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Scrambling Across State Lines to Play During the Pandemic


Mario Sanchez thought his only option was to leave.

Covid-19 had claimed the life of his grandfather. It led his father, who tested positive for the coronavirus last month, to isolate for 14 days in the basement of the family home in Olathe, Kan. And it threatened Sanchez’s dream of winning a state championship with his lifelong friends at Olathe North High School, after its football program was suspended amid high rates of coronavirus infections in the area.

So on Aug. 30, just two days after attending his grandfather’s funeral, Sanchez and his mother, Noemi Jurado, packed up their Honda Crosstour and drove from their home in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., to Norman, Okla.

A slot receiver and defensive back, Sanchez plans to play his senior year at Norman High School, about 350 miles from where he grew up. He is among a handful of players from Olathe North to cross state lines to enroll at a different high school, an interstate football migration fueled by young athletes attempting to outrun the coronavirus and preserve their athletic dreams.

“It really wasn’t a hard process,” Sanchez said in a telephone interview before leaving home. “I want to play football in college. I’m looking around, and we are in the red zone in Kansas. I don’t want to risk my future by staying here without playing.”

The coronavirus pandemic has had an uneven impact on high school football across the United States, causing havoc in some regions while schools in other areas have made modifications and forged ahead, almost as normal.

Teams in Utah, Alabama, Texas and other states have already played their first games of the season. In Minnesota, six players on the Lewiston-Altura High School varsity tested positive for the virus before the state shifted football to the spring. In DeKalb County, Ind., an entire team was put into a two-week quarantine after one player tested positive, and in Kings Mills, Ohio, Kings High School had its first game canceled after a player tested positive.

No state has canceled its entire football season — or any sport — for the 2020-21 academic year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, but 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, have rescheduled football for the spring or winter instead of its traditional schedule in the fall.

Other states, like Kansas, where high school football is embedded in the cultural fabric of the region, are caught in the middle, where uncertainty reigns.

Several Kansas school districts ordered their football programs off the field for weeks, while teams from neighboring towns played on. Last week, the Kansas State High Schools Activities Association voted to allow schools to move their seasons to the spring, but that brought another set of complications, especially for multisport athletes or schools with limited fields and facilities.

Then on Friday, the Olathe school board completely reversed course and voted, 5-to-2, to allow its football teams to go ahead and play this fall.

“It’s all over the map,” Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the national federation, which offers nonbinding guidelines to state athletic associations, said in an interview. “For many programs that have re-engaged, there has been more of a successful experience than an unsuccessful experience. But we are paying close attention to the feedback over the next week or two.”

In some Kansas school districts, teams had been allowed to practice as long as the rate of virus infections in their county remained below a certain level. Olathe North, considered a top contender to win the state title before the pandemic hit, sits in Johnson County, Kan., a largely affluent collection of suburbs across the state border from Kansas City, Mo. Over the last two weeks, roughly 11 percent of coronavirus tests in the county have been positive.

For weeks in Olathe, sports considered to be of high risk, including football, were halted whenever the positivity rate crept above 10 percent. And since teams are required to complete 14 days of practice before competition, some games have already been canceled.

But after weeks of inactivity, the Olathe teams are back on the field. Still, there is no guarantee that a spike in cases won’t shut them down again.

That was exactly what Sanchez feared. About a month ago, he began pleading with his mother to move to Norman, where her father lives. At first, she was skeptical of the idea, in part because the past year had been a challenging transition period for their family.

Sanchez’s father was released from prison in May 2019 after serving 13 years on a drug trafficking charge. Mario was 3 when his father went away, and Jurado, a real estate broker, handled the bulk of the parenting. When Mario’s father first came back home, there was friction and disagreement between a teenage son and his newly returned father. Now, Mario reports, they are “tighter than a knot.”

But then Mario’s grandfather, Richard Sanchez, whom Jurado called the rock of the family, died of complications from Covid-19 on Aug. 13. By then, with his high school’s season in doubt, Mario was looking south to Norman, where he could play football, basketball and baseball (he is a shortstop), and his mother could spend time with her father.

“I told him, ‘If you’re willing to make that sacrifice, I’ll make it with you,’” she said. “Covid-19 has really impacted everyone in a devastating way. It’s been a tough run for us.”

Making the decision easier was the fact that Sanchez’s best friend since grade school, Arland Bruce IV, was doing the same thing. A star quarterback at Olathe North and a cousin of the former N.F.L. receiver Isaac Bruce, he enrolled at Ankeny High School in Iowa last month.

