Students scrambling across state lines to play high school football during the pandemic

Mario Sanchez thought his only option was to leave.

COVID-19 had claimed his grandfather’s life. It prompted his father, who tested positive for the coronavirus last month, to isolate for 14 days in the basement of the family home in Olathe, Kansas. And it ended Sanchez’s dream of winning a state championship with his lifelong friends at Olathe North High School, after the football program was shelved amid high rates of coronavirus infections in the area.

So on Sunday, just two days after attending his grandfather’s funeral, Sanchez and his mother, Noemi Jurado, packed up their Honda Crosstour and drove from their home in suburban Kansas City to Norman, Oklahoma.

A slot machine and defensive back, Sanchez plans to play his senior year at Norman High School, about 350 miles from where he grew up. He is one of the few players from Olathe North to cross state lines to enroll in another high school, an interstate football migration fueled by young athletes trying to escape the coronavirus and keep their athletic dreams.

“It really wasn’t a difficult process,” Sanchez said in a telephone interview before leaving home. “I want to play football at university. I look around and we are in the red zone in Kansas. I don’t want to risk my future by staying here without playing. “

The coronavirus pandemic has had an uneven impact on high school football in the United States, wreaking havoc in some regions, while schools in other areas have made changes and moved on almost as normal.

Teams in Utah, Alabama, Texas and other states have already played their first games of the season. In Minnesota, six players at the Lewiston-Altura High School varsity tested positive for the virus before the state moved football to spring. In DeKalb County, Indiana, an entire team waits in quarantine after a player tested positive, and in Kings Mills, Ohio, Kings High School’s first game was canceled after a player tested positive.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, no state has canceled the entire football season – or any sport – for the 2020-21 academic year, but 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, have rescheduled football for the spring or the winter. instead of the traditional fall schedule.

Other states, such as Kansas, where high school football is embedded in the cultural fabric of the region, are in the midst of uncertainty.

Several Kansas school districts have ordered their off-field football programs while teams from neighboring cities continue to play. Last week, the Kansas State High Schools Activities Association voted that schools could move their seasons to spring, but that brought another series of complications, especially for multi-sport athletes or schools with limited fields and facilities.

“It’s all over the map,” Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the national federation, which provides non-binding guidelines to national athletics associations, said in an interview recently. “For many programs that have started over, there is more of a successful experience than a failed experience. But we’ll be paying close attention to the feedback for the next two weeks. “

In some Kansas school districts, teams are allowed to practice as long as the number of viral infections in their country remains below a certain level. Considered one of the top contenders to win the state title before the pandemic struck, Olathe North sits in Johnson County, a largely affluent collection of suburbs across the Kansas City, Missouri state line. About 11% of the province’s coronavirus tests were positive in the past two weeks.

When the positivity rate creeps above 10%, sports considered high risk, including football, are discontinued in Olathe, even after teams practice for weeks.

If the positivity rate is between 5% and 10%, teams can practice but not play games. And since teams have to practice for 14 days before the competition starts, some matches have already been canceled.

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That was exactly what Sanchez feared. About a month ago, he started begging his mother to move to Norman, where her father lives. At first she was skeptical of the idea, in part because the past year had been a challenging transition period for their family.

Sanchez’s father was released from prison in May 2019 after serving 13 years on drug trafficking charges. Mario was three when his father left, and Jurado, a real estate agent, took care of most of the parenting. When Mario’s father first came home, there was friction and disagreement between a teenage son and his newly returned father. Now, Mario reports, they are “tighter than a knot.”

But then Mario’s grandfather, Richard Sanchez, who called Jurado the rock of the family, died of complications from COVID-19 on August 13. By then, with doubts about his high school season, Mario was looking south to Norman, where he could play soccer, basketball, and baseball (he’s a short stop), and his mom can spend time with her dad.

