In more than 35 years of writing about high school sports, I really can’t remember as much excitement about the start of fall practice as I have seen this summer.
Maybe it’s that I just want to believe that to be the case. If it is, I am sure there would be plenty of fans jumping on that bandwagon.
But as midnight on July 9 drew closer, it was apparent that high school sports fans were anticipating a rebirth unlike any year in my lifetime. The dead period was ending and for the first time in 16 months, sports could proceed as normal.
Or at least as close to normal as possible in a post-COVID world.
And my social media feeds reflected a rejuvenation on a much larger scale than ever before. We aren’t just talking about what teams will be lining up at Kroger Field this fall. We aren’t just talking about new coaching hires or what teams will be worth watching when the high school football season kicks off on August 20.
We’re just ready. We’re ready to make Friday nights a happening again. We’re ready to yell and scream without worrying if we are closer than six-feet apart. We’re ready for bands and tailgating. We’re ready to debate whether a face mask penalty should be 5 or 15 yards instead of being escorted from the premises.
Yes, Hank, we are ready. We’re ready for some football!
We’re ready for Friday Night Lights across America.
But I, for one, am also very thankful for those who made the 2020-21 sports season possible. They made the best of virtually impossible situations, from monitoring fan temperatures to often working out schedules on the fly. Road trips that previously required two or three buses suddenly required double or triple that number.
Day-of-game cancellations or extended shutdowns became common. Unfortunately, some teams were forced out of their postseason when a team member tested positive for the coronavirus or some were exposed to it. Such instances were beyond heartbreaking but were understandable, given the ever-evolving recommendations by health officials.
And every school had to adjust fan policies based not only on stadium or gym capacity but local guidelines.
Were there glitches? Sure there were. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone operating under an ever-changing set of rules and guidelines to get everything right. Many fans were unable to watch their favorite teams in person, which prompted criticism, especially early in the school year.
For the schools, it was a no-win situation. And somehow, it worked.
As a media member, I usually was able to work the games I requested, but there were a couple of times my request was denied because of COVID guidelines. Usually, however, it was simply a matter of a school asking me to wear a mask and to stay in a designated area instead of roaming like I have done at football and basketball games for years.
It was a fair request given the emphasis on social distancing and other measures employed to slow the virus spread.
The 2020-21 high school sports year was one like no other, and both the schools and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association deserve a tip or the hat for making an impossible situation possible. Last July, the chances of putting on a full season and crowning state champions looked bleak but every sanctioned sport had a season and every one handed out a big trophy.
Hopefully, that is all behind us and we can be thankful for the lessons we have all learned in the last 16 months. Granted, the shadow of another COVID strain reminds us to be vigilant, but of all the lessons learned since March 2020, the greatest is simply to enjoy the games.
I hope athletes enjoy that time on the field. Wearing a school jersey is an opportunity to do something special with your peers. The friendships you make while running wind sprints or lifting weights will last a lifetime.
And I hope parents and fans come back to the stadiums and gyms remembering those special times of celebrating successes and lifting each other through the disappointments. It’s the lasting lesson of 2020-21: Cherish the present.
And cherish the incredible experience of high school sports.
They are beginning to come alive again.
John Herndon was the award-winning sports writer/sports editor for The Anderson News for 34 years before retiring at the end of 2018. He joined the GLICOD team in 2021.