When the virus hits a high school football team: How Wetumpka handled its COVID-19 outbreak
WETUMPKA — Six offensive lineman knelt next to one another under a setting sun. Tim Perry, Wetumpka's coach and athletics director, noticed them on the sidelines and walked over.
He pinched his cloth mask between two fingers and lifted it above his mouth and nose. Perry told his players that he loved the camaraderie, but they needed to spread out. So a few black jerseys stood and shifted over.
Similar interactions take place daily on ball fields across the country as schools balance athletics with COVID-19 protocols. But on a fall Tuesday in Wetumpka, this moment was indicative of the month of turmoil that preceded it.
"You want them to enjoy being together," Perry said, "... but it's our job as coaches to remind them."
One week they lost on a last-second,10-lateral play and went viral. A week later, 14 players either tested positive for COVID-19 or were in quarantine through contact tracing, including the entire starting secondary. Six more players self-isolated the following week after more cases. Monday marked only the Indian's second practice back from a weeklong program suspension due to a high number of positive cases.
Wetumpka became one of the dozens of teams to deal with a pandemic-related scheduling conflict. For the first time in Perry's nine-year tenure, Wetumpka forfeited. While hoping the outbreak is in the past, the Indians (3-3) are preparing for a potential region-deciding game against Pelham (4-1). But they've seen firsthand how nothing is certain in a 2020 season.
"We thought we had a good handle on it," Perry said. "All of us got a dose of reality."
From mid-June to early-September, the program had just two positive cases. The safety protocols – daily temperature and symptom checks, individual water bottles and spread-out seating on buses – appeared to work. The Wetumpka Fire Department sprayed the players' helmets, shoulder pads, locker room and weight room once a week with a hand sanitizer mister. Players were given team-branded masks and the equipment staff washed them.
An offense, led by quarterback Robert Rose and running back Brandon Bowman, averaged 24.3 points per game gave Wetumpka a 2-1 start. Then the Indians faced Hillcrest and allowed a backyard football-like broken play to sink them to .500.
Concern soon followed the bewilderment. When Wetumpka players started to test positive for COVID-19 the following week, they continued to practice. They believed that through tracing and quarantining, they had isolated the virus.
Coaches began limiting film review to essential personnel, hoping to minimize the players who might come into contact with each other. The team traveled to Benjamin Russell with only its backup secondary and escaped with a 51-37 victory on Sept. 18.
In the following days, the number of players in quarantine increased to 20, among them eight starters. On Monday afternoon after the Russell win, Perry met with Wetumpka Principal Robert Slater and Elmore County Superintendent Richard Dennis. They decided to suspended activity for one week, including a non-region game against Greenville.
Coaches and trainers disinfected facilities. The ire department sprayed again. Perry mopped the locker room. It was too late in the day to gather the players together, so when some arrived to campus reactions ranged from confused to shocked. Senior wide receiver Rudarious Anthony arrived to find teammates speculating the future of the season.
Seniors Myles Ross and Colby Golson thought their hig h school careerswere over. Some parents were frustrated. Two hours later, Perry issued a mass text.
Players transitioned to team-wide Zoom meetings and film study. Anthony did footwork drills in his backyard. The football field remained empty. Friday night, a team trainer traveled to the beach. Perry spent his first free fall Friday night in nine years at Pelham's game against Chelsea.
On Sept. 29, Elmore County High School announced it would be forfeiting a game after three students tested positive. Wetumpka players and coaches said they're just excited for Friday.
"The goal is to get in a routine," Perry said, "... There's not anything right now that you can do that's a 100% guarantee."