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Football and the pandemic: A season like no other

BTSC’s K.T. Smith chronicles navigating a football season through COVID-19 both in regards to the Pittsburgh Steelers and his experience as a high school coach.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When I’m not writing about the Steelers here at BTSC, I’m a teacher and the head coach of a high school football program in New Jersey. The challenge of having a football season in 2020 was significant, and it nearly didn’t happen. Ours took some interesting twists and turns, to say the least.

The same has been true of the Steelers’ season. The postponement of the Tennessee game and the fiasco surrounding the second Baltimore game have added a surreal element to what has been, thus far, an incredible season in Pittsburgh. The parallels between these two seasons, one featuring paid professionals and the other eager high school kids, are significant.

I was discussing this with the staff at BTSC recently and it was suggested that I write something about the experience. Here it is, then - my account of how coaching high school football, writing about and rooting for the Steelers and a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic all intersected in the strangest and most fascinating way. I hope you find it worthwhile.

Football and the Pandemic: A Season Like No Other

The news arrived in late June, just as summer training sessions were set to begin: The high school football season in New Jersey was being postponed. Concerns were high that the raging coronavirus pandemic, which had already placed a hold on the NBA, NHL and major league baseball seasons, would render tackle football too dangerous in the fall. New Jersey did not cancel high school football outright, as several states had already done, but fears were high a cancellation was coming.

For the players and staff at Ocean City High School, where I was about to enter my ninth year as head coach, this was potentially devastating news. We had made it to the South Jersey championship game the previous season, losing to a regional powerhouse. It was our first trip to the finals in 19 years, and we returned eight starters on both sides of the football from that team. We had the foundation for our best team in a generation and the seniors, twenty of them, were hungry to complete the job they had started. Our offseason training program had centered on one theme: FINISH. We believed it was championship-or-bust in 2020.

We gathered the team on Zoom shortly after receiving news of the postponement. I informed the players to stay positive, keep training, meet in small groups (no more than ten were permitted to train together at the time) and work on the plays we were installing in our virtual playbook. The seniors stayed on after the underclassmen were dismissed. Many were stand-out baseball, track and lacrosse players who had lost those seasons to the pandemic in the spring. They talked about their fears of losing football, too, and of what it meant to them. Some were emotional. “We’ll do whatever it takes, Coach,” one of our captains said. “Write the mayor, the governor, just tell us who.”

I told them to hang in, stay focused and be responsible in social settings. “It’s going to be hard,” I said, “but you have to avoid large gatherings.” Asking 17 year-old boys in a place like Ocean City, a summertime beach resort that is packed with girls and parties, to shut themselves off socially seemed like a special type of cruelty. No one protested. “Whatever it takes,” they said.

Then we waited.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers were operating virtually as well. The draft had been held remotely, as were offseason OTAs. Training camps were delayed. At BTSC, cranking out new and interesting material was a challenge when there was little new or interesting to report. The draft class was scrutinized ad nauseum. A Duck Hodges article was produced every two hours. The Matt Canada hire was lauded. Then re-lauded. Then lauded some more.

When writers weren’t scrounging for material, a more serious undertone permeated the site. Bryan Anthony Davis hosted a podcast titled “Steelers cautious, but focused on football.” Dave Schofield published an article with a headline that read, “No Steelers have opted out yet, but Mike Tomlin understands if they do.” A “Steelers News” article announced that Tomlin was worried that shortened prep time would jeopardize player safety heading into the season. Beyond questions about how rookies would acclimate without an offseason and whether fans would be allowed to attend games in person were broader questions about the feasibility of holding a season altogether.

The NFL Players Association shared these concerns. Specifically, that league owners were more worried about their business model than the health of their players. NFLPA president J.C. Tretter of the Cleveland Browns penned a letter urging owners to re-think their approach to the season. Tretter wrote:

“Like many other industries, football’s resistance to change is based on the belief that the best way to run things is the way we’ve always run things. That pervasive thought process will stop this season in its tracks.”

