Friday night silence: the absence of football in SWVA

by Kelley Pearson, Sports Editor

There is an absence of the Friday night lights across the state of Virginia. The normally deafening cheers and jeers of a standing-room only crowd as the home team faces their rivals has been quelled by a pandemic that still rages worldwide. COVID-19 has only been with us for about nine months, but that does not lessen its effect on our normal way of life. And for Fridays in the fall, that means football.

“I think the word sad sums it up,” Central head coach Luke Owens said. “I drive by the stadium every day going and coming from the school. I think about it every time I pass the stadium. I hate it for my kids, my coaches and the community. I miss being around the kids everyday. I just can't wait to be back around them.”

“It is frustrating but it’s not something we can control,” Eastside head coach Mike Rhodes said. “It is hard to explain to 15 to 18-year-old kids why 30 minutes away in two different states their peers are being allowed to play but they are not.”

Both Tennessee and Kentucky are already playing their seasons, despite the fact that schools in southeast Kentucky and northeast Tennessee have had teams quarantined due to coronavirus cases. The outcry from SWVA parents, players and coaches alike is to just “let them play”.

One of the biggest concerns from local coaches is the mental health factor. Sports are the reason a lot of kids enjoy going to school. Football is an outlet for young men and women not only due to the physical benefit of working out and staying active, but also because of the socialization the kids experience with one another.

“Sports are a big outlet for the kids and it could definitely hinder kids not being able to have that release,” Ridgeview head coach Todd Tiller said. “You would hope that doesn’t get some of the kids in trouble, not having sports. Our kids see these other states around us are getting to play and they get depressed that they are not able to do the same thing at the moment.”
“I do think it affects their mental state of mind. Football is an important part of my players’ lives. They are used to a schedule with things and now that schedule has been interrupted. They feel that something is missing in their lives right now. I know how lost I feel not having to go to practices or workouts,” Owens said.

Ridgeview football is still having workouts and lifting on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. J.I. Burton is also working out on Tuesdays and Thursdays and intends to increase that to three days in mid-September and four days once basketball starts.

Last month, the Wise County School Board called a special meeting and voted to postpone in-person school for one month due to a dramatic increase in recent cases. In doing so, all athletics at Union, Central and Eastside came to a screeching halt.

“Right now, we’re not doing anything,” Union head coach Travis Turner said. “We are looking forward to the school board meeting in a few weeks. We hope we can get kids back in school and back out on the fields.”

Turner spoke to his players’ tenacity. “They’re still doing stuff on their own. They’re all working hard. We definitely want to get the kids back to normal.”

What would football Friday nights be without the marching band, cheerleaders and student section? Turner explained importance of getting those kids back on the field as well.

“This is a chance to bring the community together. It’s not only about football. It’s also about marching band and the cheerleaders. We always have one of the most spirited student sections as well. All of those kids are missing out,” Turner said.

Football has always had deep roots in southwest Virginia, boasting many state championship winners and runners-up. Burton head coach Jacob Caudill spoke about the history and consistency of Raider football.

“John I. Burton was built in 1953 and has not missed a football season since then,” Caudill said. “Before that, the NorHi Raiders didn't miss a season to my knowledge, so it has definitely been a long time since there wasn't football in Norton on a Friday night.”

A lot of these same athletes were spring athletes who lost their entire seasons last year when schools were halted abruptly due to the virus.

“I feel for the kids that have had seasons taken away or greatly reduced so far since March. It definitely is a depressing time and it is something that we have addressed as coaches trying to make the workouts not only beneficial for the coaches, but also fun and enjoyable for the players,” Tiller said.

Everyone is looking forward to football in February. At this time, the VHSL has approved a schedule of approximately 60 percent of the games to be played. Football is scheduled for six regular season games before heading into playoffs. The consensus seems to be that it is better than nothing. More than anything, these coaches want to be back with their players and to see these young athletes doing what they do best.

“Right now we just miss our kids,” Rhodes said. “It’s the camaraderie of it all; hearing them laugh and cut up and just having fun and making memories they will cherish forever. We all love the games we coach, but in 20 years we will remember the memories made more than the scores of the games.”