In Texas, High School Football’s Pull Is Stronger Than Pandemic Fears

(Bloomberg) — When the floodlights snapped on for the season opener at the new $25 million stadium in Celina, Texas, 66-year-old Kim Merchant was in the stands, pandemic be damned.

The infection risk was worth it to see his grandson representing Celina on the field on a recent Friday night, and his granddaughter leading cheers on the sidelines.

“You’ve got to find a way to move forward,” said Merchant, who was among a few thousand spectators streaming into the stadium rising out of North Texas cow pastures in the hinterlands of Dallas. Few in this town question why playing football is more important to them than locking down to keep Covid-19 at bay, just as few question why a town of about 18,000 people would need a stadium big enough to seat a third of its population. “Football in Texas is huge,’’ Merchant said.

While many professional teams play cloistered without spectators, and college conferences like the Big 10 and Pac-12 go on hiatus, Texas high schools are getting on with the football season, fans and all. If Texas pulls it off, it may rally other states, and perhaps even encourage more college and professional teams to allow spectators.

Football is a rite of fall in the Lone Star State. The game at the high school level is often the focal point of community pride, with mascots emblazoned on water towers and stadiums that act more as cathedrals where people gather once a week in rare cohesion. While the state contains two of the nation’s six most populous cities, many of its residents take the most pride in the small-town high school version of the game, played on sunbaked fields from Van Horn to Deweyville.

A successful season would be a milestone in the opening of Texas’s economy that began in May — and caused a spike in hospitalizations and deaths that’s only now begun to subside. But new outbreaks could shut down the season and strike a blow against further opening. In Itasca, a town with fewer than 2,000 residents, the high school already has canceled at least two games after an athletics department employee tested positive for Covid-19.

Texas struggled to control the pandemic. Hospitalizations related to the coronavirus peaked at nearly 10,900 in late July and have since fallen to fewer than 4,000, according to state data.

After intense debate, the University Interscholastic League, the governing body for athletics and other extracurricular activities, allowed smaller high schools to begin their season Aug. 27. Larger schools, some of them in urban virus hotspots like Houston, Dallas and Austin, can start Sept. 24 with attendance limited to half of capacity in stadiums that seat as many as 19,000.

Across the nation, 16 states have postponed the season until spring, including California, Colorado and Virginia, said Zack Poff, who heads national football coverage for MaxPreps, a high school sports network owned by ViacomCBS Inc. The rest are playing football or planning to.

Texas is the big test: The state is strewn with stadiums that cost tens of millions of dollars and have seating capacity that rivals those of small universities. School districts in Katy and McKinney recently built $70 million stadiums in a competition supercharged in 2012 when the Dallas suburb of Allen spent $60 million on a facility that seats 18,000.

Schools compete in divisions according to size, and average attendance last year at the 12 championship games was 18,140. The marquee contest for the biggest schools attracted 47,818 fans. In Florida, another football powerhouse, the eight championships drew an average of only 4,196.

Jon Kay, who coached Houston-area North Shore Senior High School to titles for the past two years, knows the season is fragile. “I don’t think that our governing bodies, be it the UIL, or our school district or the state, would blink an eye at shutting down all extracurricular activities if they saw a significant spike” in disease, Kay said.

Superintendent Keith Murphy of Melissa ISD in the Dallas exurbs had to weigh the risk of football against that of excluding students from extracurricular activities that motivate them. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it was a decision that we made through the consensus of our community,” said Murphy.

In Celina, Bobcat Stadium towers above ranch land and the main entrance proclaims its eight championships. People wearing the orange-and-white home colors queued to get in, spread out a little more than usual across the parking lot and onto a grassy field.

Even with attendance at half capacity, some fans broke spacing guidelines to angle for better views, and face coverings drooped around necks in heat that lingered above 90 degrees long after sunset. Amid the ebullience of a season opener, fear of a deadly virus dissipated with every pass, punt, tackle and touchdown.

Though being outdoors mitigates risk, 50% capacity probably isn’t enough to keep people safe, especially when they’re cheering an interception or shouting at a bad call, said Catherine Troisi, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“The safest way is to have six feet around each person or around family pods,” she said. “You can’t do that with 50% capacity. Could you do it with 25%? Maybe.”

For many parents and players, the risks pale compared with what they’d miss if the season were canceled. Senior Army Ellison couldn’t follow in his stepfather’s footsteps by playing for Celina in a championship. In South Texas, Jaime Gonzalez won’t be able to put together a highlights reel. And in Melissa, football has been the center of senior Braylon Brown’s life and also, perhaps, the ticket to college.

“He’s found a football family,” said Ron Brown, Braylon’s father. “It’s very important to him, and hopefully we can get back deep into the playoffs again.”

North Shore’s stars, such as quarterback Dematrius Davis and receiver Shadrach Banks, will continue their careers no matter what: Davis has committed to Auburn University, and Banks will play for Texas A&M. The biggest blow of a canceled season would fall on seniors who don’t have a shot at college ball and might never again play full-contact football, Kay said.

“If it doesn’t happen for them this year, that probably means it’s over for them for their lifetime,” he said.

At Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco High School in South Texas — just north of a coronavirus hotbed in the Rio Grande Valley — Coach Gary Cunningham was shocked when the district suspended sports through October.

That dashed Jaime Gonzalez’s hopes of playing college ball. His teammates picked him as a senior captain, but he won’t have the chance to enjoy the honor, relish the boisterous pep rallies or bond with teammates during those last few months of practice and games.

When he heard the season was over before it began, “I felt my heart drop a little in my chest,” Gonzalez said. “I got scared because I didn’t know what it would be like without football.” But the 17-year-old says he also learned an important life lesson: “Not everything is going to go my way.”

Few other districts in Texas have followed suit.

Brandon Grumbles, stepfather to Celina player Army Ellison and a member of the 1998 championship team, wore a face covering as he helped operate the first-down markers on the sidelines. He watched Army scoop up a fumble and run it down close to the goal line to set up a touchdown.

“Nothing is really going to hold us back, especially in Texas,” Grumbles said. “There are things bigger than the virus.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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