Members of the Pinson Valley football team collected their state championship trophy and celebrated in high style on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Friday, Dec. 4, just like every state championship team before them during that Super 7 week and every championship-winning team in every previous season.
It was almost as if everything was back to normal.
Most certainly, though, there was nothing normal about the 2020 high school football season, just as there was nothing normal about life in general in 2020.
Perhaps what should have been celebrated, by every team that played this past season, is that the season began — granted, under lots of restrictions and constant testing and restrictions and questions — had come to its scheduled conclusion. There were many times throughout the season that didn’t seem a possibility.
“There were different factors involved this season that we didn’t have to deal with in the past,” Saraland head coach Jeff Kelly said. “You had to think outside the box and you had to do things differently in terms of how you set up practice, workouts, meetings. You had to go about it differently. It seemed like there was always that question hanging out there: What challenge is going to come this week?
“As the season went on it got, I don’t want to say routine, but the challenges got a little routine in that this is what we have to deal with, let’s figure it out and figure out how to keep our guys safe and healthy and find a way to keep playing. It was challenging.
“I think the goal from Day 1 to the end of the year was I think we were all proud that we allowed our kids the opportunity to have their football season — for the seniors, that’s very important, so that was kind of our thought process all along.”
Spanish Fort head coach Ben Blackmon, whose team lost to Pinson Valley in the Class 6A state title game, which was the final game of the three-day, seven-game Super 7 week, said he was amazed the season was completed.
“There was a level of uncertainty definitely when we started,” he said. “They kind of gave us a little leeway early and getting back to workouts in June and then it got to all-star week [in July], and we realized we were going to start but we didn’t know if we would finish. And those are words that came out of [AHSAA executive director and] coach [Steve] Savarese’s mouth.
“Coaches as a whole around the state, we navigated through the season as best as we could. Some teams had to give up games and others had team members who had to sit out games, and you had to quarantine and miss games. There was definitely all of that in the COVID world that you had to work through.
“Then you add to that down in this area we had two hurricanes that affected our lives — Sally and Zeta. We had to stop momentarily and be out of school for a period of time and try to get our communities back together. It was definitely a trying year. I’m proud that we were able to start and finish fall sports and that our kids got that opportunity to play.”
Blackmon noted it was a test every day, every week, to find a way to get to Friday night.
“I think just mentally preparing our kids each week that they were going to have a season, that they weren’t going to get shut down and that it was safe to play [was the goal],” he said. “The biggest thing I think was psychologically with the kids, the players, how they handled all of the adversity week to week. Fortunately, we didn’t have to cancel any games, but we had one team have to cancel on us, so that was a game that we practiced all week and we didn’t think we were going to be able to play, then on Thursday, we found a game to replace it. That was something that was new this year.”
The St. Luke’s football team earned a spot in the playoffs, yet because of COVID issues within the team it had to forfeit its first-round game and thus its season came to an end. Several teams across the state had a number of forfeited games. McIntosh played only five games this season. Other schools decided to cancel the season completely.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t,” McGill-Toolen head coach Earnest Hill said when asked if he thought the season would be completed. “I thought we’d play three or four ballgames and I thought they would probably shut it down. If it was like it is right now, as bad as it is right now [with positive COVID cases on the rise], I think they probably would have [shut down the season]. But I thought with the governor doing what she did [with her Safer at Home order] it caused a lot of people not to get out and people to wear masks and I think that protected us a little bit.”
Once the season was underway, the goal became playing football each week, but taking it week by week — for the senior members of the team.
“Mainly we wanted to keep moving for these seniors,” Hill said. “We had some kids in the spring who didn’t get to go through track and baseball, and I know that hurt their recruiting [by colleges]. Our kids, we had some prospects, and I wanted them to get through the season or at least half of the season so these seniors would have some film they could send out to college coaches. For all the things they’ve been through and all the work they’ve put in, it would [only] be fair for those guys to play a few ballgames so they would have film to send to college coaches.”
There were doubts, almost daily, and there was also perseverance. Which would win out?
“We didn’t trust exactly what the guidelines were,” UMS-Wright head coach Terry Curtis said of getting the season started. “Nobody knew if they’d work or they wouldn’t work. So we put in all the protocols and the stuff that we were going to do, and that was the best advice we had. Did we think it was going to work? Probably not, especially when we kept seeing people getting shut down in the summer before we even started playing games and having competition. So to answer the question, no, I didn’t think we’d be able to complete the season. I don’t think anybody thought that they’d play a full schedule.
