How those who led efforts to bring high school football back reflect on 2-season 2021

The most stunning thing to Patrick Walsh is how quickly everything changed.

California was in the middle of a surge in coronavirus cases around the Christmas holiday in 2020, but the head football coach of Serra High School in San Mateo was thinking about the future. It had been a few weeks since the California Interscholastic Federation had pushed back its delayed start to high school sports and there seemed to be no end in sight to the waiting.

Walsh’s thoughts had begun to move beyond 2020.

“The fear I had was not only was it not gonna happen this year — we’re not gonna get anything,” Walsh recently recalled. “Like I’m worried about the fall of ’21. Who’s fighting for the fall of ’21? We were just sitting around, letting this stuff happen.”

Walsh reached a conclusion: “We have to do something.”

Two months later, Gov. Gavin Newsom officially gave the green light to play ball. Walsh and the coaches who had fought along with him took immense pride in the immediate aftermath. One year after the first games of 2021 kicked off, they still do.

“It will be one of the most memorable journeys of my entire life, no question about it,” Walsh said.

One year ago this month, teams across the Bay Area returned to the field to kick off an abbreviated spring season. They were the first prep games in the Bay Area since the COVID-19 outbreak.

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

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

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

“The data was coming out that these were safe activities, and the mental health and the emotional health of our kids was suffering,” Alumbaugh said. “This was an opportunity to give them some normalcy and get them out of that rut that they were facing, and I think what everyone was — and, in a lot of ways, still is — facing.”

On the parents’ side at Let Them Play CA, Hensley felt that pairing up with Walsh and the coaches was exactly what they needed.

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

Walsh’s coaches community group quickly swelled to more than 1,200, and they followed the lead of other states by collecting workout data from 275 schools in California.

It had been five months, in July 2020, when the CIF first pushed the start of the 2020-21 football season to December. As the start date neared, kickoff kept getting pushed back as coronavirus cases spiked.

“I was starting to tell kids, ‘Hey, it’s not gonna happen. We’ll play other sports, you know, whatever it is,’” Concord coach Paul Reynaud said.

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

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

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

“And then it was like, ‘Alright you guys, start playing right now,’” Reynaud said. “It usually takes us a month to get these kids [ready] — we haven’t handed out gear, we haven’t done any of these kinds of things. and you’re going like, ‘Alright, you can start playing games next week.’”

SAN MATEO, CA – MARCH 12: A limited number of fans watch as San Mateo and Capuchino varsity football teams warm up before the start of a season opening high school football game in San Mateo, Calif., on Friday, March 12, 2021. (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 thing entirely massive undertaking. Teams couldn’t use locker rooms, had to learn how to contact trace in the event of a positive test and even had to completely reshape practices.

“Not only were we following county guidelines to keep people safe regarding COVID, but football is a contact sport,” Alumbaugh said, noting the injury risk. “So we had to make sure we were getting practice in the manner that we could to make sure that our kids could be safe to play the game — that’s our No. 1 job, to keep kids safe playing in a contact sport.”

Alumbaugh’s De La Salle team played all of its 19 scheduled games in both the spring and the fall. Walsh’s Serra team wasn’t as fortunate, as COVID issues put its fall season opener in jeopardy, though the game was ultimately canceled by air quality issues caused by wildfires. But the thing that stuck with Walsh for both of the 2021 seasons was the restoration of hope across his football team.

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

Yet football is, as Alumbaugh says, a contact sport, and the quick ramp-up to the season also left some schools short-handed. School district policies varied, and coaches expressed frustration particularly at limits on the type of practices they could hold, how they had to handle equipment and the amount of sports kids could play. All of that put some programs, like Reynaud’s Concord, even farther behind.

“We’re a small program as it is, and there weren’t a lot of seniors or juniors, so I was playing with kids that would’ve been playing freshman football any other time,” Reynaud said. “Our kids were a little overmatched, and I’m sure we weren’t the only program in that situation.”

And there were injuries.

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