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Covering sports in a pandemic

About two hours before scheduled game time, I sat in a parking lot, chowing down on a bite with my wife and younger daughter, who kindly gave my presence up for a night as I embarked on one last mission for the work week.

I was going to be covering Friday night high school football.

In the weeks prior, we installed new sports editors and Friday night deadlines. Always excited about the return of football, I was especially anxious about the first games of the season.

But, alas, the skies opened up, thunder rumbled, and lightning cracked. After a dry summer, Mother Nature decided to open up the heavens just before kickoff.

“This is so 2020,” I said aloud.

Instantly, the new deadlines flashed through my head. “Will they even play tonight?” I wondered while feverishly checking the radar.

However, just as I was about to hit the road toward the assignment The Courier sports editor Zach Baker gave me, I looked to the west and saw some light breaking through the clouds.

Amid a pandemic that nixed the season in other states. Amid a canceled Big Ten season. Just after a torrential downpour.

We, in Ohio, we’re going to be playing football.

I started in business as a sports editor, and, for much of my childhood and college years, that is all I ever wanted to be. The track has taken me in another direction, but I’ve always found myself at a football field on most late summer/fall Friday nights. For four years, I was the public address announcer at the school where my wife both taught and was the cheerleading coach. Last fall, my first in the Buckeye State, I went to a number of different games, often bringing my older daughter with me.

This year, as we all know, is a bit different. The ways to get into the game are narrow — participants get a limited number of tickets. Beyond that, the only others allowed in are those who are working.

So I went to work, knowing my experience of covering a game during the pandemic would be excellent fodder for this very column.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I heard something I’d been missing for the past six months — public music. Rarely is it the kind that I would choose, but I really enjoyed it as I realized how much of my time had been spent in private — work, drive, home. Rinse. Repeat.

Hearing some up-tempo hip-hop and rock songs made me smile. I always like a little hype, and it felt good to be somewhere upbeat.

Then, from out of nowhere, I heard bells clanging as familiar hymns belted from a nearby church.

It think it was during some Pitbull song that I first heard that.

It was just another juxtaposition in 2020. Church bells competing with hip hop. Closed society vs. open society. School vs. no school. A socially distant environment or no football at all.

And the big theme of my day — normal vs. not normal.

At times, the game and atmosphere seemed quite normal. The game play didn’t look any different. Cheerleaders cheered, the band played, fans screamed at the referees.

After the game, masked players on the winning side smiled (their eyes showed it!) as they were greeted by friends and family. Those who lost trudged back to the locker room, tired and crestfallen.

But on the other hand, the experience was foreign.

One time during the game, the referees stopped and made sure the players on the sideline were spaced 6 feet apart. On a couple of occasions, the announcer said people were not socially distancing properly, and, if they did not wear their masks, they could jeopardize the rest of the season. Everyone paid attention to who was standing where, and the stadium, which I could easily picture being full to the brim on the first Friday night of the season, had open space everywhere.

The oddest moment came when I interviewed the coach about the team’s next game, which, on paper, should be a good one. His response spoke to our condition of living in an uncertain world.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to play or not, but, if we’re able to play, we’ll go out and have fun,” he said.

It wasn’t dystopian football in the sense the game was different. It was dystopian football in the sense the game was exactly the same, but everything else surrounding it was different.

I felt for the dad and his child looking for something to do on a small-town Friday night. I felt for schools where the first week of the season was taken away because of an outbreak of the shifty and maddening COVID-19. I felt for those in other states whose governors made different decisions when it came to the season.

Sports, like the rest of our society, just feels a little strange these days.

Yet, I’m thankful for anything that provides a sense of normalcy.

I was glad I volunteered to drive a half-hour to a new place and battle raindrops and challenging deadlines.

It certainly is unique to have a publisher writing a small-town game story, but, in this crazy, uncertain 2020, life felt somewhat normal for a couple of hours. Even though I had a mask on while walking the sidelines.

Jeremy Speer is the publisher of The Courier in Findlay, Ohio The Advertiser-Tribune in Tiffin, Ohio, and the Review Times in Fostoria, Ohio. He can be reached at jeremyspeer@thecourier.com or jspeer@advertiser-tribune.com.

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