OHS football team adjusts to new reality

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By Wil Crews
Opelika Observer

Football is back. At least kind of.

This past Monday, the Opelika High School football team –– players and coaches alike –– met in person for the first time in almost three months.

With health and safety guidelines regarding COVID-19 seemingly changing every week, it’s going to take the appropriate mix of precaution and preparation to have the Bulldogs ready for their first game.

Head Coach Erik Speakman and his coaching staff are running a tight ship to try and make that happen. When the 32 players arrived for the first day of practice, they were treated like Bluetooth devices –– with a hands-free approach. With the door already open (to reduce the risk of multiple people touching the handle) they got a pump of hand sanitizer each and were sent inside.

Then, it was time to get to work, right? Wrong. Next, players must spread out on the turf floor (6 feet apart) to have their temperatures taken.

Once this is done, they split into four groups of eight. Sixteen went outside, and 16 stayed in the weight room. Each group has a coach that travels with them, usually their position coach, but there is some overlapping.

Then practice and workouts began.

“The biggest thing we missed was spring football,” Speakman said. “So June is just going to be about getting them back in shape. This past week was seeing where they were.”

That can be easier said than done. For the players outside, it should be simple to run drills while maintaining social distancing. But what about the kids lifting weights? Well, the racks are spaced 5 to 6 feet apart and each is equipped with its own cloth and bottle of sanitizer.

“We have 16 racks, so one kid per rack, and they do their work by themselves,” Speakman said. “Once they finish, we use sanitizing spray to wipe down everything.” After 30 to 45 minutes, the inside group will go outside; when they have completely exited the building, the outside group will come in.

Through June, the team will hold workouts like these three times a week. And next week Speakman plans to increase the number of players attending to 48.

They will maintain their socially-distanced practices by rotating groups of eight through three stations –– the weight room, meeting rooms and outside.

Speakman also said they plan to start throwing footballs next week. That presents another tricky aspect of maintaining health and safety throughout his practices.

“Each group of eight will have one or two footballs, and once the group is done, we will wipe them off,” Speakman noted.

While at workouts, the team is prohibited from using the locker room, which means there is no place for anyone to wash hands with soap and water. However, Speakman is sure that there is enough sanitizer to do the trick.

“We went down to the distillery and bought some liquid spray,” Speakman added. “That stuff smells like a mix of moonshine and rocket fuel, so I’m sure it’s killing whatever it touches.”

Speakman speaks with optimism when he says his players are handling the new practice format well. “It’s not like the social distancing term was thrown on them last week. We had communicated with them through April and May about how things would look.”

All that is great. But what happens if a player contracts COVID-19?

“That kid has to remain away for 14 days,” Speakman said. “But because of the way we are keeping them away from other groups, that’s going to keep us from having to shut down the whole football team.”

Speakman’s number one priority is player safety. That said, as coronavirus appears to wane, he expects health and safety regulations to continue to relax in July.

If that happens the plan will be altered accordingly.

Regardless, the real plan is to have the Bulldogs healthy and hungry for their first game of the season on Aug. 21. The bulldogs travel to face the Callaway Cavaliers of Hogansville, Georgia, who finished last season with a 12-3 record.

For more information about AHSAA guidelines you can visit www.ahsaa.com/Schools/COVID-19-Updates.

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