursday afternoon. "I can see the light. UTC is setting plans in place to open (its campus) in phases. It encourages me that we think we'll be able to be back (by fall semester) with guidelines for social distancing. We'll get students back in the dorms. We'll have a plan to at least let some fans attend games."

For too long, the proverbial light in the tunnel has appeared to be a runaway locomotive headed straight for us, with no means of escape.

And you can certainly find plenty of evidence of that still being the case. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenenz recently told the Miami Herald he doubts either the NFL's Dolphins or the University of Miami Hurricanes will play football before many, if any, supporters this fall.

"I see empty stadiums or I see sparse stadiums," he said. "Because there is no antiviral and there is no vaccine. So as long as that's the case, and then if we think the virus is as deadly and also we think the virus is as communicable as we do right now, it's going to be very hard to do that."

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Staff file photo / UTC athletic director Mark Wharton has become more optimistic in the past week even as he continues to dealout with the effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on college sports.

There's also the much-feared boomerang or "second wave" scenario in which COVID-19 could make a sweeping return in late fall, if not sooner. Beyond that is what mutation of the virus might take hold by then. New strains are appearing every couple of weeks, and at least one of them — currently labeled D614G — is reportedly more contagious than the original.

Against a backdrop such as that, it's a wonder any of us get any sleep.

But if sports generates anything, it fills us with hope, belief in the underdog, the idea that hard work, dedication and unity of purpose always pay off. It manifests itself in movies such as "Rocky," "Bad News Bears" and "The Longest Yard." It inspires with real-life heart-tuggers such as the '69 Mets, the 1980 U.S. hockey team or North Carolina State men's basketball coach Jim Valvano running around looking for someone to hug after his Wolfpack shocked Houston in the 1983 NCAA title game.

So when the chance to add to that list of storybook finishes is threatened, when more than 40% of the championship events scheduled for this year have already been canceled, many more postponed and all of them uncertain at the moment, it touches all of us who look for athletics, organized or otherwise, as an escape from everything else that wears on us and worries us.

Or as UTC linebacker Ty Boeck noted earlier this week: "I'm starting to go a little stir-crazy. The hardest part is trying to stay motivated without your teammates. It's tougher to run and lift weights on your own."

The unknown is toughest for everyone. Especially when there are such conflicting signs from all corners. Will there be a full college football season? A shortened one? Games without fans? Or with a few fans in order to properly practice social distancing?

"It's going to be weird, regardless," said Boeck, the Soddy-Daisy High School graduate whose father Troy was the 1990 Southern Conference defensive player of the year and is a member of the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame. "But I can't imagine a fall without football."

Like so many of the rest of us, a spring stuck at home with family has brought benefits for both the Wharton and Boeck clans.

"I've gotten to know my wife better," Wharton said last week. "She does an amazing job of finishing furniture."

And what has the UTC AD done around the house?

"I built a fire pit," he said. "I pressure-washed my deck and driveway. Almost killed me. My hobby's reading anything I can that has nothing to do with athletics."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC linebacker Ty Boeck (46) celebrates after a stop on a kickoff return by Eastern Illinois on Aug. 29, 2019, at Finley Stadium.

As for young Boeck, who will be a junior in the 2020 season, he chuckled at the question of how he has spent his extended spring break: "My dad's probably the happiest he's ever been. We've got the best-looking yard we've ever had."

Ty's contribution?

"I've had to bust up some stumps. Trim a ton of bushes. I knew it was coming," he said, adding that his dad has "taken advantage of every skill I have."

Ty also had extra time to spend with his 20-year-old sister Emily, who's confined to a wheelchair. And he has taken advantage of his previous experience in online classes to earn a perfect 4.0 GPA this past semester in exercise science.

Meanwhile, his mother, Karin, a primary care physician, has been working overtime to take care of all those who can't always take care of themselves in these terrifying times.

On the football front, what happens will happen. We'll either play or we won't. Fans will either be allowed to watch or they won't.

"We want the fans there," Boeck said. "But the most important thing is being able to play."

Wharton has heard the Mocs' plea. Despite the increased financial drain, he's all for playing with no one in the stands, if it comes to that.

"I don't know what it would look like," he said. "Maybe we could stream it online. Maybe our fans could have virtual tailgates. But with or without our fans, I just think we owe it to our student-athletes to play if we're sure it's safe."

Of course, that two-letter word, IF, is what's wrecking all of our attempts to sleep.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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