Dane Jenscht is starting his senior football season at Grandview High School as a defending state champion. This season is crucial for him, as he hopes to play at the next level and get recognized by college recruiters. But for Jenscht and his team, this year looks quite different compared to last.
They can no longer huddle up, high five, or even sit near each other in the locker room. And, with a limited number of fans, scouts may not be able to come see Jencht play in-person during his last year.
As Texas high school football kicks off, coaches and players alike have been forced to reimagine football due to COVID-19 precautions. During a pandemic, safety measures have been put in place to protect the health of everyone in their communities.
“It’s totally different,” said Demerick Gary, a former football player at SMU and defensive ends coach at North Crowley High School. “It’s crazy because guys can play, but when they’re on the sidelines they have a mask on, and they have to be socially distant.”
The University Interscholastic League (UIL), which oversees many Texas high school football programs, has created “COVID-19 Risk Mitigation Guidelines.” These safety guidelines help schools navigate what to do during these uncertain times. According to the guidelines, coaches must wear masks at all times, players must wear masks in the locker room, on the buses to away games, and even when they’re spotting someone during weights. Some schools are even doing team meetings and film sessions over Zoom.
Players have been compliant for the most part, but for a football team, the locker room dynamic has completely changed, making usually effortless bonding more difficult.
“You can’t really come together as a team as much,” said Gary. “There’s a lot of different protocols that we need, but there’s certain things we can’t do that make a team a team.”
Gary said that in a normal football season, players would be bonding in the locker room as they get ready for practices and games. Music would be playing, and teammates would be talking, but now, they have to remain distanced and cannot all be together at once.
In addition to special moments in the locker room that have been taken away, certain events that go hand-in-hand with fall football have been canceled. Jenscht said that the school band cannot travel to away games, so games are quieter this year.
“Because of coronavirus we don’t have any pep rallies,” said Jenscht. “And being a senior, that’s one of the best things you can do on a Friday.”
The spectator experience at these games has also changed. The UIL requires stadiums to be at 50% capacity on gameday. Social distancing must be followed within the stadiums and no more than 10 people sit together, even if they are from the same household.
At Grandview High School in particular, each player, cheerleader, and manager get four tickets that their family members can buy to limit the number of people.
“There are definitely less fans, but a lot of people still come,” said Nic Gonzalez, the videographer for Grandview High School’s football team. “People are still as enthusiastic as they’ve always been.”
Despite the precautions, players are happy to be back. A pillar of Texas culture, football is sacred to schools and towns throughout the state. And in a time when so many things are uncertain, communities can now rely on something they’ve always loved.
“It’s something to take our minds away from what’s going on right now,” said Gonzalez. “We need football.”