Tretter accused the league of being unwilling to prioritize player safety and of believing the virus would bend to accommodate football. Players wanted to play, Tretter wrote, but only if the league used data, science and the recommendations of its medical experts to make decisions. The NFLPA bolstered Tretter’s position by unanimously voting against holding any pre-season games. The owners, for their part, seemed willing to reduce the number of such games but insisted pre-season contests must be held in order to evaluate rosters. There was no certainty a compromise between the two sides could be reached.

Word came from the state in mid-July that we could begin training at the end of the month. Covid numbers in New Jersey had declined to the point where the governor was willing to give fall sports a shot. To say our players were thrilled would be a gross under-statement. With strict protocols in place, our first day together was little more than a glorified conditioning session with the team separated into pods of no more than ten players each. Still, it was as much a celebration as it was a practice. I’ve never seen young men gleefully run sprints in 90-degree heat before.

The summer was divided into “phases.” Phase I was small pods and light conditioning. Phase II allowed larger pods and helmets. In Phase III we were permitted to have full team activities and wear shoulder pads. A school could progress from one phase to another after two weeks if they had no positive tests. A single positive, however, would shut them down indefinitely. We watched, nervously, as one area school after another got shut down or set back.

Happy as we were to be practicing, the situation felt unsustainable. We had 70 kids on our varsity roster. With virus numbers destined to spike as people flocked to the shore for the summer, how would we avoid someone getting sick? We felt overwhelmed at times with the burden of trying to keep our players safe. Were we putting them at risk? Were we endangering ourselves? Was this all irresponsible?

We leaned on our training staff to make the environment as safe as possible. We showed up for practice each day with our Covid-forms in hand declaring we were symptom-free, had our temperature taken and crossed our fingers. “Appreciate each day we have together,” the coaches preached. “We don’t know when it could be our last.”

The NFL had its strangest summer in recent memory as well. An agreement between the players and owners was hammered out in late July. Training camps opened in early August, with the owners relenting and canceling all pre-season games. While this was good news in some regards, it seemed troublesome for the Steelers, whose quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, had barely played in 2019. The health of Roethlisberger’s surgically-repaired elbow was the team’s biggest question mark heading into the season.

For Steelers’ fans, the situation was frustrating. Outside of this :39 second twitter video Roethlisberger had released in May showing him throwing passes to Juju Smith-Schuster and getting his Yukon Cornelius-style beard trimmed, there had been little evidence that he resembled the player fans remembered. Pittsburgh had failed to address the backup quarterback position in the offseason, electing to return Mason Rudolph in that role. Given Rudolph’s uninspiring performance in 2019 in Roethlisberger’s absence, consternation was rampant. If Covid didn’t sink the season, another Roethlisberger injury surely would.

With no pre-season games to test it out, fans relied on training camp reports and grainy, Zepruder-like video footage from practices for their Roethlisberger fix. How does the deep ball look? Can he make the sideline throw? Wait, what? He sat out practice Wednesday? Was that scheduled rest? Anxiety was high as the Steelers headed towards the season-opener against the New York Giants. How would the elbow hold up? The team’s success seemed bound to that question.

In September, “real” football returned to New Jersey. The sound of pads popping finally pierced the din of the Atlantic Ocean and the amusement rides that loomed just beyond our playing field. The best moment of the month was when we did our first live contact drill. As a loyal Steelers fan for over forty years, I borrow as much as I can from the organization. Naturally, then, our first live drill was “Seven Shots,” a Steelers’ training camp staple, where the starting offense gets seven plays to score from the two yard-line against the starting defense. The first unit to win four times claims the drill. At Ocean City, “Seven Shots” has become a sign the regular season is imminent.

A local news crew was producing a “Hard Knocks” style documentary on how four football programs from New Jersey were coping with the pandemic. We’d been chosen for the feature and the crew was filming when “Seven Shots” went down. You can see video of the drill at the 27:09 mark of the link I’ve inserted here. The defense dominated the first round but the offense rallied to win the second. There was too much smack-talking for my liking and I had to lecture the team, in no uncertain terms, to shut their mouths and let their play speak for itself. I rarely quote Tom Brady, but in this instance it was necessary.

“When you lose, say little,” I told them. “When you win, say less.”

