Worst-case scenario: Life without football, Part 3

We’ve all endured more than four months with hardly any live sports to speak of, and the fall season has long been serving as the light at the end of the tunnel for fans all across the country.

But what if that light goes out?

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon; case numbers are rising again in most states, including Indiana, and summer workouts have been either restricted or put on hold in many places. Many conferences and individual colleges have either cancelled or shortened their fall sports seasons, and some states have already started to push fall sports back to the spring.

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So with that in mind, it’s fair to ask about the doomsday scenario: What happens if there is no high school football in Johnson County this fall?

In the last of a three-part series, we take a look at what the impact of a lost 2020 season would be on the local football teams themselves — the players and the coaches who have the most to lose if the season falls apart.

Greenwood football coach Mike Campbell describes his program as “cyclical.” As the smallest school in the Mid-State Conference, the Woodmen often see their fortunes rise and fall based on the talent and depth in individual graduating classes.

After making a run to the Class 4A semistate in 2017, Greenwood graduated the overwhelming majority of its starting lineup, and Campbell expected a younger team to take some lumps in the two seasons that followed. But the ups and downs that those teams have helped produce a seasoned and confident senior class that’s got high hopes for the 2020 campaign …

… if it happens.

The pandemic-related dominoes have started falling more and more rapidly across the football landscape, both nationally and locally. On Monday, North Central High School — which plays in the same conference as Center Grove and is scheduled to face the Trojans on Sept. 18 — suspended all athletic activities until further notice. Preseason workouts are on hold at Fishers and Brownstown Central after positive tests there, with the latter announcing Tuesday that it will be shutting down for two weeks.

Local football coaches and players aren’t hitting the panic button yet, but there is an acknowledgement that the threat of a shortened or lost season is growing more and more real by the day and would leave some scars.

“I think it would really hurt us,” Campbell said. “We’ve got a big senior class — we’ve got like 25 seniors playing this year, and a lot of those guys dressed on the semistate team as freshmen. They’re kind of looking forward to getting out there and being the older kid and the experienced guy. We’ve taken our knocks for a couple of years, and they’re really looking forward to being able to deliver some of those knocks.”

Likewise, new Indian Creek coach Steve Spinks is eager to get started in “a community that’s proud of its football team.” He understands how important the sport is to local morale, especially for the kids playing it.

“Life goes on,” Spinks said, “but boy, it’s sure going to hurt if that does happen.”

Some coaches have tried to stress to their players and all local residents the importance of wearing masks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and potentially save the season. Whiteland coach Darrin Fisher has probably been the most vocal area proponent of masks in recent weeks, with Spinks not far behind despite the physical discomfort they can bring — “It’s hard to coach in 95-degree heat with a face (mask) on,” he said.

Fisher has expressed frustration about people’s unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously, or take the most basic precaution to contain it; he’s concerned that it could cost the Warriors their season.

“You want life to be normal?” Fisher said. “You’ve got to make a sacrifice, and the sacrifice is you’ve got to be a little uncomfortable and wear a mask, and you’ve got to wash your hands. It’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s not a lot to ask in order to have your life be normal the way you want it to be.

“It just bothers me that everybody is complaining about wearing a mask. We’re going to get all geared up (to play), and we’re going to have to shut it down.”

Perhaps no team would feel the sting of a lost season more than Center Grove, which returns nearly all of its skill-position players from last year’s state runner-up squad and figures to go into the season not only as the top-ranked team in Indiana, but perhaps one of the best in the country.

As news events continue to unfold, senior running back Carson Steele says the worst-case possibility has been creeping into the minds of Trojan players.

“It definitely has. It’d be a bummer if everything went down,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep looking forward, keep training and stuff like that and hopefully everything works out so we can have a great season.”

The Trojans have played in five state championship games over the last 20 years, winning titles in 2008 and 2015 — but with at least five players on the current roster having already fielded or accepted Division I scholarship offers, expectations for Eric Moore’s squad this fall might be higher than they’ve ever been.

“Our guys showed up (July 6), they want to be undefeated and win a state championship — and that’s the only two things we think of anymore,” Moore said. “We don’t have a red-letter game; all the games are huge. We don’t want to have a great season; we want to be excellent. We don’t want to have a run; we want to win. And I’m not trying to be arrogant with that — we could fall on our face like anybody else could, and last year we did.”

This year could see the entire state fall on its face before all is said and done. Center Grove might already be without a Week 5 opponent if North Central students don’t return to school in August — and if other large schools in and around Marion County also choose the online-only route, the Trojans’ schedule could fall apart quickly.

One possible alternative if football can’t be played in the fall is to move the season to the spring; New Mexico has already done so, and the topic has come up in such states as Michigan and Tennessee.

For smaller schools, that option might not be a realistic one unless there’s a swap that would see baseball and other traditional spring sports contested in the fall.

“It would impact us greatly, because we have kids that play multiple sports,” Edinburgh football coach Tyler DeSpain said. “If they decided to do football in the spring and still have baseball, I think that pretty much would kill our season.”

The concerns about losing football this fall go well beyond the immediate on-field team ramifications. For many players hoping to continue with football at the collegiate level, the season is a vital opportunity to generate recruiting buzz — especially after many of the scouting combines and camps that prospects would attend during the spring and summer didn’t happen this year, especially the bigger-name ones.

Indian Creek senior running back Connor Fruits has been trying to hedge his bets as much as possible.

“That’s why I’ve been going to so many camps; I’ve got a couple more I’m going to in a few more weeks,” Fruits said. “As of now, that’s really the only way, other than … my junior year of film, that’s all I’ve really got to show people.”

Steele, already behind the 8-ball after losing much of his junior season to injury, says the pandemic has hampered his efforts to draw more Division I attention.

“It’s definitely taken its toll on me, especially not having junior year as well,” he said. “That’s really cut off a lot of recruiting, and you don’t know what’s expected the next couple of months coming up with football — are (college) coaches allowed to come, and stuff like that?”

Campbell has even more pressing concerns.

The Greenwood coach fears that several of his players might not have many other reasons to stay in school and put forth the effort to graduate if football isn’t there as an incentive.

“A lot of our kids, if they don’t have sports, especially football, for a lot of those guys — their purpose wanting to be at school and motivation for showing up every day isn’t to say, ‘I want to go be a great student’ or ‘I really love psychology.’ It’s, ‘I’ll go to school because I want to play football,’” Campbell said. “My biggest fear is if we lose sports, some of my marginal student kids won’t have a desire to perform well in school.”

So far, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb and new IHSAA commissioner Paul Neidig are planning to stay the course, but with COVID-19 numbers trending back upward all around the Midwest, one gets the sense that we might be swimming toward shore desperately trying to escape a tidal wave that keeps growing taller and more daunting by the day.

“It’s kind of a weird feeling going into the fall season,” Edinburgh athletic trainer Ben Bingham said. “It’s not like every other year where you’re like, ‘Finally, it’s football season,’ because there’s always, in the back of your mind, like, ‘Are they just going to rip it away if there’s another outbreak?’ Which they should, obviously; if there is an outbreak, I understand, but you want these kids to play. You want them to be healthy, mainly, but you still want them to play.”

“It’s in the back of everybody’s mind,” Campbell added. “It’s kind of like a no-hitter; you don’t want to talk about it and jinx it.”

At this point, though, it’s becoming almost impossible not to talk about it.