“I said to him, ‘If you’re willing to make that sacrifice, I’ll make it with you,'” she said. “COVID-19 has really hit everyone in a devastating way. It’s been a rough run for us . “

Making the decision easier was the fact that Sanchez’s best friend since grade school, Arland Bruce IV, did the same. Arland Bruce IV, a star strategist at Olathe North and cousin to former NFL recipient Isaac Bruce, enrolled at Ankeny High School in Iowa last month.

But in a development that underscored the confusion surrounding the entire season, Bruce was declared unfit by the Iowa High School Athletic Association on the day of Ankeny’s first game, and his family hired a lawyer to appeal the ruling.

Sanchez is optimistic he will avoid such a mess. He arrived in Norman on Sunday evening and started practicing with the team the next day.

Back in Kansas, Chris McCartney, Bruce and Sanchez’s former coach at Olathe North, is left by clicking the refresh button on the Johnson County Health Department website several times a day, hoping to see the positive test numbers in the county drop low enough for the team to play.

Olathe North was shut down for a week, but on Monday, the day after Sanchez left for Oklahoma, the team was allowed to practice. Whether it can play games is still unknown.

“This is really hard for the kids,” said McCartney. “Right now we’re just looking for a yes or no answer. Are we playing or not?”

While each school district in Johnson County can set its own course, the health department there has set guidelines that most of them follow. That makes Sanmi Areola, Johnson County’s health director, an unpopular figure among those who want high school football at all costs.

Areola said he also wanted children to exercise for exercise, socialization, and lessons in teamwork and structure – as long as it was safe.

In addition to being concerned about the spread of the virus, he is also concerned about myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that can lead to exercise cardiac arrest, which was found in 15% of college athletes who had the virus in one study. The science of myocarditis is still developing and there is little data on high school athletes.

“There is some evidence that there may be cardiac effects,” Areola said. “Nobody knows exactly what that translates into when you perform activities at high intensity. That’s why you have to be very, very careful. “

High school coaches insist that they are careful and have made protective adjustments. One of McCartney’s players tested positive after a family gathering, McCartney said, and a few more had to be quarantined. But the contamination never spread to other team members, he said.

“It showed to me that we can handle this,” he said. “We are outdoors, we are socially distant, we mask ourselves. It is heartbreaking to see it taken from them.”

What makes it even more painful is that Olathe North lost in the state championship last year. This year, the players were determined to win everything, at least before practice was halted and some of the best left for other states.

They have finally resumed their training, but they know that at least two games have been canceled, and maybe more. And there is no guarantee they will not turn off again.

A dozen miles from Olathe, Weston Moore has worked harder than ever, preparing for his senior year at Shawnee Mission West High School, also in Johnson County. This was to be Moore’s big year, as the Vikings’ entry-level quarterback, something he’d dreamed of since he was in first grade. Still, he understands that safety comes first.

“But at the same time, it’s your senior year, which you’ve worked so hard on all these years, and it might not even happen,” he said. “It’s so disappointing.”

Despite the organized practices being halted, Moore spun perfect spirals to teammates in shorts and T-shirts on the school field, while friends at other schools – about five miles away, across the border in Missouri – prepared for their first matches. without fans in the stadiums. And 40 miles to the west, Free State High School in Douglas County, Kansas is also allowed to play.

But the pandemic still threatened the Free State season. Kevin Stewart, the Firebirds’ head coach, said six of the eight teams on their schedule, including Olathe North, had canceled games. He rushed to find replacement opponents and secured two so far, but the season remains murky.

“The team morale is less enthusiastic,” he said. “We’ve lost a little bit of energy.”

Stewart said that if his program also shut down, he would be concerned about what some of his players might do with their free time. They need structured oversight of football, he said.

Sanchez also needs football this year, he said. He needs it to earn a scholarship and attend college. As the second defender, he led his league with interceptions, with seven, but last year he got injured and felt fans and opponents wondering if his last season was a fluke.

This season he wanted to prove them wrong. To do that, he has to play. But even in Oklahoma, more than 100 school districts have reported a positive test result. Still, Sanchez remains confident that his team will play. He must.

“This is a big step for me,” he said. “I won’t be able to see my family and friends for a while. But I’m embarking on a new journey.”