Writer’s Note: Recently I have written about COVID-19 and how it has changed our lives. Last time I focused on the impact that it has had on education — the institutions, students, parents-turned-teachers, “real” teachers, and basically everyone who has faced change with schools closed.
As I write this, there is an increasing call to release sports and let the games resume. While some have appreciated the “breather” from countless practices, games, tournament road-trips, fundraisers for teams, and similar time-takers, there are many more who long to return to the sports “groove” with predictable schedules, personal discipline, emphasis on good sportsmanship, healthy competition, and wholesome family fun.
Louisiana is slowly taking the steps required for her recent entry into Phase 1, and people here — and everywhere, it seems — are more than ready to get on with their lives. Even so, the health concerns are real, the virus is still with us, and the challenges of “how” to return to something that seems more like life as it used to be are many. Still, there is optimism that we can manage this crisis if appropriate precautions are taken.
I, for one, am ready to hear those magic words, “Play ball!” — GP
Play Ball! Please . . .
Throughout the land, there is an unfamiliar silence where there should be shouts, cries, cheers, and (occasionally) groans. The reason for that unnatural silence this spring? The COVID-19 restrictions that have been placed on everyone and everything, including sports.
The sports venues — arenas, fields, tracks, stadiums, courts — have all been empty for too long. While many elements of life as we used to experience it are gone, it’s perhaps a little surprising to some how much sports are missed. Granted, not everyone is a “sports nut” but there are an impressive number of folks who are. For them, this “quarantine” has been especially trying. Reruns of someone else’s idea of “greatest games” just doesn’t cut it after awhile. Sooner or later, fans need live exposure to the games they love most.
Alarm bells rang out when the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed until July 2021 — a full year after originally scheduled. For the athletes and fans alike, this was a stunning reminder that the pandemic was international.
And, They’re Off . . .
It has been said that nothing becomes “real” until it becomes personal. While there are countless reminders of COVID-19 daily, sometimes something unexpected brings it “home.” For me, that happened when I heard that the Kentucky Derby had been postponed.
Among my earliest (and longest lasting) personal sports addictions is not football, as most might expect, but horseracing — the Triple Crown specifically. I grew up watching intently as each of the “jewels” — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and then the Belmont Stakes — was raced annually. The key race for me was always the Preakness, because if the same horse won it that had won the Kentucky Derby, the possibility of a Triple Crown champion loomed.
The running of these three races began in 1875. In the 145 years since, only 13 horses have achieved the honor: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018). In my lifetime, I have seen only the last five champions race in real time and not on film.
The first Triple Crown champion I saw run was Secretariat. If you love horses and physical dominance in sport, you have to love Secretariat. His astonishing performance after 25 years of no Triple Crown champions helped reinvigorate horseracing as a sport. It certainly reinforced my love for it.
But what about 2020? What happens to those three-year-olds just waiting their chance to compete for the ultimate prize in their sport? The Kentucky Derby is now scheduled for September 5th. Will the mint juleps and those fancy ladies’ hats still feel “seasonal” then? This marks the second time in history that the Kentucky Derby has been moved (first was the end of WWII). The Preakness and the Belmont Stakes have not yet been rescheduled. There is speculation the Triple Crown races may run out of order this year.
Baseball is considered by many to be “America’s Game” and we’ve missed that, too. Whether youth teams, high school and collegiate matchups, or in the major leagues, there is no doubt that baseball plays a major role in the American identity. During WWII, it provided a desperately needed diversion from the reality of wartime. Seems to me baseball and sports could play that same role right now.
Of course, there are obstacles to be overcome before a pitcher takes the mound. At the moment, the Major League Baseball players union is negotiating with team owners over how and when they will agree to resume play. Their bickering seems no more than crickets right now, as the nation is still trying to address much bigger challenges. They, however, are not the players I am concerned about. They are professionals and adults (mostly). This is their job.
No, it is the amateur athletes who have my sympathy. The youngest players are losing out on developing their coordination and learning the all-important life lesson of teamwork. For the high school players, the opportunity to use their athleticism to earn scholarships has been interrupted. And for some collegiate players, the chance to play in the College World Series ended in early March when the NCAA cancelled the remainder of the season and the tournament for 2020.
