East High School football players space out and line up to enter practice on September 2, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Shortly after the rain stopped on a recent Monday afternoon, Bartlett High School football players filed into the school’s stadium. With no helmets, pads or balls in sight, they stood 10 feet from one another and began a gut-busting workout, preparing to play their sport without actually playing their sport.

Days earlier, the school district announced — again — that practices needed to be limited to conditioning only due to the high risk of spreading COVID-19. By then, players weren’t surprised, said first-year head coach Chance Matsuoka.

“They’re a little bummed out, but they’re still coming out in the rain,” he said. “We’re working them pretty hard, and the weather’s not always nice.”

Hundreds of high school athletes across the city look forward to the return of competitions as one short-acting antivenom for these snakebitten times. The Anchorage School District took steps in that direction Thursday, announcing that practices could resume at full tilt Friday. Games might happen as early as Sept. 10.

Or maybe they won’t. It’s 2020. Who can say for sure, or for how long it might last?

“I’m going to enjoy it right now, because tomorrow’s not promised,” said South High School coach Walter Harmon.

Bartlett head coach Chance Matsuoka checks the temperature of senior Edward Savelio at the start of practice on August 31, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Chugiak players cover blocking sled pads with plastic bags so that players don't share surfaces during practice. (Marc Lester / ADN)

In the meantime, some football coaches have found that they don’t need the prospect of games to lead effectively. The pandemic has created one giant teachable moment that Anchorage coaches say has value even if players never ultimately get to toe a line of scrimmage this year.

“The game is simply just a tool that guides us through the ability to learn how to interact and connect with individuals, how to compete really hard, how to grow your skills and how to be resilient,” said West High School coach Tim Davis. “That’s really why we do this. The scoreboard turns off.”

This week, varsity football head coaches paused to consider what they hope their players will take away from this turbid season, lessons that might apply to the rest of the city if it allows itself to be coachable.

Respect guidelines and learn to adapt

Chugiak head coach Ryan Landers walked from player to player to spray hand sanitizer during drills Tuesday. It was an exciting day — the first practice where players were allowed to use a ball.

Landers said he’s encouraged that coaches around the district seemed conscientious of the guidelines for practices. His players are respecting them, he said.

Still, fighting the instinct to cluster together is a never-ending task.

“The biggest challenge is just making sure they’re as spaced out as much as possible,” Landers said.

“Space out! Space out!” was a nonstop clarion call from Mustang coaches and several other teams this week. Landers delivered reminders the football coach way: The whole team dropped and did five burpees Tuesday after a few were busted gathering close.

Chugiak head football coach Ryan Landers sprays hand sanitizer for his players. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Chugiak players do burpees on orders from head coach Ryan Landers as a reminder to keep their distance from one another. (Marc Lester / ADN)

At East High School, coach Jeff Trotter doles out his own “gentle reminders.”

“The end goal, they realize, is playing games. So they’ll put up with whatever so we can get to that,” Trotter said. “I know it’s not always perfect, but they’re doing their best.”

Trotter said he’s been thinking about how to mitigate the COVID-19 risk for football since spring. He kept a notebook outlining plans to adapt to various possibilities: how to run a practice if he can’t have gear, how to practice in shifts to limit the number of players on the field, how the schedule might work if football were moved to next spring.

Trotter, a physical therapist, suspects it’s hard for some players to see the precautions as necessary because Anchorage hasn’t grappled with the disastrous counts of cases and deaths that cities elsewhere have.

“Sometimes it’s hard when it doesn’t affect you personally, or on a regular extent, to really see the effects,” Trotter said. “And we try to express to them, ‘Hey, this is legit. We don’t want this state to become one of those other states.’”

An East High School player sets hand sanitizer out during practice on September 2, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Jackson Harmon throws during passing drills at South High School's during football practice on September 4, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Trotter said he has no interest in skirting the rules to gain a competitive advantage, even if he hears mutterings from players that such behavior might be happening elsewhere.

“You do you,” he said he tells his players. “We’re going to be the reason why they say it’s OK to (have games), not the reason why they think we should pull back and not do it.

“If you spend your time worrying about other things that are outside your control, you’re never going to relax. It took me years to figure that out.”

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Harmon, who coaches the defending state champions, keeps similar priorities, even if it has cost the Wolverines some football polish. He joked that their pass completion rate was 100% last week, when they weren’t allowed to use a ball. This week, it was more like 20%.

“The emphasis to our kids was health and safety. Take care of yourself. Take care of your families. Take care of each other. Take care of us,” Harmon said.

Stay positive and look after each other

Elijah Lewis, a Bartlett senior, sprints during ’shuttle runs. ’ (Marc Lester / ADN)

Chugiak senior linebacker Christian Beesing was really looking forward to football, a game he’s been playing since first grade. Despite the iffy prospects of having games, he never considered sitting out this season, he said.

