Playing Through COVID
No area of society has gone untouched by the novel coronavirus pandemic, including sports. After every level of athletics was rocked by the virus and forced to shut down in the spring, professional leagues have figured out ways to return to their fields of play in as safe a manner as possible. Meanwhile, decisions are still being made on the collegiate, high school and youth levels about when and how sports will return.
In our Playing Through COVID series, NBC Sports Washington will tell the story of those decisions and how they impact the people involved, including athletes, coaches, parents and more.
Speaking with high school student athletes about their postponed fall sports seasons reveals a broad range of emotions, from confusion to hope to pessimism. In an unprecedented time, as a global pandemic forces everyone to adjust their way of living, there is no one way to describe what athletes are feeling -- but a good place to start is disappointment.
Even before the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association postponed interscholastic sports for the first semester across the state, Prince George’s County had already decided sports wouldn’t be played the first two quarters while students were in distance learning.
Myles Holt, a senior defensive tackle for Dr. Henry A. Wise High School, the reigning Maryland Class 4A state football champions, was initially rocked by the announcement but has since made peace with it.
“At first, I was kind’ve devastated because I’m trying to go to college for sports,” Holt said. “And right now, I only have one offer, from Wheeling [University], and I wanted to have more. Like, I really wanted to put on for my senior season, to have a better opportunity for coaches to see my film. Now I gotta wait for spring. But I mean, it’s a blessing and a curse because now I can work out harder during the winter, so when I come out in the spring, be even better.”
And if sports don’t return?
“That would be really devastating for my recruiting process right now,” Holt said. “But if that happens, I just gotta work out the whole season and where the chips fall that’s where I gotta go. Best option.”
Holt’s disposition is one of hope, mostly because it has to be. As a senior this year, he was expecting the opportunity to earn more scholarship offers, and if that opportunity does present itself, he has to be ready. So he’s preparing mentally and physically for that time. Not every athlete has the same optimism.
Keeping up with the news and seeing the trends, Elise Kinyanjui, a senior on the Montgomery Blair High School girl’s soccer (fall) and swim and dive (winter) teams, anticipated news of a postponement. But what she didn’t see coming was Montgomery County’s decision to completely cancel fall and winter sports this year.
“I knew how bad the virus is getting and spreading, so I didn’t have a ton of hope, especially for fall season sports going into the school year,” Kinyanjui said. “But since they never officially announced it, me and my teams were always holding on to a little hope, thinking that they would figure out some sort of way for the season to work. But once they officially decided to cancel it, that was really like the let down moment for a lot of teams -- especially since it's our senior season. A lot of the seniors were pretty disappointed.
“I am the dive captain of the team and I was really looking forward to diving with that team again, too. So, I was more disappointed about that and shocked that they would decide to cancel so soon rather than re-evaluate in a couple months.”
Montgomery’s decision was made before MPSSAA announced a postponement across the state, and the county has since said it hopes to be able to offer athletic activities in the second semester. But without an actual plan in place, Kinyanjui fears her final time playing soccer is behind her and that her team won’t get a chance to compete for that elusive state title they fell short of last season.
“Last year we made it to the semi-state finals, and this year we had a good shot at getting back to the semifinals. And this year, even making it to the finals,” Kinyanjui said. “So that was really disappointing, thinking that our class no longer had a shot of going that far in the state any longer. And just the fact that we won’t be able to play with the team again, even all of the underclassmen, all the other people on the team.”
Holt expressed similar disappointment at the prospect of not being able to compete for a state title, even after winning as a junior. He remembers what it felt like to lose in the championship game as a sophomore and said winning as a senior “would be just the perfect end to my chapter.”
Other athletes have questioned why a caution exists with high school sports that doesn’t seem to exist in other facets of life around the United States. Some football players want to know why they can’t sign a waiver to accept the risks of COVID-19 the same way they do for other risks of the sport. But behind every sentiment of these student athletes is a simple love for the sport they play. Not being able to do that, potentially ever again, and not being able to ever again play with their childhood friends is a jarring reality.
Colin Henrich, a senior offensive lineman, formerly of St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., called the District’s decision to postpone fall sports "heartbreaking," during a town hall hosted by NBC Sports Washington’s Chad Ricardo that included coaches, trainers, administrators and other athletes.
“It’s an extremely depressing reality to have, because I’ve been working since I was five for my senior season. And my friends who I’ve played with at St. John’s since sixth grade have been dreaming about a senior season, and we’ve talked about this for the years to come that we’re gonna bring another championship back to St. John’s and we’re gonna do this and do that,” Henrich said. “And the fact that all our dreams now are just thrown down the drain, and how we can not have that, it’s extremely heartbreaking. I think a lot of us are still trying to process it. Just talking to some of my teammates today, we’re just all still in shock, but we knew it was gonna come. But it’s just a really harsh reality that we can’t really grind together and win games and celebrate and mourn losses. It’s an extremely harsh and depressing reality.”
Henrich has since decided to transfer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for the opportunity to play this fall and continue putting together film for college coaches to evaluate.
But even athletes like Kinyanjui, who don’t plan on playing at the collegiate level, share a similar love for their sport and just want an opportunity to play once more.
“I feel like I would take anything I could get,” Kinyanjui said. “My soccer team, they’ve been trying to find ways for us to play social-distanced, just with each other, just so we all get the chance to play with each other and practice with each other. So, even if we don’t play against other teams, it would be sad, but it would be nice to just like actually have a practice with my teammates to do the sport that we all want to do.”