It was a lesson we needed to learn. And, honestly, it felt great to lecture them on something other than wearing a mask and washing their hands.

The Steelers kicked off the season in front of an empty stadium at the Meadowlands. Fake crowd noise was pumped in through the public address system and cardboard cut-outs passed as fans in the seats. The atmosphere was, to put in mildly, different.

The Steelers continued their trend of starting slowly on offense. They didn’t score their first points until a Chris Boswell field goal in the final minute of the first quarter. Midway through the second quarter, they trailed the young and inexperienced Giants 10-3. A touchdown throw from Roethlisberger to Smith-Schuster drew them to 10-9, however, and then Big Ben closed the half with another scoring pass to James Washington that culminated an eight-play, 78-yard drive on which the Steelers threw the ball every play.

That drive accomplished two things: It gave them a lead they would not relinquish, as Pittsburgh went on to dominate the second half and won, 26-16. More importantly, it restored the faith of the fan base in both Roethlisberger’s elbow and acumen. This was vintage Big Ben, commanding the offense, being decisive, zipping throws to the sideline, taking over the football game. As the players headed up the tunnel for halftime, I thought, That drive was huge.

Big Ben was back. And so, we would learn, were the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Big Ben’s return at New York was encouraging, to say the least

Our regular season began the first week of October. The state had announced we would play an abbreviated schedule. Six games, with a two-game post-season for those who qualified. It wasn’t ideal but it was something. The promise of a post-season energized our players. The opportunity to FINISH was still in play. In theory, anyway.

With a shutdown looming at every turn, we decided to honor our seniors on opening night. This was usually something we reserved for our final home game. But ANY game could be the final one so we held our Senior Night week one. The crowd was limited by state mandate to 500 people, and the “Raider Nation” student cheering section that got our stadium rocking was largely absent. Still, we came flying out of the gate, won 49-7 and kicked off an October for the ages.

Carey Stadium, with Ocean City’s iconic Ferris wheel as a backdrop

By the end of the month we were 4-0 and had outscored our opponents 178-30. Our defense was playing at a ridiculous level. They scored six defensive touchdowns in the first four games while yielding just four to the opposition. We didn’t have a bunch of scholarship kids — the biggest offer any of our players had received was to Mike Tomlin’s alma mater, William & Mary — but we had tough, coachable players.

The team was typified by two-year captain Jake Inserra, a 5’9-190 pound senior linebacker, who was so smart we often let him set the front during games the way the Steelers do with their linebackers. That’s next-level stuff for high school kids. Anyone reading this who was an under-sized athlete making the most of their physical ability would feel a kinship to Jake. He’s the kid who shows up to practice half an hour early to get in some extra footwork. The senior who seeks out a freshman in the weight room to make him his lifting partner. The player ready to email the governor with his plea to let us play.

Jake would often break the team down at the end of practices. He would close by saying “NFS,” which was a phrase I can’t translate here but which meant, loosely, don’t do anything stupid to jeopardize our season. Each weekend, games throughout the state were being lost to positive tests. It felt like we were constantly dodging bullets. We knew a game could be canceled because of some other school’s misfortune or lack of discipline. A self-inflicted wound, however, was unacceptable. “Have some discipline on the weekends,” Jake would tell the team. “And if you don’t feel well, stay home!”

Offensive coordinator Paul Callahan often summed up Jake by saying, “That kid is a king.” The staff was in agreement — we’d never coached anyone quite like him.

Ocean City captain Jake Inserra (45)

The Steelers were off to an incredible start as well. They rolled through the soft underbelly of their early schedule, knocking off New York, Denver and Houston in succession. They were playing great defense, looked much better than expected on offense and had avoided any Covid-related complications. Unfortunately, the next opponent on their schedule, the Tennessee Titans, were not so lucky.

The Steelers had been scheduled to travel to Nashville the first Sunday in October. That game was postponed, however, after an outbreak of positive tests within the Tennessee organization. It was rescheduled for Week 7, when Tennessee had its bye, while the Steelers-Ravens Week 7 game was pushed to Week 8, which was Pittsburgh’s original bye.