“It’s definitely a little bit harder to stay motivated, but you just gotta come in and pretend like we got a game every week,” he said this week.

When energy drops, Beesing said he tries to lend his voice.

“We just gotta keep picking each other back up,” he said. “You just gotta yell at ’em. Not, like, in a mean way, obviously.”

Landers said his number of players has dropped a little this year. He holds player meetings on Zoom and tries to keep practices short and the mood light.

“It’s definitely been challenging this year to not know what tomorrow holds, or even a couple hours from now sometimes,” Landers said. “That’s one thing we’ve been telling our kids these days, no matter what it is, we just gotta be positive.”

West football players run through offensive plans with a small audience at practice on September 2, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
An East High player retrieves equipment from a shed during a rainy practice. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Davis is putting a finer point on the discussion of mental health with players at West, sometimes using social media to encourage discussion.

“If you’re a human being, you have your low moments,” Davis said on one of his recent “Wednesday Walks” videos posted on Twitter. “But being down does not exclude us from having an opportunity to be grateful for something.”

In his office before practice this week, Davis, who also teaches 10th-grade history, said it seems like people are going through a loneliness epidemic right now. He’s noticed that difficult times make anxiety more problematic, even on the football field. Kids might not have the skills to process everything going on around them, he said.

That’s why he’s as driven as ever to foster empathy and try to help.

“I’d love to win a state championship. That’d be cool,” he said. “(But) teaching kids the tools they need to look at this world we’re in right now, and grow, and create something better? That’s what we’re doing this for.”

West High head football coach Tim Davis blows his whistle while keeping his distance from players on September 2, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Harmon said this year will result in lasting changes to the way he engages players on tough topics.

“We’ve never talked about racism before. We never talked about social injustices. We never talked about life and death,” he said. “That was something that was good for us, and it’s something that we’ll continue to do going forward with our kids.”

Appreciate the upside

Davis thinks it’s possible we’ll come to think of the world in terms of “Before COVID” and “After COVID.” Right now, he thinks the pandemic might be teaching people about themselves.

“If you want to know if you really want to do something, do it through a pandemic and all the challenges,” he said. “And if you keep showing up, day in and day out, you probably really want to do it.”

Each day when he sees kids line up to be temperature-checked and screened, it signals an uncommon level of resiliency, he said.

On Wednesday, while running offensive plays, Davis kept his distance and blew his whistle from beneath his mask. He admonished a player for cussing, then complimented his passion in the next breath.

“I have faith that these kids that keep showing up to do this thing are going to transfer into showing up to their job someday, showing up to help their family,” Davis said.

East High senior Tilo Saena wears his face covering while standing alone during a break in practice. (Marc Lester / ADN)
East High head football coach Jeff Trotter runs practice. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Trotter said he thinks he’s stumbled upon some lasting improvements. Next year at East he plans to start practice season without pads and equipment, because this year he noticed players concentrated on learning rather than impressing coaches.

“We’re learning better technique and form than we ever did, because we didn’t use a football and we didn’t have gear on,” he said.

The pandemic has made kids more aware of their surroundings, taught them to adapt on the fly and become more conscious of things like the economy and politics, Trotter said.

“Nothing will be the same after this. And if it does get back to some normalcy, what normalcy will that be?” Trotter wondered while his team took a water break at practice. “And will we be more cognizant of what’s going on and not take it for granted so much? I hope so.”

Rain falls as Walter Harmon runs football practice at South High School. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Harmon said everybody should be issued a T-shirt that says “I survived 2020.” His kids will draw on this experience when they have problems to handle for years to come, he said.

As for himself, Harmon counts the bonds he’s created with other head coaches as one of the most significant upsides to the pandemic.

Not long ago he tended to guard his football knowledge and strategy, he said. This year, he’s rethinking that approach.

“As coaches, we all think we have the secret sauce to winning, when the reality is not a one of us has had an original thought since we were probably 8 or 9,” Harmon said.

His new perspective resulted from conversations with other coaches about the practical problems of football under COVID-related restrictions. Those talks soon deepened.

“We started having some weekly meetings. It became a therapy group,” Harmon said.

“We’ve become this support system for each other. Coach (Steve) Odom over at Dimond, Coach (Kahlil) Bolling at Service. It’s just become a true collective of men who are trying to do right by kids, but who also need to be reminded that sometimes we have to lean on each other,” he said.

With the return of head-to-head competition on the horizon, Harmon said he already misses those Zoom meetings. At 54, he said he’s the oldest football coach in the Cook Inlet Conference. That might be why he’s more prone to pontificating.

“You start realizing your vulnerabilities as a human and recognizing that this journey is going to finalize itself at one point,” Harmon said. “I gotta broaden my giving.”

Competition and rivalries are good, but just for a couple hours a week, he said.

“It has to be that snippet in time,” he said. “Everything else in the way of love and appreciation of each other has to overwhelm that little snippet.”