There was nothing routine about the 2020 high school football season in Tennessee. Even having a season remained in doubt until Gov. Bill Lee gave the TSSAA the green light on July 22, which meant teams across the state had less than a month to prepare for their opening game.
Between kicking off in late August and reaching the finish line with December's BlueCross Bowl state championship matchups, more than 40 games involving Chattanooga-area teams were canceled due to the coronavirus. Only six of the area's 35 teams made it through the season without having at least one game canceled, with Red Bank and South Pittsburg each losing three regular-season contests — which cost as much as $40,000 in lost revenue.
But the most notable losses came during one three-week stretch in the playoffs when Howard, Chattanooga Christian and McMinn County all had their seasons ended before stepping on the field for that week's game because of COVID-19 protocol.
"It was pretty upsetting, especially for the seniors, to not get the chance to end your season and your career on the field, but looking back on it we were fortunate to have played 11 games," McMinn County coach Bo Cagle said. "Everybody dealt with the stress of losing a game all season, but it just bit us at the wrong time."
By the time spring practices wrapped up this year, many area coaches admitted the biggest takeaway was the attitude difference throughout their team compared to last fall.
"There was so much stress involved in last season, and you could see it weighing on the kids every day, too," East Hamilton coach Grant Reynolds said. "We had all seen the spring sports get shut down, so you didn't know if each day at practice or each game was going to be the last time you'd get to be out there together.
"When we worked out last year, it was in separate groups to limit the number of guys around each other. You can just tell a difference in the kids' attitude now. It was like a collective sigh of relief for all of us, just seeing the kids get to be kids again."
The return to normal routines for Tennessee high school sports began in the spring as seasons for baseball, soccer, softball, tennis and track and field — all outdoor sports — were played to completion. By the time the Spring Fling was held, crowd restrictions and mask mandates had been loosened, and TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress has said he expects a return to full stadiums for fans this fall.
For the first time in two years, football teams have been able to plan for a complete offseason schedule — spring practices, weight room workouts and conditioning — without any limitations.
"We have a lot of kids to teach how to operate in our program in a post-COVID society," Red Bank coach Chris Brown said. "There are lots of little things that they just don't know because nothing last year was normal, so even the kids who are sophomores haven't gone through an actual team workout, which is so important because that's where our culture, the way we play together, is taught.
"Last year every day seemed like a roller coaster of emotion. You had that dread of what if a kid tests positive and then getting shut down for two weeks. It felt like we got more done in the first few days back than we did all last year just because everyone is able to mentally focus on football, which has been a really nice change already."