On the first night of high school football season in Tennessee, TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress found himself in a place and a situation that, just weeks earlier, he had thought would be impossible — walking into a stadium to watch an actual high school football game.
Having to be the person responsible for announcing the cancellation of the entire spring sports schedule due to health concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic — and the ramifications that decision would have on the lives of thousands of high school athletes across the state — had weighed heavily on Childress throughout the summer. Even into late July, the probability remained that fall sports would not be played either, which again concerned Childress.
So when the former coach turned veteran administrator walked into the gates at Rockvale High School last month, a flood of emotions unexpectedly came over him.
"Just to see those kids back out on the field, it was very emotional," Childress said. "Our whole staff has talked about what it's been like going to games and seeing that again. It was the opposite of the feeling we all had in the spring, when we had to tell all our teams that their season was over and they couldn't play anymore.
"To watch the kids compete and have fun again is such a good feeling. It reminded us that we were right to fight for this all along."
On July 22, after months of input from medical advisors, planning and preparation, the TSSAA released its guidelines for how the prep football season could return. Essentially the plan left the decision up to Gov. Bill Lee, who six days later issued Executive Order No. 55, which allowed contact sports to resume at the high school level in Tennessee.
For prep football players, coaches and supporters, that day was Christmas in July as teams were then allowed to begin practicing for the season to kick off as originally scheduled.
Prep teams in Tennessee began their season even before neighboring Georgia and Alabama, and after all the debate as well as a handful of games that were either postponed or canceled due to specific teams having multiple players test positive for the coronavirus, we are nearing the midway point of the regular season.
"Back in July, I never would have thought that we'd be where we are today. No way," Childress said. "We put in a very detailed list of rules and recommendations just hoping to get the season started, and it has been a pretty big adjustment for our schools. But when you go to the games, other than seeing smaller crowds in the stands, it looks and feels just like a high school football game should. The administrators, coaches and fans have a major responsibility to keep working to mitigate the spread of the virus and do what is necessary for the kids to continue competing on the field.
"We said at the beginning that it would be naïve not to expect to have some cases and even for some teams to lose a game here or there. We planned for that. The goal is to make that as minimal as possible."
More than 1,000 prep football games have been played nationally since the first contest in mid-August in Utah. As the number of coronavirus cases continues to decline, other states — including Michigan most recently — that had planned to either play in the spring or potentially cancel prep football season completely have reversed their decisions and are opting to play this fall.
Although more optimistic about completing the season now, Childress admits concern remains.
"We're monitoring games carefully, and it's still something to worry about daily," Childress said. "It is encouraging to see other states now moving toward allowing their teams to play, but we're not relaxing yet because you don't want to see the numbers go back in the wrong direction.
"If we see photos from a game where it looks like there isn't enough social distancing, we contact administrators at that school and remind them what their responsibility is. Keeping the kids in the stands separated has been the biggest issue so far because we all know that kids tend to gather in groups to socialize.
"We've gotten some ugly emails from both sides, some wanting to show us large groups of people in the stands and others really complaining about being told they have to wear a mask. Our only concern is to make sure people are working to do what is necessary for the good of the kids, because our goal wasn't to just start the season but to ensure that kids get to finish their season."