Osage coach Devin Johnson knows how important the school and football program can be for the community, especially after all the area has faced in the past few months. The first kickoff may renew some small sense of normalcy.

Osage coach Devin Johnson could not remember seeing such a large contingent of kids when School of the Osage started some activities back up on June 1. 

In a normal year, the coach said the school may average 140 to 150 athletes on any day for summer activities. After months of being home and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson noted there was about 190 out the first day. 

“I think what kids understand now is that they really miss school and they miss sports and it is not just the education but the social aspect of it. They miss learning in the classroom,” Johnson said of the isolation student-athletes faced. “People were ready to get back and get active and we’ve seen more middle school kids and younger kids so it has been refreshing to see the appreciation our guys have for sports and being able to participate in it.” 

Among those athletes were Johnson’s football players and it was not exactly like everything had simply gone back to normal. 

For the first couple of weeks, everything took place on the turf and the goal was to get the baseline conditioning of each athlete up to speed after a few months of inactivity. Social distancing was still in place and when the state opened back up, Johnson was able to get his players back in the weight room where athletes were put in the smallest groups possible and disinfectant was used between each group. Other protocols also went into effect like daily temperature checks, making sure everyone has their own water and screenings with a series of questions that would determine whether a player had to sit out that day or for an extended period of time. 

It is all just part of a current new normal that just may help ensure there will be a full football season for the Indians to play this fall.  

“It is something we have taken very seriously. We obviously want to keep our players and coaches healthy so it is something that affects how you operate on a daily basis,” Johnson pointed out. 

“It is something we tell them all the time- this game (football) is going to be taken away from you. It is not a lifelong game and they now understand that having missed the spring season and what is happening with the potential of this fall season.”  

Osage senior Jace Hills likely does not need to be reminded of the precious opportunity that still exists. After what happened in the spring with all the cancellations, just the idea of practice is a gift. 

“We get to come here- even if we don’t get a season and all we get is summer- we still get that,” Hills said entering his final season with the program. “We get to practice, we are being safe and I get to play football with my friends.” 

Hills has been able to visit with friends from time to time, but getting to play a sport he enjoys with them makes him realize how much he’ll miss it all whenever that final snap may come. The senior is hoping that does not come any sooner than the playoffs in November.

“I’m grateful that we get to play and are doing what we are doing. I’m going to miss them when we’re gone,” he stated.  

Well, one way to help make sure a full season takes place is personal responsibility and that is a lesson Johnson has been emphasizing to his players from day one in an area that is a tourist destination in the summer.  

“We have a lot of guys who work in the community and we are an attractive community with people coming in from all over the place across different states,” the coach noted. “Just be smart when you are out there in the community and when you are here. You don’t need to be right on top of each other or on top of people when you are hanging out with friends. Just being responsible for your own behavior is a big thing we are trying to teach our guys.” 

The coach also knows how important the school and football program can be for the community, especially after all the area has faced in the past few months. The first kickoff may renew some small sense of normalcy. 

“Anyone I’ve talked to out in the community, parents or fans in general, that is what I get asked, ‘Are we going to be able to play?’ And I always say we are moving forward as if everything is fine,” Johnson remarked. “They want this and our community is so unique because we have kids from Brumley, Four Seasons and Kaiser. We draw from so many different areas that really, the hub is School of the Osage. People are wanting to get back to the hub and getting more connected and their connection is through the school.” 

It just may be something the area can reclaim from a virus that has disrupted so much.

Editor's Note: This is the first story in a four-part series focusing on how the football programs at Osage, Camdenton, Versailles and Eldon have handled summer activities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the number of people involved in any football program, the sport may be a good microcosm for how well sports can operate during the pandemic.