The postponement was announced on the Thursday of game week, which meant the Steelers were already deep into preparations for Tennessee. They were now on a bye, but having practiced for much of the week, the benefits of the bye — namely, rest and time spent with their families — were largely eliminated. Pittsburgh would need to begin preparing for the next opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, almost immediately. Plus, their bye was now in Week 4, which meant thirteen consecutive games to close the season.

Coach Tomlin declined to share his opinion on the postponement with the media, stating, “My opinion does not matter. We take marching orders from the National Football League.” It didn’t take an expert on interpretation, however, to understand that Tomlin was less than pleased with the decision.

The Steelers persevered. They hammered a hapless Eagles team and entered their first real showdown of the season — a mid-October meeting at Heinz Field with the much-hyped (and to be fair, significantly-improved) Cleveland Browns. Vegas made the Steelers a 3.5-point favorite. Factoring in home-field advantage, this essentially meant they considered the game a toss-up.’s Dan Labbe wrote this about the contest: “The Steelers are the team with something to prove against the best team they’ve faced this season.” Labbe predicted a Cleveland victory.

Then, on the Browns’ third play from scrimmage, Steelers’ safety Minkah Fitzpatrick did this:

The Steelers romped to a 38-7 victory. They proved something, alright: The Browns, despite the hype, were not yet in Pittsburgh’s league as an NFL power.

The next week the Steelers rolled into Tennessee for the re-scheduled Covid game and, after sprinting out to a 24-7 halftime lead, held on for a 27-24 victory. They closed the month of October at 6-0, the first time since 1978 they had reached that mark. The challenges of football during a pandemic were real, but an organization like the Steelers, with veteran leaders, an experienced coaching staff, stable ownership and, perhaps most importantly, a template for doing business, seemed well-prepared to handle it.

The standard was the standard. In Pittsburgh, there were no exceptions.

The first week in November produced our rivalry game. Ocean City is a barrier island and our opponent was located directly over the bridge that connects the two communities. The winning team claimed the “bridge trophy” and the bridge that joined us was lit up in the colors of the victor for the following week. It was the kind of rivalry that made high school football special — two schools separated by a few miles, close-knit communities that resembled one another, football games that often went to the wire with bragging rights considered sacred.

We won, 63-0. It was the most lopsided contest in the history of the rivalry.

The Bridge Trophy, won this season by Ocean City 63-0

That catapulted us into the playoffs against perennial state-power St. Joseph-Hammonton, a private school we hadn’t beaten since 1974. They were loaded with scholarship players — a linebacker going to Army, a defensive end headed to Rutgers, a tackle to Georgetown — and their coach was the winningest in South Jersey football history with over 300 career victories. When we last played, in 2017, St. Joe won 46-7. It was a tall task, to say the least.

We kicked off to open the game and St. Joe immediately drove down the field for a touchdown. We got the ball, went three-and-out and had to punt. It looked like our kids didn’t believe they could win. But then we got a stop on defense, a big punt return and were able to kick a field goal. Those points on the board changed everything. The momentum shifted and our confidence grew. We played faster and more physically. The hitting was ferocious. We scored before halftime to go up 10-7. In the fourth quarter, we recorded a safety to push the lead to 12-7. Finally, with under a minute to play and St. Joe driving, we intercepted a pass near our goal-line and were able to kneel out the clock for the victory. It was an historic win for our program and it sent us to the championship game for a second consecutive season. We would have an opportunity to make good on the mantra we’d been preaching since offseason workouts had started the previous December. An opportunity to FINISH.

The first week of November brought a presidential election that was decided largely on how Americans perceived the pandemic and a clash with the Ravens that had been rescheduled because of it. The Ravens were the defending division champs but trailed the Steelers in the standings. Still, in many people’s eyes, Baltimore remained the class of the division. Odds-makers favored the Ravens. Many Pittsburgh fans did, too.

Baltimore started fast. They ran the ball down the Steelers’ throats to take a 17-7 lead at halftime. The Steelers rallied, however, adjusting on defense and breaking out a no-huddle package that would become a staple of the offense moving forward. They took the lead with two third-quarter scoring drives, surrendered it early in the fourth, and then re-claimed it for good on a touchdown toss to dynamic rookie Chase Claypool with seven minutes to play. Minkah Fitzpatrick broke up a throw to Willie Snead in the Baltimore end zone as time expired and the Steelers won, 28-24.

