Padecky: How the pandemic forces a decision between mental and physical health for athletes and coaches

Teens face depression amid a lost season, but also face getting COVID-19 if they play.|

The teenager wants to play football. Dad wants to go to the local bar and have a few pops with the guys from work. Mom wants to go to her favorite Italian restaurant. The dog wants to bark.

Who gets their way during a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans?

Should only be the dog.

Ah, but if a clear, well-accepted and coordinated plan to keep people alive during the worst public health crisis this country has seen in more than 100 years is your goal, start taking Tylenol four times a day and live in a bunker until you’re told to come out.

Otherwise, stay above ground with your friend, the headache.

“It’s all about the kids,” said St. Vincent football coach Trent Herzog on why there is club football. The verb “is” means club football is still being played, from Woodland to Bakersfield. It is not, however, played with kids from Sonoma County.

Never has such a simple sentence contained so much complexity. An onion doesn’t have as many layers. Like peeling that onion, however, this could make a grown man cry. Herzog acknowledges that.

“There’s 50 percent who would agree (to play club football) and 50 percent who wouldn’t,” Herzog said. The concept is so emotionally charged, Herzog later adds, “50 percent will love me and 50 percent will hate me.”

Two teams from Sonoma County, coached by men from St. Vincent and Cardinal Newman, played two games of club football before the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) announced last week the resumption of a high school football season, however truncated.

Doesn’t take a clairvoyant who bends spoons in his spare time to determine club pushed the CIF to that decision. A club program in Southern California has been in existence since December, including teams from Arizona. The CIF needs to remind everyone in this state who’s in charge of adolescent athletics.

Which now has been revealed as a fraud. The CIF is not in charge. Parents are. If enough parents get a sand spur under their saddle, who have enough political clout and maybe a few bucks, they can make hopscotch a CIF sport.

In the case of the two Sonoma County club teams, parents picked the rosters. The coaches were to coach. Opinions and suggestions were welcome, but when it costs between $500-$700 to send a kid to a club team, we know where the buck stops, at the inside of the wallet. At a time when people have lost their jobs and health coverage, money doesn’t flow like spring runoff. According to the Manteca-Ripon Bulletin newspaper, 28.9% of the kids who play are from public schools.

So, yes, it is about the kids, a select group of kids, kids who are hand-picked and many who do not come from families struggling financially.

The two club programs were strict about health protocols. Officials and coaches had to wear masks. Players not on the field had to wear masks. Temperatures were taken. Questions were asked about proximity to anyone sick.

“We had zero cases among our players,” said Phil Grams, president of the California Association of Private Sports, the nonprofit that runs the Northern California club program.

Yes, that’s terrific, that so far no one has had to judge the value of club football versus illness. Would one virus case be too much? Would one COVID death? No one has yet to develop a metric for that.

The kids need to play. No one disagrees with that. Depression is common. Herzog said two of his players have dropped out of school. Every parent of a teenager, including the one writing this column, and every parent who has had a teenager, knows this is a critical, formative time in their social development. Athletics is one of the primary conduits to emotional stability.

“Football was so important to me in high school,” Herzog said. “I went to school so I could play football. I would have dropped out if it wasn’t for football.”

Teenagers in crisis, sadly, are not experiencing a unique development. Jan Smith Billing, commissioner of the North Bay League, is well acquainted with stress. Smith Billing, 67, was in high school during the Vietnam Conflict.

Teenage boys across America, long before they became senior football players, were clenching their teeth and fists. They saw older friends or brothers go off to war and never come back, or if they came back, they weren’t all there.

“It was a brutal reality,” Smith Billing said, “and if today’s seniors don’t play, they adapt. It’s not like they are going off to die.”

Smith Billing does not set policy. She is more of a gatherer than enforcer, getting athletic directors or principals together to discuss problems and solutions. Smith Billing did such a thing last week. Concerns were voiced on public school kids being influenced to transfer to private schools, on kids with a month of contact now practicing with kids who just put on pads.

