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Staff photo / Tennessee and BYU football fans watch the Vol Walk outside Knoxville's Neyland Stadium before a game in September 2019.

Hope.

Isn't that what the start of every sports season brings us, especially football? Everybody's undefeated at August's dawn. Everybody dreams of glory, or at least improvement.

And it will certainly be that way throughout the Volunteer State after new University of Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, defensive coordinator Tim Banks and selected players meet with the media Tuesday prior to the start of preseason camp.

Especially if senior wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. repeats his words from the Southeastern Conference's recent football media event, when he gushed: "I'm looking forward to playing in front of 100,000 people, just putting on a show with this explosive offense, just going on the field and having fun with my brothers."

In early July, the Volunteers having that kind of crowd at Neyland Stadium seemed not only possible but probable. Not so long ago, we all had realistic hope that this coming school year — heck, all of 2022 in general — would be so much better than the 22 months preceding it, especially where sports was concerned.

We'd just wrapped up a Wimbledon men's final played before a largely full house. Not long before that, we'd seen pretty much the entire state of Mississippi — at least that sizable portion of it that bleeds Mississippi State maroon rather than Ole Miss red and blue — head to Omaha, Nebraska, to watch the baseball Bulldogs win the College World Series, which was the school's first team national championship in any sport.

Major League Baseball crowds were back. Phil Mickelson was nearly crushed by fans on his way to capturing the PGA Championship. COVID-19 cases were on the decline in most places. Masks? We don't need no stinkin' masks!

Then the Delta variant took hold, the more contagious strain of COVID-19 rising to as much as 90% of new cases. Suddenly we desperately need more COVID-19 vaccines than we've thus far been willing to get. Many, MANY more. We need to put politics and propaganda and baseless fear aside and trust science. We need to embrace the fact that not getting vaccinated and, tough as this may be to accept, not wearing masks, may again put us at severe risk of returning to the same half-empty (or worse) stadiums and arenas and restaurants and shops we all thought were permanently behind us.

Thanks to the Delta variant, and the even scarier Delta Plus variant (as if we needed anything new to worry about), a whole lot of gains we'd made since April — when so many of us got fully vaccinated — are being lost, along with the absolutely needless and unforgivable loss of life due to selfishness and stupidity.

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Knoxville News Sentinel file photo by Randy Sartin via AP / Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Tennessee football games were played in front of limited capacity crowds last season at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

That remains especially true here in the South, where we tend to not trust government and have long hated being told what to do. Yet we may never have needed to accept placing the health of others above our own personal preferences more than right now.

For proof, merely listen to these words from Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director for the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, who told CNN on Friday: "I think we will see this big, steep acceleration (of coronavirus cases). As bad as things are right now in the South, they are about to get worse for lots of unvaccinated individuals."

Sadly, there remains a higher percentage of unvaccinated individuals in our beloved South than anywhere else in the country, which makes you wonder, if the numbers continue to surge in Football Land, just how possible or, more to the point, responsible it is to even consider piling 100,000 people into Neyland Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 2, when the Vols open the season against Bowling Green.

Two scary stats, both from SEC states: In Florida, COVID-19 cases jumped 50% over the past week, according to state health data. In Georgia, the case rate more than tripled over the last 14-day period, the state's health department announced Friday.

Beyond that, less than 50% of the country was fully vaccinated as of Friday. Roughly 33% had failed to receive even one dose of the vaccine.

"Unfortunately, we can expect COVID numbers to keep growing," Dr. Kathleen E. Toomey, Georgia's health commissioner, told CNN. "People who are unvaccinated or skip their second dose of vaccine are targets for infection."

Those infections are already straining ICU units throughout the country, including in Louisiana and Texas. They have also caused at least three Southern cities — Birmingham, Alabama, Louisville, Kentucky, and New Orleans — to reinstitute mask mandates indoors.

"Our ICU capacity is reaching a critical point where the level of risk to the entire community has significantly increased, and not just to those who are needing treatment for COVID," said Dr. Desmar Walkes, the medical director/health authority for Austin-Travis County in Texas. "If we fail to come together as a community now, we jeopardize the lives of loved ones who might need critical care."

Again, there is a solution. Vaccinate — fully. Social distance. Wear a masks in crowds or indoors. Just. Be. Smart.

Or as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Fox News: "If we take the steps that are necessary to squash the amount of disease that is there now, we can do so in a matter of weeks, if we all get vaccinated, if we wear masks."

If not, the hopes of the entire Big Orange Nation to see Jones and his teammates unleash Heupel's explosive offense against Bowling Green in front of 100,000 Volniacs inside Neyland Stadium may be nothing more than a foolish fantasy.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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