Minkah Fitzpatrick thwarting the throw to Willie Snead to finish off the Ravens in Baltimore

The Steelers were now 7-0 and had beaten their two legitimate AFC North challengers. Their defense was tops in the league in most major categories, including sacks, turnovers, quarterback pressures and DVOA. They were averaging 30 points per game and their offense, with an orchestra of young, talented wide receivers and a maestro at quarterback conducting them masterfully, looked more dangerous than it had in years. Even the special teams were playing competent football. The season, to that point, had gone about as flawlessly as could be expected.

We prepared for the championship game. Our opponent was Camden High, a gifted program with a storied history. The game would be at home, however, which gave us an advantage. We did our weekly install on Monday and held a spirited, full-pads practice on Tuesday. Guys were flying around, playing fast and confident. Wednesday came. Our coaches worked on practice scripts. We were two days away.

On my lunch break, our athletic director came into the classroom where I was eating and watching film. He got straight to the point. “Camden called,” he said. “The game is off.”

I stared back, incredulously. “What do you mean?”

“Their district doctor is citing rising Covid numbers. He won’t let them travel.”

I didn’t understand what he was saying. No one on their team had tested positive. They had participated in several away-games already. This was a championship game. What did he mean they couldn’t travel?

“That’s what they’re saying,” he said.

I texted our coaches. What should we do? There had to be a solution. It was suggested we travel to their place. We’d be voiding home field advantage, which we’d earned, but what was the alternative? I met with our senior leaders and told them what was happening. I asked them, “Do you want to play the game at Camden?” Each one, to a man, said yes.

We offered — Friday afternoon at their place. Camden said no. Something about how their team doctor wasn’t available at that time. We said we would bring our team doctor. They said no again. Things seemed fishy at that point. A rumor began to circulate. Their quarterback was hurt, they were trying to buy time for him to recover. We contacted the league president. What can we do? Not much, he said. If they cite Covid concerns, we can’t force them to play. A voided game would go down as a no-contest.

A no-contest? In a championship game we had earned the right to host and were willing to go on the road to play? That couldn’t be. We made a last-ditch appeal to Camden but they were dug in. They would host the game on their terms or not play at all. The game was canceled.

Now what? We had less than 48 hours to find another opponent to play in a meaningless game or we could simply forget it and prepare for our final contest — the annual Thanksgiving game with Pleasantville. It seemed unfair to our seniors to lose the Camden game altogether. But on short notice, who would play us?

DePaul Catholic, that’s who.

DePaul Catholic, the North Jersey powerhouse, who had been the #1 ranked team in the state as recently as 2017. They played in one of the toughest high school football conferences in the country with schools like Bergen Catholic, Don Bosco and St. Peter’s Prep. St. Peter’s was the alma mater of none other than Minkah Fitzpatrick, while Bergen and Bosco had produced players like Brian Cushing, Jabril Peppers and Matt Simms. These were teams who traveled all over the country to play and had their games televised on ESPN. Did we really want to schedule a team like that, just to have another game?

Hell yes, the seniors said.

We hastily arranged the contest. DePaul made the two-and-a-half hour drive to Ocean City that Friday. Scouts from Rutgers and Boston College came to see a host of DePaul players, including their 6’5 quarterback who was bigger than most of our linemen. It was our guys who caught their attention early, however. Somehow, despite being grossly out-sized, we led 16-7 near the end of the first half. DePaul scored right before halftime to gain some momentum. At the break, their coach must have delivered a pointed message about their performance. The second half was a different football game altogether. DePaul won going away. We earned a ton of respect, however, for both taking them on and playing them tough.

Our Thanksgiving game was on the road, so, with this their final home game, our seniors and their families hung around on the field long after DePaul departed. Some cried, others hugged each other or simply lingered. They didn’t want to leave. This was not what they’d expected. Just two days earlier we’d been preparing for the opportunity to erase the memory of our championship loss from 2019. Instead, we’d suffered our first loss of the season to a national power. It was frustrating. Confusing. Surreal.