But in a development that underscored the confusion surrounding the whole season, Bruce was ruled ineligible by the Iowa High School Athletic Association on the day of Ankeny’s first game, and his family has hired a lawyer to appeal the ruling.

Sanchez is optimistic he will avoid such a mess. He began practicing with his new team the day after he arrived in Norman. But just a week later he found out that Olathe had changed its policy to allow football to go ahead, meaning that if he had stayed in Kansas, he most likely would have been playing in a real game on Friday night against Olathe South.

He was, of course, frustrated by the timing, and said it was “sad” he had been forced to make a life-changing decision that perhaps he did not need to make. But he and his mother said over the weekend that they were sticking to their Oklahoma plan.

“I made a commitment to play for Norman,” Sanchez said. “I’m not backing out of that. Plus, you don’t know. In two weeks Olathe might get shut down again.”

Back in Kansas, Chris McCartney, Bruce and Sanchez’s former coach at Olathe North, is ecstatic that the team is back on the field, preparing for a game. For weeks, all he could do was click the refresh button on the Johnson County health department’s website “several times a day,” he said, in the hope of seeing the positive test rates in the county drop low enough so the team could play.

Now that his team can play, it will have to do so without some of its best players. After losing in the state championship game last year, Olathe North was determined to win it all this season. But the upheaval caused by the virus has clouded that goal.

“This has been really tough on the kids,” McCartney said, adding later: “But I can’t be concerned about the kids that are gone. I’m concerned about the kids that are here, and they deserve to be able to play because they’ve put in the work.”

While each school district in Johnson County can determine its own course, the health department there established guidelines that most have followed. That has made Sanmi Areola, the Johnson County director of health, an unpopular figure among those who want high school football at all costs.

Areola said he also wanted children to play sports for the exercise, socialization and lessons in teamwork and structure — as long as it was safe.

In addition to worrying about the spread of the virus, he is also concerned about myocarditis, a heart inflammation that can lead to cardiac arrest with exertion, which in one survey was found in 15 percent of college athletes who had the virus. The science around myocarditis is still evolving, and there is scant data on high school athletes.

“There is some evidence that there can be some cardiac effects,” Areola said. “What that translates to when you have high intensity activities, no one is quite sure yet. Hence the need to be very, very careful.”

High school coaches insist they are being careful and have implemented protective modifications. One of McCartney’s players tested positive after a family gathering, the coach said, and a few more had to be quarantined. But the contagion never spread to other team members, he said.

“To me, it showed we can handle this,” he said. “We are outside, we’re social distancing, we’re masking up.”

A dozen miles from Olathe, Weston Moore has been working out harder than ever, in preparation for his senior year at Shawnee Mission West High School, also in Johnson County. This was to be Moore’s big year, as the starting quarterback of the Vikings, something he had dreamed of since he was in first grade. Still, he understands that safety comes first.

“But at the same time, it’s your senior year, what you’ve been working so hard for all these years, and it might not even happen,” he said last week. “It’s so disappointing.”

There was still some hope for Moore. Tim Callaghan, Moore’s coach, said Shawnee Mission school administrators were debating whether to follow Olathe’s lead and allow football to go ahead this fall. But as of Tuesday night there was no decision, and Callaghan said some of his players were considering transferring, too.

“Never been more frustrated,” he said in a text message on Wednesday.

When organized practices were shut down, Moore instead went to the school field and spun perfect spirals to teammates in shorts and T-shirts, all while friends at other schools — some just five miles away, across the border in Missouri — prepared for their first games without fans in the stadiums. And 40 miles west, Free State High School in Douglas County, Kan., is also allowed to play.

But the pandemic has still threatened Free State’s season. Kevin Stewart, the Firebirds’ head coach, said that, at one point, six of the eight teams on their schedule had canceled their games. Some, including Olathe North, are back on, but the season remains murky.

“Team morale is less enthusiastic,” he said. “We’ve lost a little bit of energy.”

Stewart said that if his program was shut down, too, he would worry what a few of his players might do with their spare time. They need the structured supervision of football, he said.

Sanchez needs football this year, too, he said. He needs it to earn a scholarship and get into college. As a sophomore defensive back, he led his league in interceptions, with seven, but last year he was injured and could sense fans and opponents wondering if his previous season was a fluke.

This season, he was aiming to prove them wrong, and to do so, he has to play. But even in Oklahoma, more than 100 school districts have reported a positive test result. Still, Sanchez remains confident his new team will play. He has to.

“This is a big step for me,” he said. “I won’t be able to see my family and friends for a while. But I’m starting a new journey.”

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