OPINION: For the love of sport
Nearly a month has passed since high school sports have returned to the Lake area and the state of Missouri.
And they’re still here.
As activities directors, coaches and athletes continue to navigate through one of the most unprecedented eras for sports in the past century, they have found a way to continue on so far in these challenging times. New guidelines for spectators have been issued, some games have been cancelled or rescheduled, lineups have been shuffled and some players and coaches have gone through quarantine but the COVID-19 pandemic has not been able to stop it all.
Part of the reason for that fact may be because sports naturally invoke the idea of overcoming adversity or some kind of challenge. It is one of the things I enjoy the most about sports and it has been a privilege to tell the stories of those who have grown and triumphed in doing so around the Lake area. COVID-19 is a unique kind of challenge I would not have wished for any program, but successfully completing a season may simply feel like a win itself that is driving all involved to do whatever it takes to meet that goal.
Another reason may be the love that athletes and coaches have for their sport in general. It is human nature to appreciate something more if there is any possibility it can be taken away and some programs have faced that reality already.
The Eldon softball team missed four games in a span of about two weeks due to quarantining for COVID-19 and when the Mustangs returned for a game against Osage on September 14, Coach Dusty Purnell said he was just glad to be back on the field.
“I think they realized after it was taken away from them for two weeks how quickly it can go away, especially the situation we are in now with all this stuff going on. I think they are grateful to be out here, are ready to play again and we are going to hang on to it as long as we can,” Purnell said after the game against Osage.
When scheduled races for the Camdenton and Osage cross country programs were cancelled, the Lakers just simply decided to invite the Indians and a few other schools to a race on their home course at Ha Ha Tonka State Park and provide an opportunity where there would have been none.
“Thankful for this season, even amongst the crazy. Our kids are digging for quality and asking questions of coaches and themselves like never before,” a previous Twitter post from the Camden Laker Cross Country account, @CHSlakerxc, read. “There’s a lingering uncertainty and it’s driving appreciation and focus to be more prevalent in the day to day.”
The Versailles and Eldon football programs have also missed time due to coronavirus concerns with the Tigers having three games cancelled and the Mustangs missing a game on September 18. Unfortunately, neither program will get those scheduled games back, but the season goes on and has not been completely cancelled.
“There was just kind of the sense of disbelief. you always knew it was something that could happen because we’ve talked to them about it- play every play like it is your last, you never know when we are going to get shut down- and then we got shut down and it was like, ‘Wow, this is really real.’ It was difficult and really hard,” Versailles coach Kirk Hannah said.
“It is difficult because these guys come out and work every day and look forward to games. That is their paycheck and they did not get their paycheck so it was very hard.”
The risk remains. It does not seem like COVID-19 is going away anytime soon but even with the risks that come with any group of people gathered together in this era, sports can also be just as healing, and in 2020, provide some kind of sense of normalcy.
I still remember what it was like to see sports return in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Whether it was watching football teams run out on the field carrying the American flag or President George W. Bush throwing a strike down the middle to Derek Jeter for the first pitch in Game 3 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks at Yankee Stadium, I remember that sense of normalcy returning. I remember the sense that the American way of life had not ended.
And many years later when my grandfather unexpectedly passed away as I was entering my junior year of high school, it was sports that I turned to for some kind of healing as I decided to go ahead and play an indoor soccer game later on the same night. I remember thinking he would not have wanted me to give up playing a game as one of the people who first influenced my love for sports in the first place and my teammates did not hesitate to act like my second family.
When asked about football programs having games cancelled due to COVID-19, Osage football coach Devin Johnson pointed to the family structure the game provides.
“I feel terrible for them. I think we are all in a tough spot,” Johnson said on the night his team beat Eldon on September 11, the last time the Mustangs got to play before returning to action on September 25. “There are a lot of people who truly believe we should not be doing what we are doing on Friday nights and I would argue to anybody that what we are doing is way more important than those health concerns. These kids need this, they do. We have guys, this is where their structure comes from, this is their family, and they need their family.
“But on the other hand, I understand we are lucky for every Friday night we get. We are blessed with every moment we get on this football field,” Johnson continued. “We definitely let our guys know that they should not take any moment in practice or Friday night for granted because it can be taken away from them any time.”
When the pandemic hit the Lake area last March and spring sports programs found out there would not be a season to play, I could not imagine how it felt for athletes and coaches and especially seniors who were looking forward to their final campaigns. It was a privilege to tell their stories and embark on our “Senior Salute” series to recognize those seniors, but doing so felt like writing odd sports obituaries over and over and it is something I hope no other senior has to go through as I would much rather cover them on the field of play.
As long as sports continue, we will be there to cover it all and in this strange era where COVID-19 has taken so much, let us appreciate that it has not quite defeated sports just yet as Lake area programs power on.