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High school football safety protocols in place, but are they enough?

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High school football safety protocols in place, but are they enough?

Drew Kerekes / The Meridian Star

Athletic trainer Chad Acton, left, hands a bottle of water to Meridian's Marquez Jones during a June summer workout.

High school football players around Meridian have been training since June 1, but the guidelines provided by the state’s public and private school governing bodies has raised some doubts about whether new protocols can guarantee their safety.

• The potential spread of the coronavirus is one concern as the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to rise. 

• Safety measures for summer workouts put in place to help curtail the spread has led to concern that players won't be physically ready to compete in the August and September heat.

• Further, the waiver of an athletic participation physical is worrying some athletic trainers, as both the Mississippi High School Activities Association and Mid-South Association of Independent Schools are allowing physicals from last year to count for the 2020-21 school year.

That waiver has been on the mind of Chad Acton, a local trainer, as he's been helping Meridian High School during the Wildcats' workouts this month.

When the MHSAA approved the return of athletic activities for its member schools in May, it also declared pre-participation physical evaluations conducted on or after April 1, 2019, to be valid through May 31, 2021, unless a student was either entering the seventh grade, transferring in from out of state or participating in MHSAA events for the first time.

The decision was made to curtail a potential high volume of students getting physicals in a short amount of time, as the coronavirus shutdowns kept people at home for much of March, April and May.

The MAIS also declared last year’s physicals good for the coming school year.

While the waiver of up-to-date physicals makes sense from a numbers standpoint, there are questions about how it could affect athletes’ well-being.

Acton said he’s particularly concerned about the physicals from the 2019-20 school year being applied to the upcoming school year.

“How do we know if a kid might have a condition that just now shows up?” Acton said. “It puts you in a sticky situation, because someone might develop something they didn’t pick up the last go-around. You never know what you’re going to deal with. People’s blood pressure could go up within a year. It could be anything that they didn’t have in the past, but now they do.”

Acton isn’t alone in his concern.

Will Ball, ATC, director of sports medicine at Rush Health Systems, said it’s natural for trainers, coaches and parents to worry that a year-old physical might not reflect the current physical fitness of an athlete.

“I see both sides of the story, but put yourself in a parent’s shoes: Do I really want my kid out there in July and August going wide open without at least some kind of sense of relief that I got them checked out a little bit?” Ball said.

“What if we catch a heart murmur or an underlying problem that we didn’t know they had? If that’s the case, then I can walk out anywhere knowing I just saved the child’s life, whether now or sometime down the road.”

Because of those concerns, Ball said area coaches came to him and expressed their desire for athletes to have some level of screening even with the schools’ governing bodies allowing them to use last year’s physicals.

“The coaches that I’ve spoken to are okay with (the decision), but the preference is they don’t feel comfortable unless they at least have the heart and lungs listened to,” Ball said.

The majority of local athletes are still getting up-to-date physicals, Ball said, and those take longer to conduct on campuses due to Centers for Disease Control and health officials’ guidelines meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Everyone having peace of mind makes the extra effort worth it, though, he said.

“We’ve even had children’s parents tell us they appreciate what we’re doing, even if they’re having to sit outside for two hours when it normally would only take 15 to 20 minutes,” Ball said. “We and the coaches can walk out of there with a little bit of peace of mind knowing either (the athletes) are OK or we caught something like high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat — anything in that category that they didn’t have last year.”

Change of routine

Athletes who don’t play winter sports usually begin offseason weightlifting almost immediately after football season ends. That continues in the spring semester, with some football players supplementing football workouts with track and field or powerlifting participation.

Spring practices take place as the weather warms up, and summer workouts begin in June and are tailored to weightlifting, conditioning and agility drills, as well as seven-on-seven competitions for skill players.

Due to the pandemic, spring practices were canceled in both the MHSAA and MAIS, and with campuses shutting down from mid-March through the end of the school year, football coaches were unable to conduct organized workouts with their players until summer activities began this month.

Football players lost spring practices and several months of physical maintenance in the weight room and are now having to catch up to where they would have been physically.