Little did we know the strangest episode of the season was yet to come.

The Steelers rolled on. November brought subsequent wins against the Cowboys, Bengals and Jaguars. They approached the Thanksgiving Eve rematch with Baltimore at 10-0, the best start in franchise history. Each week, the writers at BTSC were asked to predict a winner for the Steelers’ upcoming game. Each week, I picked the Steelers to win. It wasn’t homer-ism. It was a genuine belief that the Steelers were simply the better football team and were playing at such a high level I did not believe they had encountered an opponent yet who could defeat them.

Ben Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool connecting for six in Jacksonville

Unless you considered Covid an opponent. Each week, more and more players around the league were added to the Covid list, rendering them ineligible for varying amounts of time. National Covid numbers were sky-rocketing. By late November, each day brought a record for new cases. The death toll spiked as well, passing a quarter-million in the United States. Some began to question whether an historic start for the Steelers would be for naught if the country shut down again. It was a doomsday scenario for the league, with owners and players each standing to lose billions of dollars. The league increased its fines on teams who did not follow Covid protocols in an attempt to force compliance. The Titans were hit with a $350,000 bill for their outbreak that caused the postponement of the Steelers game. The Saints were fined and docked a draft pick for Covid violations. The Broncos were fined when all of their quarterbacks wound up on the Covid list and they had to play a game with a practice squad wide receiver taking snaps. The Steelers were fined, too, for mask violations on the sideline during the Ravens game.

Covid numbers in the U.S. rose dramatically in the month of November (NPR)

The fines were all well and good. But, short of moving to an NBA-like bubble, it seemed inevitable players would continue to contract the virus. The Steelers kept winning and the virus kept spreading. It was hard to know how to feel.

Two days after the DePaul game, it happened again. Our Thanksgiving opponent, Pleasantville, a team we’d played 98 times on Thanksgiving morning dating back to 1918, pulled out of the game. Once again, they cited the ubiquitous “Covid concerns.” Cynically, that felt like code-speak for saying they didn’t believe they could win so they were bowing out. But who could say? What was a legitimate danger and what was a fraud? It was difficult to know. All we did know was this — our program, and our seniors in particular, had again been deprived of a game.

The scramble for an opponent ensued once again. We had three days this time, a luxury compared to the previous week. But most teams in the state had either played their final game already or shut down due to the pandemic. The list of potential teams who could play, or were willing to play, was short. Things didn’t look promising.

Then Williamstown, the defending Group V state champion, came open when their Thanksgiving opponent had to shut down. Their coach and I worked out an arrangement. We would play Wednesday night, the night before Thanksgiving, at our place. It was now Monday, and it gave us one less day to prepare. But it would be a final home game for the seniors.

At 2:45 pm on Monday, just as I was heading out to practice, I got a text from our athletic director. The game was off. The county was going to raise the Covid threat-level to orange on Wednesday, which meant high-risk, and the school board would not permit another team to travel to Ocean City under those conditions.

I went out to the practice field, where the team had already assembled, and delivered the news. Players were initially furious. Then, to our surprise, the seniors led the team out to the field, where they ran through an hour of practice without any direction from the coaching staff. They practiced as we normally did, going through our tackling drills, position periods, group run, 7-on-7, team offense and defense, special teams. The coaches stood on the track and watched them. Marveled at them, really. This was how much they loved playing with one another. The season was over. But they wanted one more opportunity together.

When they were finished, we lined up along the sideline and bid farewell to the seniors. One by one they walked the line, shaking the hands of the under-classmen, embracing the coaches. It was draining, emotional. We said our thank-yous and our goodbyes. Jake Schneider, a 5’8-145 pound receiver who had recently broken the league record set by current Rutgers stand-out Bo Melton for most career receptions, tied his cleats together and threw them up over a wire that ran from the stadium press box to a utility pole. Literally hanging up his cleats. It was a fitting way to end.

