BRISTOL, Tenn. – Football the way it ought to be.
That was the scene on Tuesday afternoon at the Stone Castle as Tennessee High began the contact portion of its preparation for a season that is slated to open in just 16 days.
“I am extremely excited,” Tennessee High senior linebacker Bryce Snyder said. “I just want to play football, really.”
Whether or not the Vikings are able to host Dobyns-Bennett as scheduled on Aug. 21 remains to be seen due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tennessee High head coach Mike Mays plans to have his club ready if it happens.
“It feels great,” Mays said. “We are just excited. Having such a long break, the kids are staying excited and just hoping we are going to get to play.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee provided hope that the season could begin as scheduled after signing an executive order last Friday to allow the contact portion of football (and girls soccer) to begin.
“It feels great. I have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Tennessee High senior safety and receiver Jaden Keller said. “There was only so much we could do, but now we have pads on so that opens up a whole bunch of other things. We can start to practice and get our fundamentals down and get used to all these new players.”
Tennessee High, which went through the required five days of heat acclimation, was finally able to make contact with each other on Tuesday, with Mays expecting the Vikings to have enough time to be ready if the season does begin on time.
“I count 11 days in pads, we are pretty good right there. If we cut any days off that I would be a little bit worried,” said Mays, whose Vikings currently have an eight-game schedule, having lost Virginia High and Abingdon when the Virginia High School League postponed football to the spring. “We would like to have more direction from the state and everybody is concerned, our school system is concerned, other school systems are concerned.
“If there are concerns out there, I wouldn’t mind pushing it back a little bit, as long as we get to play. Whatever it takes to play, our kids are wanting to play, and they need it.”
Those concerns were heightened on Tuesday when several students at Greeneville High School tested positive for the coronavirus, which reportedly forced the suspension of football activities, while also canceling the first game for the Greene Devils.
“That is the world we are living in,” Mays said. “We are trying to do everything we can do to keep from getting it and handle what we can handle here. We talk to our kids outside of school on what they can handle. It is just a hard situation.”
Snyder acknowledges that the Vikings have been following the proper protocols, going through temperature checks, wearing masks, social distancing and doing whatever else is required, all in the hopes of playing football in the fall.
“Nobody really knows what is going on, but we have all been trying to work our hardest in case we get the chance to play,” Snyder said. “We are trying to keep positive. If it happens we will be ready.”
Snyder, who certainly doesn’t want to miss out on the football season after losing nearly his entire baseball season in the spring, hasn’t allowed the possibility of picking up the coronavirus keep him from the football field.
“It is always a concern, especially with everything you see going on right now, but we are really trying to take as many precautions as possible,” he said.
Mays, entering his eighth season as head coach of the Vikings, purchased maroon masks, which were worn by all the coaches and many of the players despite the afternoon heat bouncing off the sparkling green turf field.
“Honestly, the safest they are going to be in 24 hours we feel like is when they are in there with us. We just feel like we are handling protocols and spreading out,” he said. “Now we get to hit a little bit today so we are going to get a little bit closer.
“We have bought some of these [masks] for everybody so we have got them up as much as we can wear it and we are still going to social distance when we are not in a drill, but you have to bang with each other. We encourage these [masks], but it is not always the case where we are wearing them.”
Mays, who said his players had been gathering four days a week in small groups since the TSSAA-mandated dead period ended on July 4, pointed out the need for contact to prepare for the physicality of football with hopes of meeting the Indians as scheduled in just over two weeks.
“That is our plan. Today is our first day of banging. In football the old word is ‘callused’ up,” he said. “You have got to get through the soreness and get back out of it and be ready to play. I worried, the closer we got, the less callused we are going to be so we are just trying to callused up right now.”
There are still questions away from the field. Online instruction is slated to begin on Thursday and continue through Aug. 14, with hopes of returning to a classroom setting the following week for the first time since mid-March.
“I haven’t been to school in a while,” Keller said. “I am kind of happy to go back to school, it has been a while since I have been inside the school. I kind of miss it now.”
Mays acknowledged the difficulty of not knowing for sure when the opening game will be played, while adding that his normal procedure of putting together a four-month calendar with practice days and times has now become more of a daily task due to the constantly changing nature of the coronavirus.
He added that school administrators face the same situation, with everyone looking for answers to an endless array of questions.
“It is every day it changes,” Mays said. “I am sending messages to kids a lot after practice for the next day, that is literally where we are at now. I am okay with that, we are playing. We are out here, we are together and that makes me happy.”
Keller, who is being recruited by numerous NCAA Division I schools, feels much the same, glad to be back on the field with his friends. He spent about a month this summer in Texas training for the season with Tennessee High quarterback Steven Johnson, and returned ready to go.
“We have been getting in groups together and going on the field, doing some routes, making sure we are still in shape,” Keller said. “We didn’t lose that much [in preparation]. We are just ready to get out here with our whole team. Now we are ready for that.”
There is little doubt the Vikings are glad to be back together and anxious to play football. Mays feels much the same, but still has to preach caution to help his team do their best to avoid any issues with the lurking virus.
“This is what they live for. There is no hiding from it, they want to play football and they want to be around each other,” Mays said. “That is the hardest part for us is just keeping them apart because they want to be a part of each other so they have to learn how to social distance and stuff.
“It is an everyday process.”
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