“We’re in the heat trying to keep them hydrated and getting them acclimated to the heat when most of them have been inside with the (air conditioning) on drinking caffeine and sugar drinks,” Acton said.

The MHSAA stipulates a 14-day re-acclimation period with 50% intensity the first week followed by 75% intensity the second week.

Guidelines such as social distancing and limiting group size during summer workouts are designed to help against the spread of COVID-19, but getting athletes back in shape and keeping track of players’ overall physical fitness after three months off is a delicate balancing act for football coaches.

Coaches could send their players workout programs, but without being around their players and monitoring them, there’s no guarantee all of them followed the programs during the shutdowns. When they got back on campus June 1, the coaches had to start almost from scratch with their physical conditioning.

Clarkdale football coach Jason Soules said his team is following MHSAA guidelines of staggering their workouts, and the goal is for the players to be caught up physically by July.

“But you have kids with a really long layoff, and you’d like to think all of them were doing something, but there are portions of them that weren’t, so you have to assume everyone is starting from ground zero and lay a foundation and build your house and try to get it peaking in August,” Soules said.

Another issue is acclimating the players to physical contact by the time the season starts. Spring training usually consists of helmets, pads and tackling, but with spring practices canceled and the MHSAA not allowing contact in the summer, the most teams can do is practice tackling against sleds.

“Usually in your first week of camp, you can only start off wearing helmets, then helmets and shoulder pads, then the following week after your fifth practice you can wear full pads. That hasn’t changed,” Soules said.

And Soules isn’t significantly more concerned about whether players will be ready to hit one another than he would have been had the MHSAA allowed Clarkdale to have spring practices.

“The first couple of games will always be sloppy simply because we haven’t been able to play,” Soules said.

“It’s a worry, but if we get to tee it up against Sebastopol that first Thursday of the season, we’ll be so happy to play that we won’t care. Everyone is going to face that challenge, but it’s not going to be any different than a normal year. In the first couple of games, the tackling is usually atrocious and turnovers are high. If we get a normal August start and get two weeks plus a jamboree week we can hopefully alleviate that somewhat.”

Keeping watch

Northeast Lauderdale head coach Maurice Gowdy said he and his staff have individual folders of players to keep track of their physicals and any other pertinent documentation, but none of those things can substitute for a coach’s eyes during a workout.

High school football safety protocols in place, but are they enough?

Drew Kerekes / The Meridian Star

Athletic trainer Chad Acton takes the temperature of Meridian's Jeron Watts before Watts is allowed to enter Ray Stadium.

“It’s more important for us as coaches to know the kids as individuals,” Gowdy said. “We have their physicals and DragonFlys (electronic medical records) from last year, but that’s not going to ultimately determine my decision as far as how I’m going about conditioning with them. I’ll use those as a resource, something to look at, but I’m basing it off what I’m seeing.”

After following the MHSAA guidelines for gradually increasing summer workout intensity, Gowdy said June 18 was the cutoff date for players to participate in the Trojans’ summer conditioning program.

His roster is approximately 80 players, and he estimates about 50 have been consistently showing up at workouts since they began June 1. For those players, they will continue to participate in conditioning throughout the summer.

For the ones who didn’t, they’ll be able to take part in the teaching portion of summer workouts but not the conditioning part.

“We had kids throwing up on June 1, but those same kids are fine now, and we’re doing more than we were on the first,” Gowdy said.

“I can’t bring any other kids who haven’t started out with us right now and expect them to pick up right where we’re at. Those kids will have to wait until school starts. It’s going to get hotter, and you’ll be dealing with (the risk of) heat exhaustion and things of that nature. We’ll have a plan in place when school begins for the few kids who didn’t start on June 1 to get acclimated to the heat.”

Knowing players

The teaching portion has been added to summer workouts since the players didn’t have spring practices. Coaches are having to install or review schemes with their players in the summer, whereas that usually happens in the spring.

“In the spring you don’t do a lot of conditioning,” Gowdy explained. “Summer is where you begin conditioning, and June 1 is usually the date you start summer workouts anyway even if you’ve had a spring.”

