There were more days than not that many of us likely believed we wouldn't get to this point. But here we are.
After months with no live sports, including the past few weeks when the high school football season and even the start of contact practices were in doubt, teams were given the green light to begin going out in full pads to prepare for the season, which is scheduled to kick off in three weeks.
Hopefully we'll get to that first Friday night of action and make it through the entire season without any further problems or delays. But that's a worry for another day. For now, if I've learned nothing else through the past few months, it's this: Appreciate and enjoy each day.
So for the 21st straight year, I visited as many area schools as I could in one day — the first that teams across the state are allowed to begin full-pads contact drills.
A quick reminder: While I couldn't make it to each local school today, in the coming weeks we will preview every region with area teams in Tennessee and Georgia and also publish the annual prep football special section with season outlooks for more than 50 teams.
Today's total — 15 schools in a little more than 12 hours, covering 264 miles.
All times are Eastern.
Baylor, 7:19 a.m.: After being stopped at the front gate leading onto campus to have my temperature taken, I found the Red Raiders on one of the lower fields installing offensive plays. Coaches are required to wear masks, and the entire team will begin virus testing on Tuesday morning. Once the results come back, all the players who are cleared will begin full-contact drills.
"The guys all want to be turned loose, but we have to make sure we don't have any issues first," Red Raiders coach Phil Massey said. "I didn't sleep at all last night just from worrying that we may have forgotten something.
"I'm used to having a lot going on this time of year — putting together practice plans and all the other things that go into getting ready for a season — but there are so many more things that none of us have dealt with before that can just overwhelm you."
Soddy-Daisy, 8:05: As the team jogs onto the field one kid yells out, "God, I've missed this!"
Watching his team stretch before beginning practice with special teams work, Trojans coach Justin Barnes admitted, "We've got to cram about nine weeks of info into the next three weeks before our first game — and we've got to do that with a whole lot of new kids and young starters."
Signal Mountain, 8:49: Players are finishing a morning workout in the weight room, but rather than use their locker room to put on pads, coaches have instructed them to leave their shoulder pads and helmets outside, where they will be picked up on the way to the practice field.
"When we go out, we're going to hit," Eagles assistant Tony Webb said. "We're just 14 practices from being in game week, so we've got to get used to hitting again."
The Eagles have experience on the offensive line, but they will be breaking in a new quarterback, and one with a great name for his position — dual-threat junior Duncan Cannon.
McCallie, 9:37: Last year's Division II-AAA state champions are broken up into six groups with some light contact. The biggest question the Blue Tornado will face will be who replaces all-state quarterback DeAngelo Hardy. One of those in the mix to take over the position is junior William Riddle, younger brother of former McCallie star and current Mercer quarterback Robert Riddle.
As McCallie coach Ralph Potter calls for the offense, he slips up, "Robert, I mean William. Dang it! I knew I was going to do that."
Boyd Buchanan, 10:06: Practice has just ended and, as most of the team makes its way to the fieldhouse, two players lie on their backs and begin barrel-rolling from one goal line to the other, then back. A 200-yard punishment for having missed an earlier practice.
After making a huge turnaround last season — going from 0-10 in 2018 to an eight-win playoff team — expectations are soaring. Among the college prospects on the roster are Karson Gay, who already has six scholarship offers — including from Tennessee and Southern California — and is expected to pick up more from Kentucky and Utah in the coming days. Also, versatile athlete JaMichael McGoy, who ran a blistering time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a recent camp, has picked up eight offers over the summer.
Ooltewah, 11:36: Because the team uses the locker room in shifts to allow for distancing inside the building, several sweaty and weary freshmen and sophomores are resting outside as they wait for the upperclassmen to get dressed after practice.
The Owls had 12 sophomores who started or played a lot last year, and they'll be young again with only 12 seniors and no starters back on either side of the line of scrimmage.
"Since we lost spring practice and weren't able to do as much over the summer, nobody's kids have practiced since last November," Owls coach Scott Chandler said. "That's a concern because we're about to turn all of them loose in real games in just a few weeks without a lot of time to prepare or any scrimmages to help get us ready."
East Hamilton, 12:22: Second-year coach Grant Reynolds is mowing the game field to get it ready for the evening practice.
