Ask virtually any high school football coach across the state of Colorado why they coach, and they'll tell you football is about more than the wins and the losses, the accolades, or even the championships.
Football, as a game, is about teaching life lessons: Teamwork, hard work, resilience.
It's been true since the early 1900s.
Now, in the midst of a global pandemic that's affecting counties and communities across Colorado, it rings more true than ever.
This sentiment has echoed across the airwaves each Friday night since the season started in early October, when Kevin Shaffer's Colorado Preps Scoreboard Show beams into homes, cars and team buses in all corners of the state. Shaffer's show, the cornerstone of prep football coverage in the state, interviews dozens of coaches each year after major matchups on Friday nights.
In a typical year, the interviews are focused on Xs and Os, standout performances, key plays, and context in terms of what the games mean in the larger picture of the season. This season, that context has taken a new meaning. Shaffer has ventured more into process, asking coaches how they feel to be playing, what practice is like, and what football means to them and their players.
"It's such an unusual year — coaches, players, and fans have been through such a rollercoaster of emotions," Shaffer said this week. "I think the positive thing about this COVID pandemic is that all involved appreciate the chance to play much more than in the past.
"I also want our listeners to understand just how much work it takes just to get a game in this year. And that coaches are not just concerned about winning games — they have the future of their players in mind and teaching them how to deal with adversity on and off the field."
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Shaffer's varied approach has helped to draw out some thoughtful answers from coaches.
"It's so fun to be back," Montrose coach Brett Mertens told Shaffer after a Week 1 win over Chatfield. "When you're not sure, and you get football taken away from you — the ups and downs, and the emotions of it — it was so awesome to see kids be able to be themselves and kind of be back to normal for a night."
Said Doug Johnson to the show, after Week 2: "We're all just so grateful to be out there."
Following a Week 3 win, Windsor's Chris Jones said, "Like anybody else in this state and across the world, we've got kids where their family members are struggling with the illness, and they're able to get a release at practice, and we get to have these games."
In an interview for this story, Pine Creek's Todd Miller said: "We have been turned on and off so many times that when we did start my gut feeling was this is not going to happen. But here we are at Week 4 and I am very grateful for that opportunity for our athletes to participate, our coaches to coach, and our parents to enjoy watching their sons play a great team game."
Douglas County coach Eric Rice and his team sat on the sidelines for the first two weeks: The first because of a quarantine within their team, and the second because of a quarantining opponent.
"Playing the game itself is more important than wins and losses right now," he told CHSAANow. "Just getting that opportunity that we’re lucky to have at this point in time."
Coach Ryan Goddard and his Pueblo South Colts also missed the first two weeks of the season due to a quarantine. When they finally got to step on the field in Week 3, things felt different.
"Once we got to playing the game, it was about the most normal two hours I think all of us have had in the past eight months," Goddard said on Tuesday. "The kids have really had a lot of things just eliminated during this whole thing. So anytime that we can get those opportunities to do things safely and let them be kids, it's just so important for their social and emotional health."
Mead coach Jason Klatt is a usual fixture on the Scoreboard Show, given that his team is often highly ranked, involved in big games, and on the winning side of many of those games. Last night Friday, he offered a wonderful synopsis of what it's like to coach high school football in the age of COVID-19.
"It's one of the most difficult and challenging things that I've ever dealt with," Klatt said. "You literally, hour-to-hour, do not know what's going to happen. You don't know what kids are going to come through the door, you don't know what kids are going to be sick.
"We stopped practice plans," Klatt added. "We just have kind of a shell of what we think we're going to do, and then based on the kids we have out there, then we will go ahead and run it.
"It's just being flexible and being able to understand that the reason why we're out there is to help kids with their lives and to give them an outlet right now, and to teach them some things that are going to help them with the next five years," the coach continued. "That's the reason why we're out there. It's not to win football games."
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Around the state teams, coaches and players are grateful to be playing, period.
"With our guys, it's kind of set in — especially dealing with the first two weeks — just how special the opportunity is to be a part of something, and especially a football team," Goddard said, reflecting on his team's quarantine. "What I saw with our guys during that time, is that in the face of adversity, we don’t want to run away from each other, we run toward each other.