While it’s natural to be worried about whether players have enough time to get physically in shape by the fall after a three-month layoff, Soules said he and his staff are determined to make the best of the time they’ve been given.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, they didn’t see their kids all summer,” Soules said. “They showed up for practice (in August), and in three weeks they played. Every coach in America is going to want more time. We’re always going to feel like we don’t have enough time to get everything in. The big thing we’re preaching for us is hydration, proper rest and proper diet — and when you’re here, you give 100%, and if you maintain it, we’ll build you to where you need to be.”

Gowdy said players sometimes make the mistake of thinking hydration is only a concern during practice. In reality, players need to be drinking enough water — not sports drinks — to where their urine is clear, he said.

“That’s something we have to really monitor,” Gowdy said. “I have to know every kid. The most important thing to me as a coach is my kids’ safety.”

MAIS workouts

As a member of the MAIS, Lamar is under different guidelines than the MHSAA and has been working out five days a week for the past four weeks. Raiders head coach Mac Barnes said workouts are voluntary, and anyone feeling sick or who is around someone sick who hasn’t been tested for COVID-19 is asked to stay home.

If they are healthy and able, Barnes said he feels it’s important to get them back in the workout routine. If a few players were to test positive for the virus, the team would have to shut down workouts for two weeks, which is always on the back of everyone’s mind.

“We don’t have a summer schedule because it’s basically week-by-week and sometimes day-by-day,” Barnes said.

Turnout has been good, though, and Barnes said a lot of the players were able to do some type of workout during the coronavirus shutdown.

“I don’t think we’re any further behind than we would have been if we hadn’t missed those 10 weeks,” Barnes said. “We’re fortunate in that regard.”

Even without a spring training, which does include pads and hitting, Barnes said he feels like his players will be ready for the physical and mental grind of football come August.

“We hardly practice in full pads when we have a spring,” Barnes said. “It just gives our linemen a chance to put on pads and do one-on-one (drills), tackling and stuff like that. We do very little full-speed hitting in (spring) practice. We try to teach the game as safely as possible, and we spend a lot of time on kids with their strength, speed and explosiveness.”

The bottom line

Whether it’s staggering the workouts or following the coronavirus-related protocols, Ball said he thinks local coaches are acting responsibly and with the players’ safety in mind.

“From what I’m seeing at these schools — we cover a wide variety — every coach I’ve talked to and from what I’ve visualized, they’ve been very cautious about not throwing kids into the fire,” Ball said.

“The acclimation period they’re using, they’re taking baby steps to get there, and I think it’ll work. … These schools are really going by the guidelines. I go to practices every day and see them following the hygienic guidelines. That’s one thing I’m proud of. The coaches have been really receptive to it, and I can’t brag on them enough.”

The death of Shannon High School football player Ja Kobe Cooper, 16, who collapsed on the field and died during a summer practice earlier this month, only worries trainers more when they hear stories like that, Acton said. According to an article in The Clarion-Ledger, Lee County coroner Carolyn Green said Cooper’s death “did not appear to be heat related,” as temperatures were only around 80 degrees during the practice where Cooper collapsed.

Still, when a player dies during summer temperatures, people immediately think of the heat, and Acton said it’s a constant reminder for trainers to stay on their toes. Three high school football players in Mississippi died in 2018, one of which played for Byhalia High School, which didn’t have an athletic trainer.

“This is another reason why athletic trainers should be working at every school,” Acton said. “That’s why I’m working at Meridian High School every day even though I’m furloughed and not getting a paycheck. It should be a law that every high school needs to hire an athletic trainer to be there for these athletes.”

As long as the players hydrate and maintain their regular workout schedule, Acton said he thinks it will be safe for them to put on pads in the August heat even with his concerns about how the three-month layoff might affect their physical conditioning.

“I preach to them every day to stay hydrated and workout hard,” Acton said. “You’re starting to see if they don’t go to bed early or hydrate, they’ll struggle in practice the next day, so they’re quickly realizing they have to do those things. In the first few games, they might be winded, but overall they’ll be fine. A lot of them have been (working out during the shutdowns); you can’t be lazy and play sports, so a lot of these kids are doing something all the time.”

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