Football stadiums across the country sit more empty than ever this fall. In Nebraska and across the Great Plains, some stadiums have no student sections, some only allow home fans and others just immediate family members and grandparents. In many areas, everyone is masked up — from the ticket booth to the concession stands and coaches willing their teams to victory. Even the handshake line sits dormant this year.
“After games, we take five yards onto the field and both sides just wave to each other,” said Patrick Foley, Creighton Prep’s punter. “Say good game and then we split.”
As the state playoffs began in all 93 counties within the next two weeks, from large Class A communities, like Lincoln and Bellevue, to the villages that make up Class D-2 schools, like Falls City and Sacred Heart, schools across the state — except the seven Omaha Public Schools that are not playing football this fall — are making it work by reworking schedules to resemble a regular season.
“I think every AD in the state would agree that one of the best things that’s happened is that the (Nebraska School Activities Association) has allowed us the freedom of when somebody has to cancel a game, we can pick up the game,” said Dallas Sweet, assistant principal and activities director at Malcolm. “And it doesn’t count for wildcard points and the seeding system for the state playoffs.”
For the first time in Class A, the playoffs will allow all 24 teams to participate with the best eight teams getting a bye. Class A and D have cut off the usual last week of the season, Week 9, to get through the playoffs with less risk of a team having a COVID outbreak. Class B and C will get going, though if a team has a COVID outbreak, they are automatically forfeited and the next team moves on.
“The one bad deal that’s beyond anybody’s control is once the bracket is set, should a team have a COVID issue, they simply are forfeiting, and the other team will advance,” Sweet said.
The pandemic has rocked many parts of everyday life; that was no different in the state of Nebraska where fans worried that they might not see any football in 2020, especially after Omaha Public Schools canceled all fall sports.
“During our time in the 100% Remote Learning Instructional Model, all activities and athletics will be suspended,” according to the OPS statement. “We understand the important role extra-curricular activities play in a student’s experience. This suspension is for the health and safety of everyone.”
All of the rest of the Omaha and Lincoln schools, 24 in all, decided that with proper protocols, it was safe enough to not only play the high contact sport but all other sports as well, leaving the seven OPS schools on an island alone.
Not only did that decision affect the lives of OPS teachers, students and parents, but other schools were also forced to revise their schedules to adjust to cancelations of games.
“We were (supposed) to play Omaha Northwest,” said Jeffrey Pierce, assistant athletic and activities director for Lincoln Northeast. “When that game fell, Lincoln Southwest, who actually had three openings, contacted us and said, ‘Hey, by the way, we have an opening on the same date that you do. Can we play?”
That game happened Week 3.
Not all schools in Nebraska have been as fortunate as Lincoln Northeast to reschedule football games. Creighton Prep had to drop a game against defending state champions Bellevue West due to a positive test, which resulted in the entire team quarantining.
“That was a tough one for our team,” said Foley. “Then we missed practice for that week and a half, that kind of slid out a little bit. Then our next week, we played Lincoln Southeast that we should have been able to beat, but we’re just missing that practice.”
Maybe nobody has had it worse in the metro area, possibly even the entire Cornhusker State, than the defending state champions Bellevue West Thunderbirds; they managed to get five games in, winning in all five to secure the No. 1 seed in the state playoffs as well as a first-round bye, but it has been a rocky road getting there.
“For us, it was extremely difficult coming off a state title last year, having a pretty good team returning several very high caliber players,” said Jon Mauro, Bellevue West’s assistant principal and activities director. “We really struggled to find in-state opponents that were willing to play us during our open weeks.”
Another interesting piece of the puzzle is deciding how many fans can watch these games from the stands. Many schools are doing it differently than Grand Island, one of two public schools in the central Nebraska town of just over 50,000 that decided not to let visiting fans in their stadium. For the Omaha schools still playing, 100 high school seniors are allowed to attend, while Lincoln schools allow only immediate family members in the stands.
“Each district has different guidelines,” Pierce said. “As far as how they allow spectators in core family members, that kind of thing. Lincoln Public decided that they would have each participant submit a list, and they submitted up to eight names. And those names have to be either people that live in your immediate household or grandparents.”
Either way, Sweet said any football is better than no football: “We’re happy having had the chance to give our kids nine games.”