“I would see a problem if a kid had taken off the last nine months without working out who then puts his gear on,” said Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin. “That does not compute.”

An unfair competitive advantage led a number of Santa Rosa city schools not to play Newman this spring. The optics are not kind to how private schools are viewed through the club football lens.

With a pandemic going on, with people not able to go inside a restaurant to have dinner, club teams can exchange spit and saliva and gouging at the bottom of a dog pile. It’s an optic that doesn’t travel well, with full-on tackle football permitted while the rest of the kids in high school are zooming their classes.

It takes the term “student-athlete” and twists it to “athlete-student,” which seems more like an accurate interpretation of current events.

It brings to the forefront a criticism long pointed at athletics — jocks get special treatment. There are rules for everyone, but then again there another set of rules to those gifted athletically. They get breaks, advantages, a wink and a nod. They get to do things — or get away with doing things — the rest of us can’t.

To that prejudice add the muck COVID-19 has created.

“The message is so mixed up,” Cronin said. “Why can I go into a liquor store but I can’t go to Mass at St. John’s (in Healdsburg)?”

That’s a head scratcher and, sure, all the supportive data will explain it, but with America seemingly in the midst of this insolvable Rubik’s Cube, what’s left is anger and eroding patience. Everything is now suspect. Everything has a hidden meaning.

Can’t get any more hidden that this: Club football has been conducted in secrecy. There were no public announcement for the next game. No one called The Press Democrat with the final score. If those involved thought it was such a righteous event, why did club football feel like a drug deal behind the Safeway at 2 in the morning?

“People would be feeling judged,” Cronin said. “It would be like a family flying to Hawaii for a vacation (in the middle of a pandemic) and the family not telling anyone.”

Would they feel embarrassed, shamed? Would they feel they would be held up to public ridicule? Would they feel that the need for graduating seniors to get game film to show college recruiters might not be a convincing argument? Colleges will find talent; full-time jobs are dedicated just for that purpose.

Sonoma County, to be honest, is not a coveted recruiting area. It’s certainly not the Sacramento area. And it’s not even in the same universe as Southern California. But Jerry Robinson, Mel Gray, Scott Ware, Koa Misi, Adam Forman, Martin Tevasue and Elijah Qualls came from here.

The football program at Santa Rosa Junior College averages 25 kids a year that have gone to play at 4-year schools. The program is a good landing spot for kids to mature. SRJC may not have the star power of an SEC school, but ask Jason Verrett what he thinks about SRJC.

Verrett, a cornerback, played for the Bear Cubs in 2010, went to Texas Christian, was a first-round NFL draft choice, a Pro Bowler in 2015 and now is with the 49ers and one of the best cover corners in the game.

Would a high school player who thinks he can play in the NFL agree to play club football? If he’s told his football life would depend on it, quite possibly. In the middle of a pandemic, heck, he might start his own club team. He probably would have said what Herzog and Cronin said about the experience.

“The look on their faces, when they took the field, was priceless,” Herzog said. “It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”

“I never felt any guilt at all,” Cronin said. “It was a great experience.”

Grams would certainly support those thoughts.

“We have the right in America to play football,” he said.

I always thought it was a privilege to play football. Just as it was a privilege to go to Stanford. We have the privilege to live free in America within a social construct shaped by legislation. We have limits and, as anyone who’s been here for the 13 months, those limits have been tested. In some cases trampled.

We adults have been frustrated, maddened, angered. We are used to those emotions. We don’t always get what we want. We have had to find a way to live with that. We adjust because we are demanded to do so.

Would it have been fair to ask the same thing out of our kids who want to play football? To be an adult before they are ready? It’s happened before.

It’s risk versus reward. For someone who wants to get a solid grip on COVID-19, it feels like I’m collecting water with a fork. It’s all over the place and yet it’s no place. Put me into Earth’s orbit and bring me back when it’s over.

Until then, I cross my fingers. I hope no one gets sick. I hope no one dies. I hope it’s worth it.

It’s mental health versus physical health. It’s not a fair competition.

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