Max Blanc

Eleanor Bailey/The Almanac

Max Blanc works on his tackling technique during summer football workouts at Bethel Park High School.

Following a recent Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association decision, parents, players and coaches across the region are gearing up for high school football this fall.

The PIAA board voted to allow football to continue next month, with multiple pages of guidelines relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and with some flexibility for school districts that prefer a delayed start. The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League announced Friday that football in this region would begin Sept. 10.

The decision was music to the ears of high school football players everywhere, especially seniors like Logan Pfeuffer, the starting quarterback for Peters Township.

“I’m just relieved, honestly,” Pfeuffer said. “I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old, so I’m very happy I’ll be able to play the season of my senior year.”

The question of how a full-contact sport such as football can be played safely amid a global pandemic, which has killed more than 150,000 people in the United States alone, is still being pursued by administrators, coaches and medical professionals.

“It’s not going to be easy, I’ll tell you that,” said Dr. Ed Snell, division director for primary sports medicine with Allegheny Health Network’s Orthopaedic Institute. “It’s hard to social distance when you’re tackling someone or you’re across the scrimmage line from them.”

In a recent interview, Snell said that players, coaches, administrators and everyone involved with the sport are going to have to be very honest and diligent when it comes to preventing the spread of the virus.

During Pfeuffer’s team workouts, their temperatures are taken and they’re given a questionnaire regarding possible symptoms or travel, he said. They and their equipment and personal items are spread apart. They split up during workouts and water breaks to maintain social distance, he said.

“I think everyone has that little bit of worry for spreading it to other people,” Pfeuffer said.

According to Garry Cathell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association, his organization spent the past few months trying to come up with scenarios and guidelines that would allow for a football season.

“Coaches are coaches – they want to get out there with their players, but there are concerns,” said Cathell, who once coached at Peters Township. “Obviously, the most important thing with this is to educate our coaches and maintain safety for all of our players. I think all of the planning going into this has that as the No. 1 priority: what’s going to happen if a player or players come down with a positive test.”

Snell said that while it’s not without risks, there would be a lot of oversight and regulating of guidelines when football starts. This hasn’t necessarily been the case for many club sports that have taken place over the course of the summer.

“How long do you keep these kids sitting in the house?” Snell asked. “They’re going to go out and hang out with their friends and play sports, so wouldn’t it be better to get them active in a controlled environment? At some point we have to allow our kids to be active.”

Strict adherence to Centers for Disease Control guidelines on health and safety will be key for districts planning to resume football, Snell said. He said coaches and administrators will have to pay close attention to sanitization, social distancing when possible, splitting up practices into smaller group drills, and screening players for possible exposures.

“It really is dependent on everybody doing this honestly and safely,” Snell said. “It’s going to take a lot of work for the coaches, it’s going to take a lot of discipline for the students and it will take a lot of resources for the schools and administrators. I think it can be done.”

Snell said that while a full-contact sport does pose a risk of spreading the virus, so does going back to school, especially since classes are indoors.

“Do I want to bring football back? Yes, I do,” he said. “The chance of spread is high, but at the same time, so is being in a classroom. There’s no way to ensure that this does not spread.”

While some states have postponed the high school football season until spring, Snell said that decision doesn’t guarantee a season, either.

“What if spring brings on the same atmosphere that we’re in now?” Snell asked. “How long do you postpone it, forever? Or do we get kids active again with a good screening process? There is no way to predict whether or not next year isn’t going to be the same situation.”

Snell said the CDC, health officials and the governor’s office could still nix the idea of football starting up, especially if cases begin to increase or if cases can be linked back to football-related activities. He said it will only take one “fly in the ointment” for the sport to potentially be shut down again.

Cathell said that it wouldn’t feel like fall without football.

“The fall season has revolved around football for many years, but I think everybody has to realize that this year is something that we hope never happens again for a long, long time,” Cathell said. “

We just want to give our athletes a chance to play.”

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