Staff photo by Troy Stolt / From left, UTC receiver Reginald Henderson, linebacker Ty Boeck and receiver Shamar Sandgren prepare to run onto the field before Saturday's home football game against Wofford at Finley Stadium.

Prior to the start of the coronavirus pandemic, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head athletic trainer Nathan Barger estimates he and his staff might have used eight cotton swabs a week, most of those on student-athletes' ears.

And now, as the coronavirus pandemic nears its 13th month?

"We probably use 800 some days," he said. "COVID-19 testing takes a lot of swabs."

As UTC began its unprecedented eight-game spring semester football season Saturday with an impressive 24-13 Southern Conference victory over No. 11 Wofford at Finley Stadium, the vastly increased purchase of swabs was just one of a multitude of expenses the school's athletic department is taking on for the first time ever.

"I didn't know anything about sports medicine before this," Mocs athletic director Mark Wharton said with a chuckle Friday. "I feel like I'm becoming an expert now."

No one's been an expert on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic as it pertains to intercollegiate athletics. The Mocs are attempting to play a SoCon-only schedule this spring because the league — and every other Football Championship Subdivision conference — canceled their fall seasons due to COVID-19. Coach Rusty Wright's Mocs did hit the road to play Football Bowl Subdivision member Western Kentucky in October in order to collect a $350,000 check, but that was their only 2020 game.

To understand how much that payday was needed in these challenging times, the swabs used for COVID-19 tests may be a somewhat minor expense, but the PCR COVID-19 tests used by UTC are a major drain on its budget, and the same thing is true at hundreds of other schools the nation over.

"We'll wind up somewhere north of $400,000 for COVID testing this year," Wharton said. "The tests run between $75 and $85 apiece and give us a six-hour turnaround. We're testing football players twice a week, men's and women's basketball players three times a week and every other sport once or twice a week, depending on their schedule. It's not cheap, but we just felt like it was the right thing to do to give our student-athletes the best chance to compete in the sports they love."

Said UTC starting quarterback Drayton Arnold of the meaning of that financial commitment by the school despite the money that could have been saved by not playing: "It's huge. Two things: It allows us as players to compete and have fun. And, ultimately, that's what we want to do, along with getting an education. Second, it also shows the belief our coaches and AD have in us as players to do whatever's necessary to have this season."

And Arnold understands budget issues more than many, having already earned a bachelor's degree in finance with a minor in accounting.

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / UTC football coach Rusty Wright calls a timeout during Saturday's SoCon opener against Wofford at Finley Stadium.

As the nation reaches its 51st week since organized sports and about everything else was first shut down due to the coronavirus, Barger is more and more impressed by the desire of all UTC student-athletes to do whatever is asked of them to fight the spread of the virus.

"This is the best group of kids I've ever been around, and I've been fortunate to be around phenomenal young people and athletes most of my career," said the 31-year-old athletic trainer, who previously worked at East Tennessee State before starting at UTC roughly two weeks before the pandemic began last March.

"Their world has been turned upside down. We've asked them to turn their back on the only social habits they've ever known in order to have a season. To socially distance. To wear masks. So much has been taken from them. And we've had some challenges, but they've adapted, they've found their way."

To a degree, he expected it with this AD and this football coach.

"I grew up in Sweetwater, so Chattanooga's always been close to home," Barger said. "When this opportunity came, all anyone talked about was the culture here, what Mark and Rusty were building here."

However, there were no blueprints for what Barger had to build from scratch because of COVID-19.

"I'm used to taping ankles, overseeing rehab, scheduling doctors' appointments," he said. "And that stuff hasn't disappeared. But this isn't just about swabbing noses and taking temperatures. There's contact tracing, case interviews."

The increased workload for Barger and his staffers has been noticeable. His typical workday consists of rising at 3:30 in the morning, taking his German shepherds Ginger and Gunner for a walk, grabbing a quick shower and heading to work.

"It's at least 70 hours a week right now," Barger said. "COVID protocols have probably added 20 hours a week."

Such a work ethic hasn't been lost on Wharton.

"There are no words for what Nathan's meant to us," he said. "You hire guys believing they can have success in their chosen fields, but sometimes you miss. But Nathan's not only been a tremendous trainer for us, he's really developed a strong relationship with our campus health professionals, which has been so important due to the pandemic."

As many positives as can be taken from this — Wharton's leadership, Barger and his staff's diligence, the student-athlete's determination to follow difficult protocols — the playing of sports is still digging a bigger financial hole than had sports been canceled.

The booster group Mocs Fly Together has helped, a total of 700 donors raising some $220,000 to alleviate some of the testing debt. But with fans often banned from games — including Saturday's win over Wofford — UTC has potentially lost millions in revenue.

Thankfully, that sacrifice has not been lost on the coaches, beginning with Wright.

"It's great to know that we work at a forward-thinking institution that is always trying to do what is best for its students and student-athletes," the Mocs' second-year head coach wrote in a Friday email. "We all thank (school chancellor) Dr. (Steven) Angle, Mark Wharton and the entire administration for their hard work and guidance that has allowed all of us to have the opportunity to compete in these very unusual times."

So did Wharton ever so much as briefly consider canceling sports this season?

"It never crossed my mind," he said.

And because of that, the UTC football program snapped a four-game losing streak to Wofford on Saturday that Mocs Nation would surely label priceless.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.