BEN MARTONE: School and football intrinsically linked this fall by COVID-19 threat

I love high school football.

I was born in August on jamboree night and football has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I am now 28 years old, an elementary teacher and a football coach getting ready for my tenth season.

But this season will be like no other – different, strange, difficult.

First and foremost is IF we even have a season. Plus, no one is talking about the bigger and often hidden issues for student athletes if this becomes a reality.

IF the Season Happens

Social Distancing

Let’s face it, football is not meant to be played at a distance. The possibility of a season comes with many factors and plenty of protocol.

Being socially distant is not as simple as it sounds. Football is about brotherhood. There is the thrill of slapping hands with your teammates and coaches after a big play. Those moments cannot take place in what we are calling our “new norm,” at least for now. As a coach, this will be extremely different and difficult. There is nothing greater than to clap, shake and hug a player who has worked so hard all summer long in preparation for the season.

Educators are also facing unimaginable difficulties. The connection that we have with our students is about setting goals and achieving them together as teacher and student, just as player and coach. A typical day in my classroom comes with many hugs and high fives. Those moments of building a relationship and creating a connection have to be put aside.

I cannot speak for every teacher or coach, but I truly believe that teachers and coaches will do what it takes to get back in the game.

Masks and practice

Everyone talks about masks and the question that everyone is asking, do they really work and protect others?

At the end of the day, they do serve a purpose to protect. Coaching in a mask will be different, but again, this whole pandemic is completely uncharted territory for coaches. I mean, let’s be real, how am I going to blow my whistle with a mask on? I can’t help but laugh.

However, I will do it to protect my players, fellow coaches, and officials if it means a football season. Not to mention protecting my students and coworkers if it means we can be together in the classroom.

What matters most is the kids. Our athletes lost a month of conditioning and practice. A month might not seem like a lot, but when you rely on that month to gain strength and teach athletes how to play the game safely, that crucial instruction time is lost.

When you stop and think, it hasn’t just been a month… it’s been four. Those four months lost are vital when it comes to football. Players use that time to get their bodies acclimated to the level of fitness to be a top-tier player. Unfortunately, that time is gone. This leads to the possibility of more injuries, out-of-shape athletes and competitive imbalances.

In reality, not every kid had access to facilities or equipment to maintain his strength. Most kids relied on gyms or the weight room at school. Some might see this as impossible, but I see this as just an obstacle that can be overcome. We have to weave our way around rather than go in a straight line to achieve our goal. As we say to players and students, you have to have the right mindset and determination in order to succeed.

It Takes Just One Kid

In a perfect world, we will start the football season as normal. Great, we’ll take it!

Sadly, that is not the reality. Here we are at the beginning of July and we are just now beginning “practice.” Much like the state of Indiana, we have a ‘back-on-track’ plan involving phases. We have set guidelines for coaches and players that we must follow to stay safe and allow a season to happen. We take the precautions and guidelines given to us and work toward the go ahead for competitive games to begin.

Let’s say we make it to Week 4, feeling good and getting used to the ‘new norm.’ Then we hear that one student athlete has been showing symptoms of COVID-19. They get tested and it is positive. What’s next?

The great thing about the SAC is that it features 10 schools, all in the greater Fort Wayne area. However, just that one positive player puts every player, coach and official in danger. In addition, out of precaution, all players, coaches and officials must isolate for a number of days. We have to think beyond the players, coaches and officials coming into contact, but the families of players, coaches and officials as well.

Furthermore, many coaches are teachers, therefore, putting their coworkers and students at risk. Speaking truthfully, I can’t help but think how difficult it would be to leave students in my classroom behind and having to self-isolate in a time where students need their teacher more than ever.

Doomsday Situation

We have to think about all possible situations that could occur. We all hope the worst case does not happen, but it might. Making the tough choice to cancel the remainder of the season would be difficult for the SAC and other area conferences, but it would be the right call, in my opinion. The safety of all involved is the No. 1 priority. It would be devastating to players and coaches to have a season cancelled, but make no mistake, there is a very real possibility that could happen.

The Mental Aspect

Football is a tough game to begin with. The grind of the season is both challenging and thrilling. Football players in our communities need the sport, particularly in the SAC. Athletics keep them on the right track and give them a sense of purpose as a player and student. For some, it is an extrinsic motivation to keep up with school work, getting papers finished or study for a big test in order to play under the lights on Friday night.

Take the one thing away from them that provides motivation in school and what will give them that extra push to keep grinding? Some will be lost. Without athletics, some kids will have the mindset of “Why? What’s the point?”

As a coach and teacher, we need to prepare players and students that each day can be different from the day before. It is going to be important now more than ever to teach players to never give up, even if there is no season. This season may not happen, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ever play again.

This mindset has to happen not only on the field and at practice, but at home. Just as players and coaches need to work together, parents and kids need to work together. For some, coaches are a parent figure or role model and we need to make sure we continue to provide and push them to do great things. If we lose football, many young men will be without purpose, will lose the drive to succeed and lack support to help them through it.  This could lead to bad choices, lack of effort in school and could keep them from graduating, which is the ultimate goal for every student.

Deeper Issues

A lost season could mean no film or practice to get better for the following year. Some players already have made Division I commitments, but what about those who have yet to achieve that goal and were counting on this season to get to the next level?  What happens to a current senior quarterback who took all the hits in scout team last year, while the player one year ahead of him took all the reps with the first team and got all the game action?

As a coach and former player, I can’t help but be heartbroken for them.

The game of football means so much to not only players and coaches, but also to the school community. Every high school has lifelong fans and supporters whose kids have graduated and gone to the next level, but they still attend to support the school, team and players. Not to mention, the athletic departments who depend on athletic funds. It would be devastating to see sports such as tennis and golf disappear because of a lack of revenue from sports that draw crowds and produce revenue for a school’s athletic programs.

The bottom line is, we all want sports and we want to be back to normal, but that will not happen for a while. But we can make the best of it by taking the precautions and guidelines in order to make a season possible. In Fort Wayne, we love our high school sports-especially football. We must commit to work together as a community to support decisions that are made to help make our athletic seasons happen. Coaches are already committed to doing everything possible to make sure that on August 21 at 7 p.m., we will have our beloved game back.

So let’s mask up, social distance, and wash our hands for the sake of a football season. that we all need!

Ben Martone is a high school football coach at Northrop and, more importantly, a third grade teacher at Shambaugh Elementary School.

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