This Saturday the Kansas City Chiefs rookie class is expected to report to Arrowhead Stadium Facilities for the start of training camp and the 2020 NFL season. In a normal year, this would bring excitement and joy to fans across the league knowing that football would be back underway shortly. Unfortunately, this is no normal year. Go back to mid-February as the Kansas City Chiefs were celebrating their first Super Bowl title in 50 years. The times were good, food tasted better, beer was colder, the music sounded better, and everyone was in a state of euphoria. Halfway across the world, a nightmare had long been underway, one that was spreading faster than anyone could have ever imagined.
I rarely get personal with my writing here at Arrowhead Live, as for the last seven months I have tried my very best to give you the reader the best quality content possible. This article as I’m sure you can already tell will be different, with no film reviews, no comparisons, no roster breakdowns, or future analysis of our beloved Chiefs. No, I will instead start with a different sport, a sport I love but no longer play basketball. I was in attendance at one of the last sports events held for the public in the world, the Big 12 Tournament opening-round game featuring bottom dwellers Oklahoma State vs Iowa State. I had been on spring break for only a few days at the time and after a much needed weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks, I was headed to watch some less than competitive basketball with some good friends. There had been some talk on the way to the game about some of the news regarding the Coronavirus Covid-19, which had at the time been tearing across Europe and Asia packing hospitals and morgues all along the way. Some of my friends seemed unconcerned, but I knew better than that. For the last four years, I have studied Public Health and Epidemiology at Truman State University in Kirksville Missouri, three hours northeast of Kansas City. I have also been a member of the football team at the school for the last four years, I will get into that later. As the game got underway the actions were actually more interesting than possible but with about five minutes to play in the first half my phone started to blow up. What I read was shocking, but it made all my prior fears come to fruition. The Big 12 had canceled the rest of the tournament after that night’s games, following suit with the other major conferences. An announcement was made at half time that came down with thunderous boo’s, but it was clear, Covid-19 was in America, and it was about to affect our world in ways we could never have imagined.
I had been reading about the spread of an unknown virus across China since early January, but reading about things like that in the world’s health isn’t always out of ordinary. Besides the Chiefs had to find a way to win three games and win the Super Bowl, and I had to find a way to go to both home playoff games without breaking the bank. The world was great, at least it seemed to be, and my teammates and I were getting ready to end the lifting and running phase of our winter and begin to enter our spring ball period after our school’s spring break. As we had our last running session before the break we talked briefly about team goals and what to expect for spring football practices. After we got out of practice most of us talked about break plans as well as what the plan for the evening was going to be, since after all there were no 6:30 am weights the next day, and my first class wasn’t until 1:30 in the afternoon. Most of the other age members of our team went out that night and blew off some steam from midterms at some of the local nightlife establishments in town. We had a good time doing what division two athletes do best: work hard, and play hard.
A week later the school announced classes were going to be moved online for the rest of the semester. It would be months before I saw most of my teammates again. Meanwhile, the world around us was starting to shake as states and cities started to put in place stay at home orders, many who could move to work online, and millions of more found themselves out of work, years of hard work washed away as Covid-19 started its deadly surge through our country. The NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS all suspended play while the NFL moved to a mostly virtual offseason program, including a draft like none other. The world we knew no longer existed, and as lockdown, extended questions over other major sports crept into the limelight as to when to ask them to restart, or even how to restart. Meanwhile, the football season was slowly creeping closer, as more questions started to arise with answers.
This summer I have had the pleasure of working in a local county health department during a pandemic as an intern. This was my plan long before the pandemic started but it has made me appreciate the hard-working individuals that make up public health, nursing, epidemiology, and all the sacrifices that they have made at this time. It may be a small county with not many cases but in a pandemic, every health person, or recovered person is a win. Much like on a football team everyone has a job to do day in day out, but the decisions made by those in health care could have consequences or more than just wins or losses, it could be life or death for some. There were sometimes during my first four years of college where I couldn’t decide if I had chosen the right major or not, but after this, I know for a fact that the right decision was made. Sometimes there is more to life than sports, but for many of us, we need the distraction in our lives to cope with the other problems that we face. That is also why when our athletic department announced we could begin training for the 2020 season again I was ecstatic. This is my last year of eligibility, my last chance to play the game I have loved ever since I was young, and I was excited at the chance to just even workout with my team again. However over the last month and a half one thing has been proven, that while time has been had for most sports to make plans, football feels dangerously behind the curve.
I have had a feeling from the start of this it wouldn’t be good. Over the last four years, we learned what would happen if a widespread pandemic were to happen across the globe, and one of the key things that I took away from most lessons was that our country and most of the world was woefully unprepared. As study became practice, and practice entered the game we saw all this unfold before our very eyes, knowing that it could have catastrophic effects, and it has. Yet on the mind of many the thoughts aren’t on vaccines being created correctly, whether to put a mask on when going to the store or even whether we should see older relatives, it was firmly on what the NFL was going to do to get a season off. I am no different, it is after all only human nature to want to be comfortable and what comforts me is being around the game. As our summer workouts started with a number of regulations for social distancing and safety it felt god be back. About two weeks in we saw the headlines of the Ivy League cancel their season altogether and a number of big conferences move to conference play only. We also saw several small conferences across Division two, three, Juco, and the NAIA cancel their seasons altogether. At the current moment, our conference the GLVC has made no announcement and I remain optimistic but it is not looking good for small college football, and honestly, it doesn’t look good for big-time power five college football either.
