First in nation to play high school football games, Utah teams are thankful, cautious

ST. GEORGE, Utah – Cedar High School athletic director Danny Lewis was prepared.

He had everything ready for the Reds' season opener against Spanish Fork last Friday: his mask, a thermometer to scan foreheads and the required questions he had to ask before letting anyone on the sidelines. He asked if they had a cough, headache, sore throat or if they lived with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

This is how high school football is in Utah, for now.

Temperature checks, questioning, masks and distancing are all part of the Friday night lights scene in the Beehive State.

This makes Utah's situation unique. It is the first state playing high school football in a pandemic-stricken America where 15 states — California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Washington — have decided not to play this fall, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Many football coaches and athletic directors believe playing a football season  during a pandemic is possible, especially after actually playing that first game.

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Others don't harbor the same confidence, which is easy to understand after seeing the number of people who  did not socially distance and did not wear masks as if it were a typical Friday night. The only piece missing was the pep band. Cheerleaders and dance teams led halftime entertainment.

Social distancing and masks were strongly encouraged by administrators,  the Utah High School Activities Association and local school districts. When it comes to testing for the virus itself, local school districts and the UHSAA say they can't require an athlete to get tested.

Some players simply felt content they were able to get one game in.

"I know a lot of other states are canceling football or postponing it, and are probably going to cancel it after they postpone," Crimson Cliffs running back Creed Leonard said. "I’m just so grateful that we get this opportunity to come out and play one game for senior year during these times."

'Just keep going in a positive direction'

Utah has had more than 46,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and 364 deaths, according to the state's department of health. At the peak, between July 17-19, Utah averaged more than 700 cases of COVID-19 daily, which led Gov. Gary Herbert to challenge Utahns to get to a rolling average of under 500 cases per day by Aug. 1. He upped that goal Aug. 10, challenging his state to get to under 400 cases by Sept. 1.

As of Monday, the seven-day average of new cases in Utah was 358 cases a day. More than a week earlier, the seven-day rolling average was 443 cases.

With the state showing a downward trend in new cases since July 24, Utah high schools began football practice in pods of no more than 50 players. Players practiced with their own towels, clothes, water bottles and equipment, were required to shower at home and launder their own uniforms.

While some fans, spectators, coaches and players wore masks and distanced during the first Friday of high school football on August 14, many other did not. (Photo: Chris Kwiecinski / The Spectrum)

For about a month, teams practiced with precautions. Some schools had players test positive, like Bingham High, which canceled its Aug. 14 season opener against Weber when three players tested positive two days before the game.

Thursday's game between Herriman and Davis, high schools located outside Salt Lake City, was the first game played in the state. Herriman has dealt with the difficulty of managing COVID-19 after a staff member tested positive in June. Four more players also had COVID-19, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, although all recovered and were cleared to play Thursday. 

Herriman assistant coach Ryan Jensen wrote a letter to the UHSAA board of trustees on Aug. 11 expressing concerns about high schools having the resources to keep athletes safe. He noted that universities have more resources to deal with COVID, but many have decided not to play this fall.

“They have money, they have doctors, they have the real health boards, they have the resources — all the things you unfortunately do not have and they still see it as a huge liability,” Jensen wrote, according to the Tribune. Jensen decided not to coach this season. 

Still, most of Utah's teams made it to Aug. 14. In southern Utah, Cedar's 28-21 double overtime win over Spanish Fork was the apex of the action, where players and coaches alike were elated to finally get on the field.

While some fans, spectators, coaches and players wore masks and distanced during the first Friday of high school football on August 14, many other did not. (Photo: Chris Kwiecinski / The Spectrum)

"We're very thankful we got to play this one tonight," Cedar coach Josh Bennett said. "Hopefully we just keep going in a positive direction."

It wasn't simple for southern Utah, either. The five-county region of southwest Utah ended the month of April with 99 confirmed cases of COVID-19. By June that number had jumped to 1,519 cases. The startling trend led coaches like Crimson Cliffs' Jaron Tate to adopt the idea of playing every game as if it could be the team's last.

"With the quarantining and everything, and the cases bumped up here, everyone was starting to go out and practices were getting shut down," Leonard said. "Coach Tate told us, ‘Play like it’s your last game.’"

Masks are encouraged

Dixie High athletic director Mike Bair was clear in his directive during game week: Attendees at Walt Brooks Stadium were required to wear a mask.

As one of four home games in southern Utah, Dixie did all it could to encourage safety among its spectators. Attendants at the four entrances were checking entrants for masks, but it was difficult to keep track of those wearing masks during games.

Springville football defeats Dixie High School 25-22 Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.  (Photo: Chris Caldwell / The Spectrum & Daily News)

The UHSAA also encouraged social distancing and masks in its return-to-play guidelines, as well as on social media with a #MaskUpUtah campaign but could only do so much.

The stands were filled with fans and spectators that disregarded the guidelines. Few wore masks and many ignored social distancing of staying 6 feet apart.

It was a difficult reality to juxtapose some fans throwing caution to the wind with teams who were hoping to do whatever they could to play on Friday.

"All summer long we tried to get our kids just to realize, we're going to move on as normal and this is our normal," Hurricane football coach Skyler Miller said. "For a moment, it hit me earlier in the day that, wow, we're one of the few teams that's playing football tonight."

While some fans, spectators, coaches and players wore masks and distanced during the first Friday of high school football on August 14, many other did not. (Photo: Chris Kwiecinski / The Spectrum)

Miller's was one of the southern Utah teams that played a road game Friday, traveling about two hours north and heeding precautions to make sure his team stayed healthy throughout the Tigers' trip to Richfield. Miller's moment of realization on Friday helped him think of the athletes that weren't able to play football this fall.

"In my mind, it was just a somber moment of reflection and to be able to have a dedicated moment of our game, to be able to fight and play for the kids who haven't had a chance throughout the nation."

Around the sidelines all over southern Utah, players wore gaiters in place of a face mask. This was part of the protocols instructed by the UHSAA.

The UHSAA also encourages players to get tested if they experience symptoms, but, much like the Washington County School District in which nine high schools are located in southern Utah, they cannot require athletes to get tested.

 Washington County School District doesn't administer tests, either. For an athlete to get tested, the parent needs to make that decision and then take their child to a local testing center or hospital.

"We cannot require student-athletes to get tested, just like we cannot require a drug test of anybody," Washington County School District spokesperson Steve Dunham said. "Any student that is exhibiting symptoms or has a temperature is sent home."

Still, coaches like Crimson Cliffs' Tate understand the precautions in place are necessary if they want to continue playing this fall.

"If we don’t take those precautions and all of the sudden we do get shut down, then we’re going to have to take ownership," Tate said. "If we do what we’re supposed to do and we wear our masks, sanitize and temperature check and then still get shut down, then at least we know we did our part."

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