The Hurricanes return all but one offensive line starter as well as quarterback Haynes Eller, who threw for more than 2,500 yards last season. Also back are three receivers, and while the starting running back is still a question mark, there are eight athletes vying for the job.
"We've got talent, it's just a matter of finding out who the top guys are going to be for us to count on," Reynolds said. "Those first few weeks of the season will be all about who's in shape, who can hold on to the football and who can tackle. That's what we're working on."
Brainerd, 1:31: About an hour before the rest of the staff will join him, coach Tyrus Ward is working on fine-tuning the practice plan. Asked who to watch for this season, Ward replies with a familiar name: three-year starting quarterback Xiyeer Lattimore, who's also a college prospect at defensive back.
"He's the difference for us," Ward praised. "His game knowledge and attitude make him a born leader. He knows how to make every read and any throw we need him to, and he's the guy who makes sure everybody else is doing what they should.
"We don't have big numbers on the roster, but we have confidence that every kid who steps on the field can help us win. They all have plenty of experience."
Hixson, 2:22: Painting the lines on the practice field is not glamorous, but first-year Wildcats head coach Josh Owensby knows it's one of the jobs that has to get done.
"We've got 19 seniors, and those guys have been through a lot of changes here," said Owensby, who will also have new offensive and defensive coordinators and will look to snap a four-year playoff drought.
Notre Dame, 3:10: Midway through last season the Fighting Irish had seven two-way starters out with injuries.
"Think about that, it's like having 14 starters in street clothes on the sideline instead of in the game," Notre Dame coach Charles Fant said. "We learned to limit the number of plays our kids are in on because the biggest cause of injury was having too many kids playing on both sides of the ball, which meant being on the field for too many plays."
The late afternoon practice will be designed to begin making out a two-platoon system that prevents any of this year's players from starting on both sides of the ball.
Red Bank, 4:07: It doesn't take long before one thing becomes obvious: The Lions have plenty of good-looking athletes.
"Fast and violent," coach Chris Brown preaches to the Lions, whose tempo is exactly that.
Up front, Red Bank's offense will be led by recent Tulane commitment B.J. Ragland (6-2, 275), and the defensive line is anchored by Cameron Bell (6-4, 235). Even on a team loaded with athletes, receiver Kel Eddins (6-2, 205) has the potential to stand out and should make for a reliable target for junior quarterback Joseph Blackmon, who will take over for Madox Wilkey, a three-year starter who threw for more than 2,100 yards as a senior last year.
Tyner, 4:50: Because Hamilton County teams were only allowed to begin working with a football last Thursday, many of them were spending Monday acclimating players before turning them loose. Not so at Tyner, where the Rams were divided into three groups and each with plenty of contact.
Senior running back/linebacker Jeremiah Sawyer (5-11, 205), who recently picked up his first college offer from Tennessee State, is extremely physical on both sides of the ball.
Chattanooga Christian, 5:29: As his teammates were putting the finishing touches on their day, senior linebacker Traveon "Tink" Scott said things finally felt normal again when the Chargers had 1-on-1 contact drills, which got the whole team charged up.
"It felt wonderful to be out there with my team," Scott said. "That grimy feeling of hitting again was something that felt good to be a part of. I know it might sound weird, but that fatigue you feel after running for a whole practice is something that I've missed. That's when you find your inner self and who you are as a player."
Marion County, 6:16: Dale Pruitt, who is making his return as the head coach in Jasper, is going over every lineman's blocking assignment to make sure each one understands his role before the offense begins working.
There are 61 players, and every eye is focused on Pruitt, who looks around every so often to make sure he has the team's full attention.
"The kids have been unbelievably focused," longtime Warriors assistant David Moore said. "One of them said it's because they realize now what not having football could feel like and they won't take the game for granted."
South Pittsburg, 6:54: More proof of how important prep football is in small towns — within the first 20 minutes of the team taking the practice field, there were 63 cars that parked nearby to watch the Class 1A Pirates, who have 69 players on the roster (more than half the school's male student population).
It didn't take long for coaches to put the team to the test. A collision between two starters causes a loud pop, prompting head coach Vic Grider to yell out, "Bang! That's it!" Looking around at the next group in line for 1-on-1 tackling drills he reminds them, "You've got to be more physical. You've got to be nasty to tackle."