Writers’ Weir: Blindsided

Do they know yet? They didn’t.

By Evan Rothfeld

Do they know yet? They didn’t.

I sat in my car and watched a group of Juneau football players giddily tossing the pigskin high into a colorful dusk quilt-like sky underneath a Thunder Mountain backdrop prior to practice. Kids don’t run like that when they’re sad. Despite scattered rumblings of a canceled season, the players gratefully walked onto the high school turf at 5 p.m. each weekday truly believing they had a chance at local glory: winning the 2020 Alaska Football State Title.

Oddly, June 2020 felt very different from now yet that was when our collective football dream started. Fifty to sixty football players showed up to the Thunder Mountain High School turf solely focused on upcoming intensive conditioning and not on the unraveling world around them. When the hours of training completed, Juneau High School football head coach Rich Sjoroos calmly and valiantly stood in the middle of a circle of exhausted players and simply pleaded to them to “keep showing up.” Incredibly and unprecedentedly, they did. They kept coming while adapting to complex COVID health measures such as temperature checks and social distancing. These measures never deterred them as they would arrive with a sense of urgency as if practice was a refuge from monotonous quarantine life or because there was an ever-growing chance that their football lives would end. With sweat pouring down one of the football player’s face, he said with a delirious smile, ‘it beats video games.’

Our team’s commitment was steady and allowed the coaching staff to split and create two teams to play inter-squad scrimmages. These games were designed to hone techniques and instill different strategies in preparation for games against Anchorage high schools; however, the games became ultracompetitive, violent marathons where players of widely varying skillset and physiques competed at a high level. One player, an undersized girl cornerback, forced a fumble from varsity player to secure a victory. Multiple players earned starting positions on the varsity team while overcoming off-the-field issues. This 2020 Juneau football roster was clearly a charismatic, fun and driven group of talented teenage boys and girls.

[Youth wrestling club work continues]

But the kids didn’t know yet. At that moment, they were still the children who embodied superhero traits underneath oversized shoulder pads which were once worn by a faraway Great now beyond the mountains. They didn’t know that the Alaska School Activities Association canceled the State Title Tournament thus ending Juneau’s 2020 football season. I watched the players congregate in the last circle around Coach Rich.

The decision, like all bad news, was delivered abruptly. In response to canceling the season, ASAA’s president Billy Strickland said, “… I think the board made the appropriate decision. I know we’re going to get second-guessed. It’s easy to make the easy decision.”

It is easy. It’s concerning how easily those in bureaucratic roles can upend an adolescent’s athletic life yet deliver the news with admitted starkness. These abrupt endings to programs that facilitate human interaction have become routine during these COVID times. It’s scary because it happens so fast and there is no going back: a parallel universe of triumphant and cosmic possibilities is obliterated from reality. ASAA and other associations routinely make ‘the easy decision’ because it eliminates the hypothetical repercussions of doing the hard one: continuing the football season (either during the fall or spring 2021) within proven, practiced, and creative COVID health measures. All in all, they made the politically correct and safe decision which is always easy. Easy for them.

The utter finality of ASAA’s decision to end the football season, in line with other stripped programs that scientists argue can perpetuate disease transmission, makes me question if decision-makers truly understand and considered the totality of the decision, and the positive impact that these programs, like football and specifically a senior sports season, have on an adolescent.

Prior to my 2010 senior season, I was a nervous, insecure hermit (like a lot of teenage boys). I sat in the back of the classroom and hoped to stay in a comfortable cocoon for the rest of my life. However, when I became a senior, I took this role seriously and wore it as an inaugural patch on the sleeve of my adulthood-hoody. It was my first stab at being a leader and required significant yet positive change to my lifestyle to gain certain leadership values such as confidence, assertiveness and performing under pressure. The values not only translated on the field, but also in the classroom and in my current day to day life. This leadership role was also the foundation to find my true inner-voice unveiled through audacious pre-game and pep rally speeches only then to have school faculty members tell me to ‘cool it.’ I couldn’t ‘cool it.’ I finally felt like I could welcome my dormant instincts that were ready to activate from human’s intricately woven chemical makeup. I could feel my true identity and individuality bloom my senior season and it felt awesome.

More so, I learned just as much on the field. As we know, sports provide high-risk, merit-based scenarios that demand athletes to compete and perform. These games are rehearsals for adolescents to hone character, leadership, and other traits to successfully be valuable and reliable members of communities. For instance, tackling somebody physically bigger and faster than me instilled confidence that I will not be intimidated when the odds are not in my favor in real life challenges. Unfortunately, one does not always receive these gems in everyday life, more so, in the walled-off COVID-19 environment. The gems are embodiments of the fertile earth that rises following torrential winds and colossal storms and cannot be polished without friction. They are the pleasant truths that sprout from confrontation and conflict. If it wasn’t for these garnered gems my senior season, I would not have attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and promoted to a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard.

[On the Trails: Fun with fungal curiosities]

But now the kids know. There was no pep talk in Coach Rich’s final circle. Coach Mitch, the defensive coordinator, was still holding his laminated practice agenda with meticulously planned time slots to ensure each minute was efficiently squeezed to maximize chances of beating West Anchorage high school. Underneath that rare, beautiful Juneau evening sky, our coaches struggled to form words that could ease the pain of delivering the news that the season was canceled. ‘That’s it guys. I don’t really know what else to say,’ one coached summed it up succinctly — bad news is always this succinct.

We rambled to stall the inevitable conclusion: a somber march to the shed to turn in their equipment. In that march, many of the players and coaches broke down crying. ‘This isn’t fair,” one player said in tears while gripping the carefully selected jersey. ‘What are you going to do next?’ I asked many of the seniors. Most of them didn’t have an answer or looked confused. However, I am sure they will move on and learn valuable lessons such as resiliency, cherishing enjoyment and being grateful. They will carry around their own unique gems that were refined by different storms and forces that I never weathered.

Evan Rothfeld isthe defensive back coach for Juneau’s high school football team from 2019-2020. He lives in Juneau. The Capital City Weekly, which runs in the Juneau Empire’s Thursday editions, accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email us at editor@juneauempire.com.

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