"That's a life lesson," he continued. "How to be resilient, and how to be with your teammates. Maybe if you can't do it physically, you're still with your teammates. We're all going through the same thing. We're all still trying to find ways to get better, and maybe not necessarily be around each other, but have those meaningful relationships that are so meaningful to a team."
Of being a high school football coach right now, Douglas County's Rice said, "In a word? Challenging. Is it more stressful? Yeah. Because what you're worried about is: Am I following all the right protocols and procedures, am I giving my kids the best chance to be safe on the field, but yet still being able to play the game the right way?
"But it's still very rewarding, because I love coaching football," Rice continued. "I love being around our kids, because they’re an extension of our family. Every day we get to it, we count it as a blessing right now."
Things as routine as planning a practice have become complex.
"Some days it feels normal and other days it feels like what in the wide, wide, world of sports are we doing?" Pine Creek's Miller said. "When we started the season, we had 127 players; we now have 90. Eligibility and going to school two days a week have crushed our numbers. Teams meetings are OK, but it does not help me tackle or block. When life gets real in the A gap, virtual meetings go out the window.
"On the flip side of that, it has made us be more efficient regarding time management, and attention to detail," added Miller. "When we got hit with a positive test, we were taught a lesson in control and humility."
Practice itself not only involves teaching football, but things like keeping players in smaller groups, limiting contact, and ensuring all safety protocols are followed.
Teams didn't have much of an opportunity for summer camps, and no scrimmages were allowed this season. So fundamentals have been an on-going process for some.
"We've obviously eased on the contact part of it, but we really still try to find ways to teach — the techniques, especially the tackling techniques where it's the safety of the player," Goddard said.
"We're still learning how to line up, we're still learning how to run routes," he added. "From that perspective we're still a little bit behind — but so is everyone else."
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While it may not be their purpose, or why they coach, make no mistake: Coaches do want to win games.
Teams are only scheduled to play six games during the shortened regular season. Combined with a condensed playoff field — only eight teams per class will advance to the postseason — it does seem to have added an emphasis to the regular season for some teams.
"What we're preaching to our team is we have a nine-game playoff. That's what it is," Wray coach Levi Kramer said on the Scoreboard Show after Week 1. "Hey you know, every game is a playoff game for us. ... I think that's how you have to look at it. These are all playoff games."
Added Longmont's Johnson: "It feels like a lot of pressure. You don't have that feeling out period that a team usually has. We've had 1-3 teams get into the Final 4 and state championship. It's nice to have that when you have young kids, but that's not available this year."
"I like it, to be honest," Montrose's Mertens told the Scoreboard Show. "We only get six games guaranteed, so I'd just as soon play all good teams. Every game on our schedule is a big game, whether it be a big rivalry game out west, or a top-10 matchup. Every single one is a big matchup for us. In a year where you don't have very many opportunities, it's awesome to be able to play big-time games each and every week."
Said Pine Creek's Miller: "Every game is so important, not only for the chance to move on, but to look in the mirror and be honest with oneself as a player and coach that I did my best. If you are like me, the answer is always no. I can always do better: during practice, more focus, more passion, more love, more empathy. I am doing the things to make my father proud. That has not changed. What has is the now, enjoying this team, this practice, this game, and giving thanks for that opportunity."
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By and large, games across the state are being played as scheduled. But some game matchups are changing weekly, even daily, due to quarantines affecting schools. At various point in time, Evergreen had three different opponents in Week 4.
Though his team didn't have to quarantine, Klatt and Mead had a week like that leading up to their Week 3 game, with individuals who were forced to stay away from practice for various reasons.
"So I literally looked at a coach, and I said: 'I'm going to throw my phone in the trash, because I don't want to look at it anymore because something's changing,'" Klatt said. "But it's just kind of day and age in which we live right now.
"We're going to make it out of this, we're going to make it through this," Klatt added. "We're just trying to be the sounding voices to help kids with their life right now, and help them see that there's a light at the end of the tunnel."