Record-setting wide receiver Jake Schneider

Only it wasn’t. That night, our athletic director called to say the game was back on. He had talked the board into allowing the contest. He wanted the team to finish on the field. I texted the players and arranged for practice on Tuesday. Jake Schneider had to find another pair of cleats.

Tuesday’s practice was terrible. We were flat, tired. I worried about what would happen Wednesday night. Williamstown was another area powerhouse. If we didn’t play our best they would embarrass us. We had looked like a punched-out fighter at practice. It wasn’t a good sign.

Sure enough, the first half against Williamstown did not go well. We moved the ball on offense but our defense, which had been so good all season long, could not stop them. We trailed at halftime. Jake Inserra gave a rousing speech though and the players responded. We were receiving the second-half kick and were confident we could come back.

Then our school principal was there, summoning me away from the team. Immediately I thought, this can’t be good. He had never interrupted me during a game before, for any reason.

“The game is over,” he said. “Williamstown had a player test positive. They just got the results. They are getting on the buses and leaving.”

“Test positive?” I said. “When?”

“Earlier today. The Mom just informed the AD of the results. They’re leaving.”

Which is how our season came to its official end — with 70 dumbfounded players kneeling in the end zone watching the opposing team board their bus and head home at halftime.

Ocean City seniors react to the news their final football game has been called off at halftime

Our episode paralleled what the Steelers went through that same week. The regularly-scheduled game for Thanksgiving night with Baltimore was pushed to Sunday when a host of Ravens’ players tested positive. More tested positive in subsequent days so the game was pushed to Tuesday. Then Wednesday. At 3:40 in the afternoon. Why 3:40? Because the network televising the game, NBC, was committed to airing the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on Wednesday night. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

With nearly twenty players on the Covid list, including starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens dressed a glorified JV team. The Steelers, for their part, looked rusty and uninspired. Pittsburgh won, 19-14, but no one seemed happy about it. When asked why his team had struggled in the game, particularly on offense in the red zone, Tomlin attributed it to “us sucking.”

To make matters worse, star linebacker Bud Dupree went down in the fourth quarter with a season-ending ACL injury. A friend sent me an angry text blaming the Ravens for Dupree’s injury. Had they followed the rules, he wrote, and taken the proper precautions, and not kept begging the league to push the game back, things would have gone differently and Dupree would not have been lost. He ended the text with a suggestion about what Baltimore coach John Harbaugh could do to himself.

The Steelers had swept the Ravens. They were 11-0. But things felt... unsatisfying. In the comments of the post-game wrap-up article on BTSC, long-time contributor jimv2013 posted the following GIF. It seemed the perfect summation for the moment:

With our season having come to such an abrupt and anti-climactic conclusion, I felt conflicted. On one hand, we’d had an historic year, been crowned playoff champions by the league, and finished ranked in the Top 20 in the state of New Jersey for the first time this century. On the other, our kids had been deprived of the opportunity to win that championship on the field and the final game, against Williamstown, had simply been absurd. You have to take the good with the bad, I suppose, especially during a pandemic. In the big picture, we were lucky to have a season at all.

Then there’s this: on the Tuesday night before the Williamstown game, as I was tired, feeling discouraged about our practice that day and disappointed in how everything had transpired from the time Camden pulled out of the championship, I went to the local supermarket to pick up some groceries. I drove there straight from practice and was wearing Ocean City football gear. A man stopped me inside and asked if I was a coach at the high school. I told him yes, I was the head coach. Immediately he launched into a speech about how happy he was to meet me, how much he and his family had enjoyed watching our games on the live-stream this season, and in particular what our team had meant to his son.

“You guys are the best thing in my son’s life right now,” he told me. “I can’t tell you how much he enjoys watching the games. He gets so excited, and he watches them over and over.”

The man asked if I could wait there for a second. He walked away and a few moments later came back with his son. The boy was a teenager, perhaps a bit older. He had Down’s Syndrome. His father introduced us. “This is the coach of Ocean City,” the man said. I could see a smile spreading from the boys’ face beneath his mask. I reached out to give the boy a pound. He tapped my knuckles with his own, then leaned in and gave me a one-armed hug. I could barely speak as I thanked his father for introducing us. Then, as inconspicuous as possible, I wiped the tears from my eyes once they’d walked away.

