It took a few weeks of summer workouts for footballs to appear at high schools in Bartow County. Now, more than a month into the abbreviated offseason, helmets will finally be worn on the fields by local teams.
Slow and steady, that’s been the GHSA’s approach throughout the summer. The governing body followed the same plan this week in announcing football programs can allow players to wear helmets but no other equipment at workouts, beginning Monday.
Opinions range widely over the GHSA’s protocols in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the governing body has stuck by its measured approach to this point. Bartow’s high school football coaches seem to appreciate that.
“I think the GHSA is doing a tremendous job of progression,” Cass first-year head coach Steve Gates said. “They continue to just loosen the belt up and loosen the belt up. They aren’t jumping to any conclusion. To me, they’re not listening to outside sources that are trying to put pressure on people. It’s very refreshing to see the progression they’re doing with us. …
“It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s a situation we can all live with and work with. Even for myself, who is a new coach putting in a new offense, we are still OK.”
Adairsville’s Eric Bishop — the longest-tenured head coach in the county — has seen his players make great strides over the past few weeks. Keeping the athletes focused and engaged can be a challenge in these times, making the incremental movement into the helmet-only workouts a huge deal.
“It’s good for a couple of reasons,” Bishop said of the decision. “It’s obviously a progressive step forward to getting back to as close to normal as it’s going to be for us this coming season. The second thing is that it gives us the opportunity to do some drills and things that we haven’t done merely from a safety standpoint. … The third thing is this, the kids want to put them on. They want to feel like this thing is moving in the right direction, and I think that will be a great shot of energy and enthusiasm Monday, when we get done with weights, put those helmets on and go to the field.”
Aside from allowing helmets to be used at football practices and essentially not loosening any other restrictions, including scrimmaging between schools in any sport, the most noteworthy part of the GHSA’s Wednesday announcement came in a non-committal form. A post on the governing body’s website stated the GHSA and its Sports Medicine Advisory Council began "the discussion concerning the start of the acclimatization period (beginning July 27), first date for practice (August 1) and the first contest date (different for each Sport/Activity). More information will be available following next week's meeting.”
Basically, the GHSA neither confirmed nor denied that the beginning of the regular fall sports calendar would remain the same as previously scheduled.
Regardless, Bishop believes it will be a massive moment whenever the time comes for his players to enter the acclimation period.
“When we do get to that point, whether it’s on the 27 or not,” Bishop said, “that’s when the kids will really feel like we can dig our heels in and this is where we’re supposed to be.”
Up until this point, Gates and Bishop agreed that their players had done an admirable job of making the best of the situation. Cartersville’s Conor Foster concurred, praising his entire program for its ability to adjust on the fly.
“They’ve responded as well as I could have hoped for,” Foster said of his players. “It’s tricky for coaches, tricky for players. … The parameters of what we are allowed to do changes every week, so every week, we’re kind of re-evaluating and figuring out a new way to be successful.”
While Foster agreed with his colleagues that the approval of helmet-only workouts is a move in the right direction, he’s curious to see if the next steps take place as planned. If the start of official practices gets pushed back, it would seem likely the start of the regular season would have to follow.
Based on fall football cancellations in other states, including New Mexico, New York and Virginia, a slightly postponed regular season — which is the current case in states such as Florida, Mississippi and New Jersey — might be the best-case scenario.
“I think it’s important to get more acclimated to the higher temperatures, because the helmet, it holds in a lot of heat,” Foster said of this week’s announcement. “… It’s a whole different issue when you add equipment on top of it. I think it’s wise to do things piece by piece. We’ll see how it goes next week.
“Next week is a huge week, to me, for the GHSA. I think everybody is kind of waiting on pins and needles to see what their response is to some of the decisions that have been made by other states. It will be interesting to see what happens.”