When 2020 started, like many of you, I’d never heard the words coronavirus, COVID-19 or derecho.
I wish that still were the case.
But those three words have changed our lives and altered what we do and how we do it.
Yet, we survive. We move on. And, yes, we will get through this.
Last Friday, the 2020 high school football season opened and it felt good and it felt normal — kind of.
I’ve worked most, if not all, high school football Friday nights since 1978. Most of those nights have been in The Gazette building in downtown Cedar Rapids.
This past Friday, I was working, but sitting in my kitchen, staring out into the darkness and waiting for games to end and our network of stringers to file their reports from Decorah to Washington (Iowa) and many points between.
We had reporters or correspondents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Solon, Vinton and North Liberty, covering seven different games.
That’s nothing unusual. If you read this section, you know high school sports are important to The Gazette and we pride ourselves at getting to as many games as possible every week.
By all accounts, those games went off without any issues. A couple were altered earlier in the week — Pleasant Valley played at Regina when Dyersville Beckman (the Regals’ scheduled opponent) pulled out because of coronavirus concerns and Washington (Iowa) hosted Bettendorf instead of Marion, because the Indians couldn’t make the trip south after the derecho wreaked havoc on their school, homes and preparations.
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But games were played, albeit minus fans at City High and Liberty. We’ll find out in coming days and weeks if things went as well as we think.
Jeff Johnson, who recently celebrated his 30th year at The Gazette, already has covered three games, a Week 0 game in Anamosa, a Thursday game in Mount Vernon (where Lisbon is playing its home games to allow for more space) and last Friday at Kingston Stadium for the Washington-Jefferson showdown.
He said things were better “Thursday and Friday nights ... when it came to people social distancing and wearing masks.”
Kingston, for instance, is allowing seating only in every other row and mandating masks.
“There still is improvement needed, but what I saw this week was more encouraging than discouraging,” he said.
Mike Condon, a former Gazette night sports editor who now works now as a correspondent, said a few fans at the Iowa City West-Liberty game were in the parking lot.
“They watched from a safe distance in their cars ...” he said. “Cheerleaders, poms and the band from Liberty were there, all socially distanced from each other.”
At City High, where fans also were not allowed, the “PA system pumped music, the scoreboard showed pre-made videos, including one with players’ family members offering support since they weren’t allowed in ...” correspondent Culley Kline said.
Once the game started at Liberty, Condon said you “it was ‘football as usual’ for me and I think for the coaches and players as well.”
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The Gazette’s Jeff Linder, another veteran reporter who spent a portion of the summer covering high school softball, said “social distancing was good at Xavier — in the stands, the student section and the press box. I didn’t see anybody without a mask.”
He, too, said “it felt like a football Friday, and that’s a good thing.”
Ryan Pleggenkuhle, who has worked on and off for us since his days at Mount Mercy University, said the atmosphere at Solon was different from in his previous visits to the stadium.
“It was a very reserved energy ... Everyone seemed even-keeled,” he said. “The word I would use to describe (Friday) night as a whole is ‘appreciative.’ The players and coach I talked to were just thankful to be out there.”
That seems to be a theme. Coaches and players are happy to be doing something normal, even in an abnormal way.
“I know that City High was very grateful for the opportunity to play,” Kline said.
Here’s a cheer for Week 1 and a hope that things don’t go sideways in coming weeks.
“It seems like everyone is approaching this season with a sense of cautious optimism, approaching things day-to-day and taking nothing for granted,” Pleggenkuhle said.
That’s about all any of us can do.