Longtime Dartmouth (Mass.) High School assistant football coach Rick Barry had a simple exclamation each and every time he took the field surrounded by his impressionable players.
“Great day for football, men!”
It was said in both sunshine and rain. The triple H’s heat waves of August and late afternoon chills of November. During Super Bowl-bound seasons and losing streaks.
It didn’t matter, it was always a great day for football for someone who loved the game and its lessons like Coach Barry.
I may not have always agreed with it or even truly understood it at the time, but it’s remained emblazoned in my mind for decades.
And never may that phrase have been more fitting and more needed than this late-February Monday.
Today, thousands of young men across the state (not everyone, though, due to schedule changes for many schools/leagues) will begin high school football practice for what the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has dubbed the “Fall II” season created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been a long time coming and won’t be easy.
Schools face major challenges finding suitable surfaces to practice on. There are limits on indoor workouts and many fields across the state are covered in snow. Parking lots may have to do for many coaches in a preparation pinch for games scheduled to begin in early March.
Team rosters will be a work in progress, with many kids coming off the rigors of the winter sports season rather than the usual preparatory freedoms of summer. Other kids may give football a shot for the first time, no longer competing against traditional fall sports like soccer or golf.
But any proponent of the lessons and benefits of the game of football knows it’s also welcome, regardless of how strange the schedule, logistics and season may be.
Like the rest of the world, so many of these young men have been challenged in unique ways by the pandemic. Hybrid or online schooling have been the norm for nearly a year. Other sports, school-based or otherwise, have been limited or cancelled altogether. Social distancing has led to social isolation for so many at such a critical developmental point in their lives.
For many young men, football is still king among high school sports, even in February.
No, it won’t exactly be the same high school football we are accustomed to. Masks will be worn. Sidelines will be more spaced out. Games will be localized and fewer. On-field action may even seem awkward at times. Thanksgiving rivalries will be played out in April, no fooling. Easter rivalries!
But it’s football. It’s activity. It’s camaraderie. It’s all the lessons that the game teaches about confidence, resiliency, work ethic, teamwork and so many more packaged in a unique, challenging way. It’s a semblance of normalcy in an abnormal world.
For seniors it’s an opportunity, albeit a strange one, to close out their careers, something that was far from a certainty when the school year began. It’s an opportunity that their brethren in spring sports never got the chance at when COVID took over less than a year ago.
So, to coaches and players who’ll get things going today one simple piece of advice – enjoy it. Put on a warmer pair of gloves if necessary. Be careful not to slip in a sandy parking lot. Cherish whatever chance you get to practice and play the sport you love in the coming weeks. Treat it like a precious gift that could be taken away at any moment, because that’s exactly what it is.
Through it all, high school football is here in Massachusetts.
It’s a great day for football, men!