Will high school football happen in 2021?
It's almost time to lace up the shoes.
It's almost time to strap on the pads.
It's almost time to put the ball on the tee for the opening kickoff of the 2021 high school football season.
Will they play or not?
But only if the state of Oregon allows it.
According to the calendar released by the Oregon School Activities Association for the COVID-19-delayed 2020-21 high school sports season, high school football is scheduled to open practice on Monday, Feb. 8, and begin competition on Friday, March 5.
But it won't be the OSAA — the governing body for Oregon high school sports — Oregon high school football coaches, the players who will determine if anyone gets to play this year or not. That decision remains in the hands of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority.
While no one knows for sure what the state will might choose to do in coming weeks — Brown has recently advocated for the return of in-person learning at Oregon schools as in-state infections and deaths have trended down — all full-contact sports, including football, are currently prohibited under state COVID-19 restrictions.
Across the country, 37 states played high school football mostly as normal in the fall.
Trying to stay positive
With all that as pretext, Oregon high school football coaches are trying to remain positive.
"I am hopeful and praying for anything," said Wilsonville coach Adam Guenther, whose Wildcats play in the Class 5A Northwest Oregon Conference. "I understand the times that we are in and the precautions and procedures that need to be followed, but at some point, we have to push forward. I believe that we are capable of doing that in a safe and responsible way that will benefit everybody. I hope that we get the opportunity to prove that."
First-year Lakeridge coach Spencer Phillips (the Pacers play in the Class 6A Three Rivers League) — whose most recent job was as quarterbacks coach with the Philadelphia Eagles (including the team's Super Bowl championship season in 2018) — is more optimistic about what might lie ahead.
"I am very hopeful and optimistic that we will get to play this spring," Phillips said. "I think there is a lot of evidence out there that will support (that) it is safe for us to play."
Longtime Beaverton coach Bob Boyer — he served as defensive coordinator for the Beavers' 1999 state championship team and is now in his 17th season as head coach — is less sure of the chances for a "traditional" 2021 season.
"I definitely hope there is, but the way things have been going, I'm just not sure what's gonna happen," said Boyer, whose team plays in the Class 6A Metro League. "I do believe we will have something for the kids to compete in, but (I'm) not 100% sure it will be full-contact football."
Positive mental health benefits
Regarding the importance of high school football (as well as other sports and activities), those same coaches emphasized the positive impact sports have on young people's lives, and pointed out there's research to back those claims up, including here, here and here.
"(It's) huge. These guys have been waiting for a long time and have put a lot of effort into this year," Boyer said. "Our practices right now have been great, and seeing them all out there together working, pushing each other and having a great time has been inspirational. I hope they have something."
"(The return of sports is) not important — it's critical," Guenther said. "These kids have gone through something that is difficult to comprehend for anyone at any age, and we are throwing it at them as teenagers. It is having an effect on them emotionally and mentally. Think back to when you were in high school — socialization was one of the highlights of your memories and that has been taken away. I long to see guys hanging out on the field with their buddies, throwing a ball around and being a part of it."
They just want a chance
Oregon continues to be among the best states in terms of COVID-19 infection and death rates, and remains one of the states with the most restrictions on in-person learning and lockdowns — facts that concern coaches who want to see their players have a chance to compete.
"Most of our seniors — like many of the young men around the state — have looked forward to this season their entire life," Phillips said. "We have a group of eight seniors who have been playing together since they were in third grade. I know for them this would be heartbreaking not to get to play with their childhood best friends."
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