ESCANABA — One of the bigger decisions the Michigan High School Athletic Association has ever had to make came down last Friday when it decided to postpone football until the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Naturally, it was a polarizing decision for many reasons.
For one, the announcement came midway through August when most teams were already practicing after the MHSAA had been saying since July that fall sports would be played traditionally. Secondly, football is a sport that requires a ton of time and dedication, leaving many of the athletes who have worked so hard with no control over the situation. Last but not least, the idea of playing football in the spring — especially in the U.P. — seems difficult at best.
But for Escanaba coach Dave Howes and Gladstone coach Jeff Hansen, they decided not to practice in the time leading up to this decision, mainly because they knew it was somewhat inevitable to have the season delayed at a very minimum.
“Jeff and I talked a few times about, ‘What exactly are we doing? What is the MHSAA doing?’ Because it was taking forever to make a decision, and we both thought it’s totally unsafe for kids,” Howes said. “Health and safety of the kids is our No. 1 priority, so we just decided we’re going to make our own delay. With not having a Week 1 or Week 2 game, it only made sense. We got the OK from our administration, and just having Escanaba and Gladstone do the same thing was a pretty positive thing for our community, just showing that we were working together.”
Howes agreed with the decision but felt it came too late.
“I’m glad they finally made the decision, which I thought should have been made a week or two before that,” he said. “You have all these U.P teams and downstate schools that have a Week 1 game, and they’re out there busting their butt doing practice and conditioning, then all of a sudden the inevitable happens. We kind of knew that they were going to delay or possibly cancel, but I felt bad for all the teams that were working really hard, only to get the rug pulled out from underneath them.”
Hansen wasn’t surprised by the decision either, backing it up by citing there are too many unknowns to put student-athletes at risk.
“My reaction to the news is that’s the way I thought it was going to go for sure,” he said. “I definitely think that it was the correct decision, just because of all the unknowns and the fact that, so far, they haven’t been all that successful with being able to keep COVID out of major universities and professional sports that have unlimited resources to try to do so. How would mid-size rural schools in the U.P. be able to keep COVID away from our players?
“We’re not sure exactly what exposure to COVID is going to do to athletes right now. They’re finding out more things and doing studies right now. We certainly didn’t want to expose the athletes unnecessarily when there’s so many questions.”
Hansen also has a son on his team, giving him a unique perspective.
“I have a unique perspective because my son (John Hansen) plays on our varsity team, so I have the perspective of a coach and of a parent,” he said. “As a husband and as a father and as a head football coach, I care more about player safety than I do anything else. It’s unfortunate to not be able to play football right now and have it be postponed, but whatever version of football we can give the kids when it’s appropriate to do so, we’re going to do it and make it a positive experience.”
However, not everyone is on board with the MHSAA’s decision. North Central coach Leo Gorzinski lamented his frustrations in a Tuesday evening phone interview.
“Even though it’s always been in the back of your mind that it’s always a possibility, you still went on and you believed and you pushed everybody to compete like the season was going to happen,” he said. “We were told the season was going to happen so many times, you started believing it. So obviously when it came down, there was a lot of frustration and anger. You just grieve for your kids, and your seniors especially.”
Gorzinski doesn’t believe there’s much risk with younger athletes.
“I don’t want to try to talk for the cities downstate or even some of these bigger programs up here, but where we’re at, where we’re sitting with a 35-kid roster playing 8-man football, I really hate the decision,” he said. “I don’t feel that these kids are at any risk, or that they pose a threat. If people are that naive to think that these kids haven’t come into contact with each other or haven’t went out and done anything together, it’s just hard to explain to them how now, that because we’re up on a football field and considered a group, that it’s any more dangerous than them having their campouts or their video games.
“We’re just trying to keep their morale up, letting them know we have their back, and that we’re going to do anything we can to keep them together for any type of competition that they’ll allow.”
The idea of spring football was also met with a lot of skepticism from all three coaches.
“If it’s like the last couple of springs with the weather we’ve had here, it’s going to be very, very hard to do that,” Howes said. “During our last spring break, we still had two feet of snow here. The northern schools like Marquette and Calumet had a lot more than we did. I hope the weather changes, I hope we can have it, but it’s just one of those things where I look at it and I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. We’ll probably have to practice indoors in a gym in a turf room. I just don’t know how it’s going to happen, but hopefully it does.”
Hansen also cited field conditions and weather, noting he hopes the MHSAA would consider a late spring or early summer season. But that would also affect the 2021 fall season, which is something he pointed out.
Gorzinski had a different concern.
“I don’t know of anyone who really trusts the system anymore or what they’re going to do,” he said. “If they say we’re going to have spring ball, we’re going to have hope that’s going to happen, but I’d like to see them explain how you’re going to play on these fields in March, especially with the way the last two winters were. But at the same time, if that’s our only hope, we’re going to shoot for it. That’s all you can do.”
At the end of the day, Hansen thinks it’s an opportunity for those in the U.P. to come together to get through another challenge.
“It’s an opportunity that’s missed and it’s going to be sorely missed for communities, because U.P. football is a cultural identity for the small towns and the fall tradition that it brings. Football is always a great way to kick off a school year, but we’re living in a brave new world right now and there’s going to be a new normal that might not be exactly the same that we’re used to,” he said. “But one of the traits for yoopers in general is our ruggedness and our ability to adjust and adapt to overcome all the challenges, so the people that live up here know all about this. It’s been like this for as long as people have lived in the U.P., so I see this as just another challenge that those of us yoopers will have to overcome, and we certainly will.
“Adversity shows character, and I think that we’ll have the ability to show our character as football programs, as football coaches and as football players. We’ll have to exemplify everything that we talk about believing in when it comes to overcoming adversity, being tough, showing heart and never quitting. We’re going to put those same program values into play and press on and really have as good of a football season in the spring as we possibly can, and then do everything it takes to get back to as close to normal as we possibly can.”
Today’s breaking news and more in your inbox