Sometimes I think, it’s only football. Why do I care so much? About the Steelers, the Red Raiders of Ocean City, any of it? But then I realize that categorizing it as “only football” does a great disservice to the joy and the life lessons it has imparted.

As a Steelers fan, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying six Super Bowl-winning seasons — the first four when I was too little to really understand their impact and the last two when I could grasp it fully. How much it meant to me, to my friends, the sense of pride it bestowed, the way in which the fortunes of the team seemed to validate me in some way, that if the Steelers were successful I was somehow successful, too.

I think of the road trips taken with friends to Three Rivers Stadium, the morning tailgate parties, seven a.m. bratwurst and I.C. Light, six of us crammed into a single hotel room that smelled of nachos and bad feet. Indelible memories I wouldn’t trade for the world.

I think of my teammates as a player in high school and in college, of the knowledge of what we experienced together, the bond we share, and how no matter where we are or how much time has elapsed between correspondence, who we voted for politically, how much money we make or whatever God we worship, we can always connect over football.

I think of that father and his son from the supermarket. Of what Friday nights have meant to them as they gather together in their home to watch our games on YouTube.

At Ocean City, I think not just of the Jake Inserra’s, the captains and role models, but the Anthony Kenny’s as well. Anthony, like Jake an over-achiever, was a scrappy defensive back who started for us in 2015-2016 as we were turning the corner from a struggling program to a competitive one. He had a mega-watt smile, an infectious personality and the ability to make any room brighter with his mere presence. He won us a game at Atlantic City his junior year with an interception in the final minute to end a potential game-winning scoring drive. I can still see him being swallowed up by the pile of teammates that enveloped him, everyone jumping spastically, pure joy. He loved playing football for Ocean City. It was a part of who he was.

Anthony was killed in a car crash the night before Thanksgiving. We found out as we were leaving the field after Williamstown departed. It was a horrific ending to an evening that had already gone off the rails.

The reason people fought so hard to play football this season was so that kids like Anthony would have the experience. It’s a game, yes, but it means more than many can imagine to the young men who play it. Anthony was not a great student, but he wanted to be eligible for football so he studied and did his work. He did well enough to get accepted to college and played football at a small school outside of Philadelphia called Chestnut Hill. Football taught Anthony discipline, and teamwork, and gave him structure and a purpose. These are all things that are absent in the lives of many young people, especially during a pandemic. Best of all, football got Anthony into college, for which his family will forever be proud.

Anthony Kenny (1999-2020)

There were risks in playing this season. There are risks as well when kids are isolated and feel removed from the things they love. My college roommate lives in Connecticut, where his son is a junior and was slated to be a starting cornerback on a successful prep school team. Officials in Connecticut shut down the season before anyone had played a snap. My roommate’s family was devastated. He worries his son may be suffering from depression. That’s not melodrama. The consequences of not playing have been real.

I applaud the politicians and administrators in New Jersey who made the effort to have a season. There were 98 players in our program in grades 9-12 and we did not have a single positive test among them. That’s a tribute to the discipline of those young men. It also rewarded the decision-makers for having the courage to move forward.

As for the Steelers, who knows how this season will end? As I write this, the day after the second Baltimore game, they are surely busy preparing for Washington. That game is scheduled for Monday night. But, as we’ve seen, schedules are mere suggestions in the season of Covid. Their 11-0 start has brought so much joy to a fan-base whose lives have been impacted in varying degrees by the pandemic. Whether we’ve lost our jobs, lost loved ones to the virus, struggled to educate our kids from home or just simply become exhausted trying to navigate this “new normal,” the reprieve Steelers football has granted us has been a gift.

We remain fans, of course, which means we scream and yell, fret at the slightest imperfection, make irrational statements on comment boards (ahem) and will never feel satisfied until the Steelers again hoist that sticky Lombardi. But we should enjoy every minute of this special season, for it has exceeded even the wildest expectations of the most optimistic prognosticators. And, as I know all too well, it could end at any moment, even when we least expect it. That’s the cold reality of life in the pandemic. Be thankful for the now. Nothing later is guaranteed.