As those who led the effort to bring high school football back reflect on the 2021 season two

The most amazing thing for Patrick Walsh is how quickly everything has changed.

California was in the midst of a spike in coronavirus cases around the 2020 Christmas break, but the head soccer coach at Serra High School in San Mateo was thinking about the future. It had been several weeks since the California Interscholastic Federation delayed its belated start of high school sports, and there seemed to be no end to the wait in sight.

Walsh’s thoughts had started to move beyond 2020.

“Not only was I scared that it wasn’t going to happen this year — we’re not going to get anything,” Walsh recently recalled. “Like I’m worried about Fall 21. Who is fighting for fall 21? We just sat around and let these things happen.”

Walsh concluded, “We have to do something.”

Two months later, Governor Gavin Newsom officially gave the go-ahead to play ball. Walsh and the coaches who fought alongside him took great pride in the immediate aftermath. A year after kicking off the first games of 2021, they’re still doing it.

“It’s going to be one of the most memorable trips of my life, no question about it,” Walsh said.

A year ago this month, teams from across the Bay Area returned to the field to begin an abbreviated spring season. They were the first preseason games in the Bay Area since the outbreak of COVID-19.

SAN MATEO, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 24: Patrick Walsh, Serra’s head football coach, poses for a portrait near the football field at Junipero Serra High School on Thursday, February 24, 2022 in San Mateo, California. Walsh is the Padres’ most successful coach of all time. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

The long process began on December 20, 2020, when Walsh, along with De La Salle head coach Justin Alumbaugh and Torrey Pines-San Diego’s Rod Gladnick, officially formed the Golden State HS Football Coaches Community. They quickly joined forces with Let Them Play CA, a parenting advocacy group led by Brad Hensley of Carlsbad.

They planned to convince leaders in California about the importance of getting back on the field.

“The data came out that these were safe activities and our children’s mental health and emotional health suffered,” Alumbaugh said. “This was an opportunity to give them some normalcy and to get them out of the rut they were faced with, and I think everyone was faced with – and in many ways still is.”

On the parents’ side at Let Them Play CA, Hensley felt working with Walsh and the coaches was just what they needed.

“There are so many dominoes that need to fall in the right place at the right time for that to happen, and our joining the Golden State coaching community was the biggest and most important domino,” Hensley said.

Walsh’s coach community group quickly grew to more than 1,200, and they followed other states’ lead by collecting training data from 275 schools in California.

It was five months ago, in July 2020, that the CIF first postponed the start of the 2020/21 football season to December. As the launch date neared, the launch kept being pushed back as coronavirus cases rose.

“I started saying to the kids, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to happen. We’re going to play other sports, you know, whatever it is,'” Concord coach Paul Reynaud said.

As the number of cases dropped in February, it became clear that the coaches’ game plan was working. A meeting with governor’s office officials on February 2, 2021 and Newsom’s appointment of Doug Hendrickson to the State Athletic Commission on February 4, 2021 have both been identified as key turning points.

“We quickly found the right people to get to the top as quickly as possible because we didn’t have the time,” Walsh said. “The desperation was there.”

As soon as officials announced on February 19, 2021 that football teams would be allowed to play in the spring, it became a scramble for many to get organized and get back on the practice field – in entirely new circumstances.

“And then it was like, ‘Okay guys, start playing now,'” Reynaud said. “It usually takes us a month to have these children [ready] – we didn’t distribute any equipment, we didn’t do anything of the sort. and you’re like, ‘Okay, you can start playing games next week.’”

SAN MATEO, CA – MARCH 12: A limited number of fans watch as the San Mateo and Capuchino collegiate football teams compete before the start of a season-opening high school football game in San Mateo, California on Friday, March 12, 2021 , warm up. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

And no matter how much they planned and prepared, going out and doing it was going to be another massive undertaking. Teams weren’t allowed to use dressing rooms, had to learn how to do contact tracing in the event of a positive test, and even had to completely revamp practices.

“Not only have we been following county guidelines to keep people safe regarding COVID, football is a contact sport,” Alumbaugh said, noting the risk of injury. “So we had to make sure we practice as much as we can to make sure our kids can play the game safely – that’s our main responsibility, keeping kids safe when playing in a contact sport.”

Alumbaugh’s De La Salle team played all of its scheduled 19 games in both the spring and fall. Walsh’s Serra team wasn’t so lucky as COVID issues marked the start of the fall season in dangeralthough the game was finally cancelled by air quality problems caused by wildfires. However, what stuck in Walsh’s mind through both 2021 seasons was the restoration of hope to his football team.

“Even though it wasn’t normal and we still have things to work through, there was always hope,” Walsh said. “It went from ‘Gosh, hopefully we’ll get through this week’ to ‘We’re playing St. Francis this week.'”

However, football, Alumbaugh says, is a contact sport and the season’s rapid ramp-up also meant some schools were understaffed. School district policies varied, and coaches expressed frustration, particularly with the limitations of the types of exercises they could hold, how they had to handle the equipment, and the number of sports children could play. All of this left some programs, like Reynaud’s Concord, falling even further behind.

“We’re a small program anyway, and there weren’t a lot of seniors or juniors, so I played with kids who would have played freshman football at other times,” Reynaud said. “Our kids were a little overwhelmed and I’m sure we weren’t the only program in that situation.”

And there were injuries. As those who led the effort to bring high school football back reflect on the 2021 season two

Joel McCord

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