This & That: High school football in the time of COVID-19

This and That by Bill Murphy

I’ve been sitting here hoping there will be some sort of fall high school athletic season in the area, and all area schools are expected to field teams in each of the fall sports they normally offer. Some of those sports may have a different type of wrinkle to them, but the good news is that there will be competition.

The sport of football is the outlier that most people expected might just not happen in any form this fall. Three of the five area high schools compete in the sport and every one of those teams has gone through some trying days in the last month or so before finding out exactly what their competition will look like. Chances are there is not one football player who at one time or another expected a downright “no” for the 2020 season.

Football will be played in some fashion this fall at the participating high school. Stock photo

Rumors of no football at all were fielded at Bellows Falls and Springfield in Vermont and also at Fall Mountain in New Hampshire. Vermont was the first one to announce their direction, and the athletes felt like they suffered the hardest hit of their career when it was reported that tackle football was out and a seven on seven tag flag football would be offered in its place. First of all, they will be utilizing seven on seven play, which has always been drills with skill possession players only. What would football be like without linemen? And secondly, do you honestly think the grid sport is expected to be played without tackling?

Well, what the Vermont Principals Association did was unquestionably a good job of thinking outside the box, but it still brought all kinds of protests from the football community at large. If I were the one being asked to make a decision on whether there would have been football this fall, I likely would have said no, playing it cautiously for the students involved for fear of what actually could go wrong.

But the VPA plan, although being cautious to an extent, to me was brilliant. Vermonters feel cheated because neighboring New Hampshire is playing the sport with tackling included, but the VPA doesn’t actually have full control of the decision, which makes their offering even more special.

Vermont could not play tackle football because the state guidelines in place through the governor’s office do not allow contact to that extent. The New Hampshire guidelines allow more public leeway, which puts the plan adopted by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association to have more freedom in its approach. Many non-football enthusiasts applaud Vermont’s direction, pointing out that Vermont has a slower spread of the Covid-19 virus and relate that to the more conservative approach as playing a part in that.

There are no winners in this scenario. Although I admit I would have likely erred on the side of caution, I feel deeply for these Vermont football players who will get to compete in what seems to be a foreign sport.

Concerning that “foreign sport,” the committee that put together Vermont Covid Football 2020 came up with a game that gives as much opportunity to all 11 of the position players as seems possible. Seven on seven football is not a blocking game that utilizes traditional lineman. You eliminate the line in this competition and accentuate advancing the skills of the players who touch the ball. It is a passing competition with no handoffs allowed. Thus how are the linemen included.

The Vermont 2020 edition of football has divided the game between linemen at the skill positions and backs and receivers at the skill positions. Up until now, the seven on seven competitions around here used for skill building has completely eliminated linemen with the exception of the center, who is only utilized to snap the ball.

The new edition will be four quarters of the skill driven passing game with traditional linemen assigned to play the skill positions for half of the game. A traditional quarterback can be used throughout the game. In the first and the third quarters, linemen will fill the five receiver positions, while play returns to the traditional seven on seven format with the skill position players in those spots for the second and fourth quarters. From here, it isn’t football, but I do think it should prove to be interesting competitive entertainment. A lineman may be much closer to their dream of running with the football after catching a pass or scoring a touchdown.

The players across the river at Fall Mountain spent a period of time believing their school had decided there would be no football. The group had been working together much of the summer but believed those who make decisions had decided the sport was considered too high of a risk. This is a tough blow to any student athlete being deprived of any activity; but in the case of these young men, they felt all the other sports had passed the test and not theirs. This was an especially tough blow for the seniors who are unlikely to ever have the opportunity to play in their pads again.

On Monday evening, Aug. 24, the Fall Mountain School Board voted to allow football to take place. The football team, along with other Wildcat sports, will compete in a New Hampshire Connecticut Valley based league with Stevens, Newport, Mascoma, Lebanon, and Hanover, in which football will be played between these schools on the weekend and the other sports will play two games a week, home and away with each of the other schools. Each week will feature a different opponent and during each week all competition will be staged between just those two schools.

Back when the football team felt there would be no team this fall, one Wildcat gridder chose to take to Facebook to express his dissatisfaction. He didn’t lash out, but his choice of personal therapy was to let his feelings known to those who check in on his page. Alex Flynn has been a senior two-way standout for three seasons for the Wildcats. Flynn hopes to further his education beyond this year pursuing a job in the medical field. To show how many of these students feel when they feel shortchanged during these difficult times, Flynn allowed us to post some of the words he used when he felt his football dreams had been put aside.

Flynn wrote: “I have been playing football since I have been in third grade. I have such a love for this sport, it has brought me some of the closest friends I have and it has shaped the person I am.

“This has come from all the hardships and successes, from the joys of little league to the hardships that occupied our team through our middle school years, to the exhilaration from bringing Fall Mountain football its first win in many years my freshman year to the feeling of defeat from missing the playoffs my sophomore season, then to my junior year where the entire community came together around a team, which for the first time in many years was in the playoffs.

“That support was felt even after a devastating loss in the state game. Over those three years, our team became less of a team and more of a family to me and those around me with the joys of conditioning, team dinners, and celebrating a victory, but that family didn’t only come together after a win because we held each other up after a loss too.

“We were together as a team and as a family through all my three years of playing as we grew together to become better teammates, better players, and better people as well.

“Now that it has come time for me to be a senior, the last year that I will be able to play the game that I love with the team that I have grown to love, my season has been ripped away from me. There are many like me on our team that want at least a chance at a season, something more than a simple no without even trying to give us a season.”

This was an edited, well-scripted emotional excerpt from Flynn’s post. I know many people in the Wildcat football community were moved by the young man’s words. I don’t know if any of the powers that be heard of or saw the post, but Fall Mountain will have football – barring any last minute Covid-19 obstacles – this fall. No matter how things play out, Flynn knows in the end it wasn’t a simple “no” without even trying to play a season.

Flynn’s coach Orion Binney told me, “Alex is everything a coach wants in a player. He is big, tough, physical, very smart as a player, an athlete who always wants to learn more. He is also a good student and an all around great kid.”

The bottom line is both state athletic associations have worked on setting up a baseline for their athletes to compete in a fall season in 2020.

Here’s hoping that both states are able to pull off this season in these very difficult times.

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