Recently I looked at the rankings from the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll for the last week collegiate baseball was played (March 16th). The top five included 3 SEC teams: Florida (#1), Georgia (#2) and Ole Miss (#5). No one can say how this season might have ended, but there are young men who will always wonder “What if?”
Geaux, Tiguhs . . .
I don’t suppose that any of us will ever forget January 13, 2020, when two collegiate football teams took the field at the Superdome to play for the national championship. The President and First Lady were there together with every other person who could find a ticket to attend. There was no “social distancing” on that night.
The LSU Tigers had a definite “home field advantage” but the Clemson Tigers brought their best game, too. When the dust settled, LSU was the national champion.
Those of us watching that game had no idea what was ahead. Oh, we knew that Joe Burrow was NFL bound along with many of his star power teammates. We knew that Ed Orgeron was already thinking about — and planning — for the next season. And we knew that LSU fans everywhere would savor this victory for decades to come.
What we didn’t know was that this would be the last major sporting event that we would enjoy for perhaps a very long time. What we also didn’t know was just how creative we would have to become in all areas to adapt to this unanticipated challenge.
NHS Bengal Belles
and Last Dance . . .
There are also countless sports support groups that add excitement to sporting events that have also been impacted by COVID-19. The marching bands with their wonderful music, the cheerleaders who tirelessly urge their teams to greatness, and the dance lines that bring a special kind of entertainment that delights fans and team members alike are just a few.
Because both of our daughters, Paula Stockton and Leigh Grainger, are Bengal Belle “alums”, I wondered what that group was doing to cope. I contacted Jessica Tolliver, the group’s sponsor and choreographer, to find out. Her responses let me know that tradition is stronger than any virus, and that creativity is a major factor in carrying on those traditions.
Fortunately, tryouts for the next Bengal Belle line were held the day before Louisiana declared a State of Emergency. The new line was selected, but the group has not yet had an opportunity to meet face-to-face as a team, according to Tolliver.
Tolliver and her line ghas had to make adjustments. They first had to figure out how to have productive practices without meeting face-to-face. They began meeting weekly using Zoom to bring the line together virtually. Captain Ryia Williams would lead the team in the workout and stretching. Tolliver worked in some icebreaker games throughout each practice to help elevate the “fun” level. Ever mindful of the pandemic and the pain that it was causing so many, the girls would write names of those in need of prayer on the Zoom whiteboard. At the end of practice, they would join in prayer for those listed and their own families.
Among the disappointments being felt as the shortened school year was drawing to an end was the traditional “Last Dance” that is performed by the Bengal Belles at the final senior pep rally. When Neville administrators decided to live-stream a senior celebration to honor the graduating class, Tolliver saw a chance to preserve the “Last Dance” tradition. It was not easy, but well worth the effort!
First, Tolliver videotaped herself doing the dance. Then she sent it to the line to learn. On a designated day, they had one practice outdoors spread out across the football field during which they didn’t touch, didn’t hook up to do the kicks, and followed all appropriate social distancing guidelines. “They filmed us performing it the next day,” Tolliver says. “It was a bittersweet end to last year’s season.”
Plans are ongoing for the upcoming school year, whenever it begins. The new line was scheduled to attend camp later this month but that has been rescheduled for July. Tolliver has ordered new uniforms, selected music, and is developing ideas for routines. With no firm decisions yet about pep rallies and football games, the tradition nevertheless continues.
Never Give Up . . .
In 1940, an article entitled “Bat It Out!” was published in The Rotarian magazine. Written by George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the article was meant to be encouraging to everyone, not just athletes. In it, Ruth pointed out that if Henry Ford hadn’t pressed on in spite of naysayers, the Ford car might never have been produced. In that article, one of Ruth’s most famous quotes was first printed: “You just can’t beat the person who never gives up.”
That’s still great advice even 80 years later. Everyone needs to remember that we, too, can win the current competition if we stay the course.