The Big Ten was the first power five to announce some what of a “plan” , but even with it in place it still raises questions. If one player in a unit happens to contract the virus then by most states standards he, and the entire unit he works with every day, eats with, and plays with would have to quarantine for around 14 days, and every member of the unit would have to be tested. What if an offensive linemen gets sick after a practice in which he did one on one pass protections drills vs the defensive line and also was in contact with a quarterback by doing pre-practice snaps? Yep, those players would all be tested and all be under quarantine for some extended period of time till the test came back. While these big power conferences have the money to afford testing and player isolation they do not have the power to prevent their players from getting sick. Covid-19 doesn’t care who will be the SEC Champion or who will play in the college football playoff, all it cares about is attacking it’s host and spreading like wildfire. Being optimistic is hard in the world today, but being addressed with the reality of the situation can make even the most optimistic person alive a pessimist. The only thing that will save college football and allow for a season to be played is the millions of millions and maybe billions of dollars that are on the line every season in the sport. These schools are built on football, and will collapse without football, and the fact that most athletes in college are in peak physical condition will lead to football being played this fall in some capacity at the college level. If money is a primary motivator for most colleges to play this season, then it is the main motivator for the NFL to play.
I would assume right now Roger Goodell is watching very closely what is going on in the MLB. Unlike basketball and soccer the MLB has chosen not to use the bubble strategy but play a very limited regional based schedule for it’s 60 game regular season that is set to start next week. Testing numbers have been encouraging so far, but we have yet to see teams travel away from their own facilities to play more games. Stadiums will most likely be empty, and the same goes for the NFL as the Chiefs along with others announced significantly reduced attendance at games this fall. While the NFL will lose some money from this, the TV deals, endorsements, and merchandise sales will keep the league going just fine. There have been a small number of players who have tested positive so far but we have yet to see any live actions since the OTA’s and Mini Camp’s were cancelled. Training camp is almost here, and for months many said how lucky the NFL was to have time to plan. Yet here we sit, nearly a month and half away from the scheduled start of the season and there still is no plan. And that is unacceptable, from a public health stand point, and from a trust stand point to the players. As the NFL and NFLPA negotiate it seems more and more likely the league is going to face a similar situation as baseball did as far as compensation but both sides instead of working to find a way to work out a deal have began to start arguing about pre-season football games, which seems classically ironic given that in most every negotiation between the organizations this is what comes up. I won’t go to much into the pre-season debate right now, but there could be a lot of sloppy football played early this year. The league may have to delay the start of training camp, and even move back the first game of the season, which was supposed to be ring night at Arrowhead, depending on how the virus spreads in the following weeks. After all we are coming off of a national holiday and it is the American way to go out and party on the 4th, whether it be a local watering hole, or a beach in Florida, we just can’t resist a good time.
While cases of the virus continue to sore, and the NFL starts to run out of time, there is somewhat of a silver lining is that new data tends to show the death rate is significantly lower than what was initially thought. The fact for that being mostly young healthy people will end up being sick for a few days and recover from the virus. It’s a laughable notion offensive and defensive linemen could be at risk, most any at the professional or college level could walk into any gym and out lift and out run all inside. Some coaches will opt out this season due to age, or chronic health conditions and none of them should be faulted for it. Some of the salty coaches set in their ways will risk it, for the game that has given them so much. If they give us a chance to play this year I will go against all my knowledge of epidemiology and public health just to play out my final season, even if it is just for one game. As an old coach once told me, “Pain and suffering is all apart of the contract.” If we can I owe it to all my teammates and those who won’t get a chance.
This will be a year unlike we have ever seen before in the NFL and big time college football. Could we see expanded 90 man rosters to accommodate potential positive tests? Absolutely . Could we see a situation where the Chiefs might have to go into a game without Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Patrick Mahomes, Chris Jones, or Tyrann Mathiue? It is highly likely. It isn’t even out of the question to see the season start and have to abruptly stop and restart with a reduced schedule at a later date. Clark Hunt, Brett Veach, and Andy Reid are all smart guys, whatever does end up happening I think we can confidently say this is a class act of an organization that will do all in their power to make it as safe for the players and fans as possible. But still questions remain, and sadly I like most everyone else have only limited answers. The world is a very strange place right now, unlike anything anyone alive has ever seen. Uncertainty is on the minds of myself and many every time I open my eyes in the morning, but it is because I can open my eyes in the morning that I keep going. We have no clue what anything will look like a day, a week, a month, or even a year from now but we can hope. For my own football career, it’s all I have left. For the thousands around the world who have lost loved ones, businesses, and jobs due to this horrible disease it’s what keeps them going every day. We all had hope this past year when our Chiefs did the unthinkable, what some thought we would never see. Hope is all we have today, but it is much more powerful than any of us truly know.