Football kicks off an important return to normalcy

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I have to admit I wasn’t sure if we’d ever get back to any real sense of normalcy, but the overdue return of football is an important start.

I can’t wait to watch high school football on Friday. I will be glued to my television set on Sept. 19 when my UCF Knights play at Georgia Tech. And on Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars open their season.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

Football has been a significant part of my life for the past 50 years. And I have scars on two fingers and a new metal left knee to prove it.

And I’d do it all over again.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to keep their distance. We’ve been told to isolate, keep our hands washed and give up many of the things we once took for granted.

Like football.

What I learned playing football for five years and covering games for the next 45 is football is a team sport. You rely on your teammates; they rely on you. It’s a social skill that can’t be taught in a virtual classroom or on a cellphone. And most important, especially in today’s political climate, players from all backgrounds work together for a common cause.

Another lesson learned from playing is how you manage failure. When football players get knocked down, they get back up and keep going. It takes more than physical toughness to play football. It takes mental toughness as well. Football players don’t quit. They push through adversity without excuses. It’s where I developed a work ethic that continues to drive my career.

The game will be the same. Running, tackling, blocking, kicking and catching. The players won’t know the difference, and they won’t be distracted by the months of uncertainty, delay and frustration created by the coronavirus.

For everyone else, there will be a noticeable change. The Clay County School District created a four-step program to get players out of quarantine and back on the field. Facemasks are required when entering and leaving the stadium, as well as visiting the concession stand or the restroom.

While teams were allowed to conduct limited drills, they’ve only been allowed to practice in pads since Aug. 25.

Attendance will be limited to 30% occupancy. Tickets must be purchased online. Most schools will open ticket sales to parents of players, band members, cheerleaders and dancers on Mondays and Tuesday ahead of a Friday night game. If there are any leftovers – seating at Orange Park High is limited to 800 – they will be made available starting on Wednesday.

Most stadiums will have areas marked where seating isn’t allowed. That’s to assure proper distancing. When the game is over, fans will exit one row at a time.

Clay High Athletics Director Jared Moses posted a video on social media to explain his school’s plan for Friday night games.

“We are working extremely hard here to make sure your experience at Clay events this year are safe for the students, for the parents, for the community,” he said. “We want to make this a great experience for you all to come out and support our Blue Devils and we hope to see you at a game this year.”

Many districts also will expand the “player’s box” along the sidelines from the 10-yard line to the 10-yard line to create 80 yards so players can maintain proper distancing.

A lot of cautious thought and planning went into getting athletes back on the field and court this fall. Sacrifices have been significant, but worth it.

Even with restrictions and limited seating, one thing will never change: football is back. And so is some sense of normalcy.

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