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The Springfield offense lines up against Hardin County in the Class 4A quarterfinals last season.

A 115-word paragraph in Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order No. 55 gave Tennessee high school football the green light on July 31.

Fall contact sports, including football, are set to begin the week of Aug. 17 across the state.

The games may offer a sense of normalcy, but the scenery surrounding them will be different thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Temperature checks, screening questions and face coverings are required for all spectators. Bleachers will be marked for social distancing and extra stands may be added to decrease crowd density.

Hardly anything else is certain, including whether the season will make it to the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl championships in December. 

“We’re excited and the kids are happy to (be playing),” White House Heritage coach Stetson Dickerson said. “The seniors especially are looking forward to having something to work towards. This is important to them…even if it may be the strangest senior football season ever.”

That excitement also comes with trepidation. In Robertson County, football teams will play their games as scheduled and hope for the best as the virus continues to spread. Frequent COVID-19 testing being conducted by college and professional teams isn’t feasible at the high school level.

“Everybody’s going to have to pray harder than they ever have before and cross their fingers harder than they ever have before,” Springfield coach Dustin Wilson said. “Unfortunately, we can’t control it. (COVID-19) is around and it’s out here.”

A 10-game schedule is far from guaranteed, especially as some school districts opt to keep their programs from participating in contact sports until September or later. Davidson, Montgomery and Shelby counties have already made that decision.

Any confirmed coronavirus cases among coaches or players could keep a team from playing a game or even the rest of its season.

“It’s going to be a challenge to complete this season all the way through,” Jo Byrns coach Tom Adkins said. “You’re going to have instances where these cases pop up, and you have to be set up to handle them. You may have a school or two get shut down for a week or so.”

If a team has an outbreak during the postseason and cannot play, the TSSAA has decided that team would be eliminated and the playoffs would proceed. Championships could hinge on which teams stay healthy.

“You’re playing day-to-day, week-to-week not knowing if you’re guaranteed another game, essentially,” East Robertson coach Atlee Pond said. “You have to play every game like it’s your last because you never know.”

Robertson County Schools announced on Aug. 7 that it will limit attendance to approximately one-third capacity, per guidance from the TSSAA. Exact crowd numbers will be determined by individual schools based on their facility dimensions.

That leaves administrators, athletic directors and coaches scrambling to figure out ticketing details. Several schools said they would attempt to pre-sell tickets or use an online ticketing system to avoid long lines at stadiums on gameday.

“Who gets season tickets? Do you have to move people around to space them apart?” Greenbrier coach John Elmore asked. “We have room to do that, but those decisions have to be made.”

Said Adkins: “We’re trying to sort all that out.”

The county’s two eight-man football teams – Christian Community and South Haven – will adhere to similar guidelines but turning crowds away likely won’t be as much of an issue for them.

“I think with eight-man it probably puts us in a little better position than 11-man,” South Haven coach James Sawyers said. “You’re dealing with a smaller roster and a crowd that comes to watch 20 guys play versus 60 guys (in regular high school football).”

No crystal ball can foresee what lies ahead for Tennessee high school football. But Lee and most area coaches and school administrators think it’s worth a shot to attempt a season, provided that the guidelines are followed. 

“The biggest thing is the kids’ safety,” Pond said. “(This season) is going to be different. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.”

2020-21 TSSAA guidelines for practices and games

  1. Coaches, players and team personnel are required to have their temperature checked prior to the start of every practice. If their temperature is greater than 100.4, that person or persons would be required to go home and will not be allowed to return until documentation from a doctor shows a negative COVID-19 test. 
  2. No player or coach can participate without prior COVID-19 screening. The screening includes a questionnaire about any symptoms or contact with COVID-19 cases.
  3. At each contest, COVID-19 symptom checklists must be posted prominently. The TSSAA will provide the list.
  4. Schools will be encouraged to limit fan attendance to a number that will adequately allow for social distancing (¼ to ⅓ of typical capacity).
  5. Scrimmages, jamborees, 7-on-7s and any practices with other schools are not permitted. 
  6. At all contests: coaches, players, team personnel, officials, administrators and fans are required to have their temperature checked before entering the facility.
  7. Those who attend games will be required to wear face coverings and will be encouraged to socially distance themselves. 
  8. Host schools are responsible for sanitizing facilities. Frequent cleaning is encouraged.
  9. Concession stands will be discouraged. If a school chooses to have one, they are asked to limit the number of workers and crowd/line size outside of the stand. 
  10. Coaches must complete the NFHS online course, “COVID-19 for Coaches and Administrators.”
  11. Public address announcers must make frequent reminders encouraging fans to remain socially distant and to wear their facial coverings.

Pick up a copy of The Connection on Tuesday, Aug. 18 for the full 2020 Robertson County Football guide.

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