RUTLEDGE – All eyes were cast towards Nashville to see if Governor Bill Lee would sign a decree that allows full contact for high school football and girls’ soccer this fall. The governor’s office announced Tuesday, July 28 that those two fall sports would indeed be allowed to begin and play a regular schedule. They must follow the practice and competition rules set forth by the TSSAA at their July 22 meeting. When Lee inked the order late Friday, July 31, it was welcomed with abject joy across the Volunteer State.

“I was a little shocked, but in a good way, with the decision,” Grainger High School head football coach and athletic director Chad Tate said Saturday. “But it was a good kind of shocked. We are now preparing to play. We have been trying to do things, but we were limited in what we could do.”

Executive Order #55 means that the Grizzlies hit the field Monday in preparation for the season-opener that is scheduled to be played Friday,  August 21 at Cumberland Gap High School. Even though teams across the state have the green light to get ready for the start of the season, this pre-season, like so many things in 2020, is anything but ordinary. The Grizzlies will not be able to scrimmage other teams or participate in the annual jamboree like they have in the past. When they take on the Panthers later in the month, it will be the first time they line up against someone not wearing orange and blue. 

“It’s weird since there won’t be any scrimmages before that first game,” Tate said. “The plan right now is to be at Cumberland Gap August 21, ready to go. We still have lots to get done in that amount of time.”

“It’s definitely a different feeling,” Tate said of the changes this year. “We have been in helmets and shoulder pads as we have been preparing, in case we could play. We have also been in the weight room and conditioning and those kind of non-contact things. It’s not exactly business as usual, but it’s great that we now prepare to play football.”

The number of positive COVID-19 cases has sky-rocketed since the United States started to open things back up after a nearly two-month shutdown to try to slow the spread of the dreaded virus. In Tennessee positive cases have trended alarmingly upwards in all areas of the state, including the Lakeway area. Lee’s decision was not an easy one, as state leaders had to balance the desire to open schools and begin athletic competition against safety for students. Some believe the decision to start school and begin fall sports is not a wise move in light of rising positive cases.

Balanced against the concern of physical health and safety for students is the concern for their mental state and well-being. Recently, the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health released a study of student-athletes across the state that addressed areas such as teen anxiety, depression and loss of physical activity during the pandemic-caused shut down. The study revealed “profound societal, economic and psycho-social consequences” for the students in the study. The report found that 65 percent of students reported increased anxiety symptoms and 13 percent of those were characterized as suffering from severe anxiety. Also, 68 percent of the students surveyed reported symptoms of depression and half reported less physical activity.

Wisconsin, like Tennessee, is planning on having fall sports resume, which had very strict quarantine rules in place from March through June. 

Six states have switched football to the spring and seven have yet to make a final decision.

Finding the right balance is not easy to do. Schools in the area such as Hardin Valley and Knox Catholic have had positive tests among players and coaches and had to stop practices. What would happen if there is a large scale outbreak at Grainger High School, or at one of the schools the Grizzlies are scheduled to play, and how that would affect the season, is still a concern. It is yet another challenge coaches, administrators, parents and students will have to face in an already challenging year. Current statistics show that young people 18 and younger are not as adversely affected by the coronavirus as other age groups and the toll on teenagers’ mental well-being due to all the things they lost due to last spring’s shut down is well documented. Many challenges remain and there are no easy solutions.

For now though, there is excitement about the prospects of starting the season on time and the return to at least some semblance of a regular routine. 

Tate said when the announcement came Tuesday that full contact practice was going to be a reality, the mental composition of the Grizzlies completely changed. 

“You could tell there was a little more energy at practice Tuesday night. There was more pep in their step, with the players as well as the coaches. It gets your blood flowing a little bit more. It’s just a different feeling,” Tate said.