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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd/ East Hamilton quarterback Haynes Eller, with ball, threw for more than 2,300 yards last year and is one of the area's leading passers again two games into his senior season.

Before his senior season began, East Hamilton quarterback Haynes Eller worried far more about the possibility of missing playing time due to being exposed to COVID-19 than he did an on-field injury.

The coronavirus concern outweighed the fact that Haynes has the football in his hands — with an entire defense coming after him with bad intentions — on every snap taken by the Hurricanes, which is about 65 times per game.

Because his dad Brent is the principal at East Hamilton, his mom Maggie teaches at Westview Elementary and his younger sister is a middle school student at East Hamilton, Haynes took the extra precaution of moving out of the family home to live with his grandparents three weeks ago to help keep him isolated from family members who were more likely to be exposed to others.

He also avoided gatherings at friends' homes and other group activities, essentially living a spartan existence of schoolwork and leaving the house only for football workouts, practices or games.

"You only get one senior season, so it's a really big deal," said Haynes, who threw for more than 2,300 yards last year and is again one of the area's passing leaders. "We've already had to miss out on a lot of things like school dances, pep rallies and even going to church for a while, and I just knew I had worked too hard to take any chances on not getting to play in every game or even having to miss any practice days.

"Plus I wanted to set an example and be a leader for my teammates."

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Staff file photo / East Hamilton senior quarterback Haynes Eller must sit out this week's game at East Ridge after being told to quarantine by the Hamilton County Health Department.

In a rare decision to leave his house for something not related to football, Haynes attended a volleyball match at East Hamilton last week. His girlfriend and a friend of hers also attended, and all three teenagers wore masks and sat the recommended 6 feet apart. As extra precaution, he and the two girls even sat on separate rows.

A couple of days later, his girlfriend's friend tested positive for COVID-19, and through contact tracing, Haynes was alerted by the Hamilton County Health Department that he would have to quarantine for 14 days.

His father later notified health department officials of video footage from the school's security cameras mounted in the gym that could prove the three teens all wore masks and kept their distance from one another throughout the match. Haynes even offered to get tested in order to be cleared to continue participating in football, but each of those points was rejected as the health department stood by its ruling.

Three days later, the girl who had originally tested positive was retested and this time told the results were negative for COVID-19. When the Ellers notified the health department of that new information, again they were told that none of it mattered and that Haynes would still be forced to stay away from practice and sit out Friday's game at East Ridge.

"There was absolutely no appeals process, and it was made very clear to us that they were not interested in the details. They weren't going to budge," Brent said. "Those kids didn't ride together, and once they're at the game you can see that they're wearing their masks and socially distanced just exactly as they're supposed to be for the entire time.

"Haynes followed every rule and recommendation we've all been given, but none of that mattered. After talking with the health department, it took on that tone like when your parents don't have a good reason for making you do something, so they just say 'Because I said so.' No amount of facts mattered, so now they're quarantining a perfectly healthy kid and making him miss out on something he's worked really hard for."

When reached to discuss the matter, Hamilton County Health Department administrator Becky Barnes declined to comment. When asked to explain the reasoning behind the decision to ignore any possible evidence presented by the Ellers or to outline their rationale for going beyond Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations as reasons for quarantining, Barnes said: "Quarantining is very individualistic. I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to comment, but we won't even discuss generalities."

"This is exactly what has frustrated many of us," said Erlanger's Dr. David Bruce, who worked with the TSSAA on its policies for returning to practice and competition, and as a professional who specializes in pediatric sports medicine has served as an advisor to the health department.

"When it comes to the issue of quarantining, the Tennessee Department of Health has mandated to take the least restrictive means, but our county health department is taking the hardest course possible. This isn't the first time we're seeing it. My interpretation of the state directive and CDC recommendations allows for immediate quarantine, then reevaluating the individuals once the level of exposure can be understood. The level of frustration from parents, administrators and coaches in our area is off the charts. What's happening is they're creating the idea for people to just break the rules now and either avoid being tested or not tell the truth about who they've been around because they don't want to cause someone else issues."

After speaking with their attorney, the Ellers were advised to send Haynes back to practice and allow him to play in the game. However, they have since decided against that.

"He told us that there were so many holes in the health department's stance that he and any other attorney would love to handle the case," Brent said. "We started to pursue it, but then we talked about it as a family and decided that we didn't want to shed any negative light on Haynes or our school or the football program.

"We basically just decided to suck it up and take the punishment even though we strongly disagree with their decision. But they're opening themselves up for someone who will pursue it; there's no doubt about that, because they can't justify their own decisions.

"The only reason I'm talking about it is because I want the broken policies to change before something like this happens to somebody else's kid, because it isn't right. I believe people are tired of the inconsistencies between what the CDC has put out and what our local health department is doing. They're putting all of their stock in a test only if it comes back positive."

Although he has missed more than a week of practice and cannot even attend the Hurricanes' game at East Ridge, Haynes will be allowed to rejoin his teammates next week as they prepare to travel to state-ranked Red Bank.

As for this week, he said he will send a pregame group message to encourage his teammates, then spend Friday evening refreshing Twitter for score updates from home.

"When we found out that they weren't going to let me play, it really hurt," Haynes said. "Honestly, it sucks not being able to be around my teammates. Me not playing has not only hurt me, it's affected a whole group of people who are counting on me.

"The only takeaway I have is that even if you do all the right things and take the precautions we've been told to, someone can still come in and just take the game away from you without any real reason."

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Times Free Press sports editor Stephen Hargis

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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