“But we got through the season. Some people played every game, some people played 10 or 11 games, some people played seven or eight games. But for the most part and for the kids’ sake, we got through the season, and we got to play football. That was big.”
Those who played a role in high school football in 2020 will likely look back on this season not for its wins and losses as much for the fact they saw it through, despite the numerous roadblocks and the occasional pauses.
“You always talk about the seniors, which you should, because it’s their last go-round,” Curtis said. “The thing too, the way the spring ended, it shocked everybody. I don’t care if you’re a football coach, a volleyball coach, a softball coach, all of a sudden these guys started to practice and played about two or three games and all of a sudden it’s over [last spring]. I saw the way those guys were and how down they were, and I think it affected everybody. A lot of football players play baseball or they’re friends with baseball players and it just became one of those things where, let’s just start playing.
“And I think coach Savarese’s deal was, let’s just start playing and play as long as we can. The way it worked out, we started quicker than everybody, and we got through a whole season. Now you’re seeing it’s not any better and it may be worse and a lot of people may not finish their seasons. A lot of the credit goes to high school coaches. The time consumed in doing stuff and the temperature checks and the locker rooms and everything else, they are to be commended for doing the best job possible.
“It was a team effort and thank goodness these guys got to play. You know in basketball, there’s already been some ups and downs in it, with people canceling and teams getting quarantined. But you keep on even if you only have six or seven players and maybe not your best players or maybe not your coach. You don’t know how long you are going to get to play so you don’t want to cancel a game, you just keep playing. That’s what you’ve got to do; you’ve just got to keep fighting.”
Kelly, whose team reached the playoffs, said the key to finishing the season was discipline that was applied in a number of areas. The goal each week was to get to Friday night.
“The news that we were all getting back in the summer, in July leading into August practice, I don’t think any coach in the state would say they were super confident we would be able to get through this thing without a major interruption or shutdown or whatever just based on what we knew at the time,” he said. “Then we went through the first couple of games and we got the first couple of weeks in, and I think it gave everybody a little bit of confidence that, hey, maybe we can do this, maybe we can practice safely and travel safely and play safely.
“As the season got a couple of weeks in, we said, you know, what we’re doing is working. Our kids are taking it seriously. Things are looking different — practice looks different, weight training looks different, the way you dress in and dress out looks different. But Friday nights were the same. At least between the lines they were the same. As the season went by, it just gave you more and more confidence that we could keep rolling. Even then you held your breath and wondered, is this the week it’s all going to come crumbling down? We were fortunate and blessed that we were able to give our kids a senior year and get our season in.”
Following the discipline came with a cost.
“I think it weighed on them a lot and it took their normal life away from them,” Hill said of the rules and protocols the players had to follow. “Our kids, when they leave for the weekend, they leave and hang out with their friends and go to the beach. We tried to tell them to stay within their own [football team] circle. Mentally, I think that took a lot away from them because our kids like to have fun, but they knew if they got outside our circle they could come back and cost [us] the whole season or cause their friends and teammates a week or two of not playing a football game.
“It really was tough on them because something we asked them every day was to stay in your circle, stay in your circle, hang out with your brothers every day. But these guys have girlfriends and family members that they normally see on the weekend and spend time with and we were telling them we didn’t want them to do it. That’s not what they were used to doing. Overall, I think they did, but did we have 100 percent participation with that? I don’t think so. But it would be great if we really thought that, but in reality, I didn’t really think so. Again, we made the best of it and, knock on wood, we didn’t have to lose any games because of COVID. Now towards the end of the year did we lose some kids for a couple of games? We did, not because they had it but because they were around somebody who had it in the classroom.”
Coaches are known to preach to their players to learn from their experiences, whether it’s in practice or a game or a film session. And often the coaches pick up lessons as well.
“Just being a little more flexible, that things don’t have to be ideal all the time to operate,” Blackmon said of the lessons he learned this season that he will take with him moving forward. “Sometimes you’ve just got to be more flexible with things that come your way and look at the positive end of it. How can we give our kids the opportunity to play their sport? That’s the ultimate end goal, is how do we give our student-athletes the opportunity to play? And I think as long as you keep that in perspective it allows you to become more flexible.”
“I learned to take nothing for granted,” Curtis said. “And also the kids, I think they’ve learned to take nothing for granted. Whoever thought something like this would ever happen? We’ve had our glory years with everybody playing and participating and everything. Whoever thought we’d have anything like this? If I learned anything it’s to appreciate every practice, every weight-lifting session, everything that we can do because it’s been shown that it can be taken away in just the spur of the moment.”
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