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High school football returns to an America in crisis, and the competitors are normalcy vs. weirdness

At the first high school football game of the coronavirus era, a nation parched for joy turns to a community cornerstone.

Herriman students cheer as the school’s football team plays Davis in Herriman on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The game is the first high school football game since the pandemic began.
Herriman students cheer as the school’s football team plays Davis in Herriman on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The game is the first high school football game since the pandemic began.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

HERRIMAN — Mustang Stadium flickers to life around 6 p.m. It’s Thursday, Aug. 13, another day where almost everywhere else Americans are caught in the vortex of endless sameness that’s defined our existence since March. But tonight, before a home crowd capped at 25% capacity, the Herriman Mustangs are back, baby, and they’re ready to play some football.

It’s been one month and change since the Utah High School Activities Association green-lighted fall sports; one month and change for Herriman to plan for a game that could’ve been canceled at any moment, scrapped without notice should one player come down with a case of COVID-19. But no one did, so the first high school football game in pandemic America goes on amid national objections about the role of high school sports during this most unusual, hazardous time.

“This is above my pay grade,” Herriman athletic director Brad Tingey muttered to himself before the game.

Media workers connect wires and extension chords, while Herriman’s maroon-clad cheerleaders traverse the stands and fiddle through their bags by the home-team fence. The visiting Davis Darts, wearing white uniforms still undirtied by the stains of a new season, chip field goals and run routes north of the 50-yard line, while the Herriman Mustangs do the same toward the south. When warmups conclude, they retreat to their locker rooms while fans trickle in. Before long, hundreds pack the stands — half full.

“There’s a sense of community again,” says Kyle Jensen of Kaysville, who made the hourlong drive to see his cheerleader daughter, a Davis junior, roam the visitor’s sideline. “It’s what you think of when you think of small-town Utah.”

Herriman is indeed a good example of small-town, or rather, suburban Utah. Nestled in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley, this isn’t a school where fathers pass on their old letterman jackets to their legacy sons. The school has only existed since 2010. Herriman’s population has grown 50-fold this century, leading to a suburb where everything feels new and the same.

But the Mustangs are still a formidable program, with a sign on their scoreboard proudly proclaiming the school’s 2015 state title. And through the apartment subdivisions that surround the campus, at least two church steeples pop into view. It’s a new community, yes, but a proud one, and high school football channels a community’s pride like little else.

It’s this community spirit that animates fan after fan. They’re all here, they say, to feel something normal — which is to say, to feel anything outside of dread and grief. And what could be more normal than this? Whether you’re in Herriman or Miami or small-town Texas, the season’s first high school football game is always the place to be on Friday — or, in this case, Thursday — night. Especially when it’s the country’s first game of the season in a nation starved for “the background noise of American culture.”

“Are you ready for some football?” the announcer asks the crowd. “Woo,” comes a lackluster response.

“We can do better,” the announcer fires back in a moment every sports fan knows well. “ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALLLLLL?”

“WOOOOO,” the crowd roars, still sounding like less than a normal crowd, and just in time for one last reminder to stay masked and distant. “We appreciate all you’ve done,” the announcer continues, thanking organizers. “And these boys appreciate it.”

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith and his 11-year-old son ventured to a high school football game in South Carolina three days after the towers fell. He wrote of the power of high school sports to bind communities and our nation in times of crisis — an observation that permeates every corner of Mustang Stadium. But the obvious difference is that terrorism isn’t contagious. Coronavirus doesn’t care about people coming together, except insofar as their congregating encourages the spread.

Still, Smith wrote of how sports, in their purest form, allow viewers to pull a blanket over their heads and feel like a game really matters. In that post-9/11 game, he couldn’t pull that blanket all the way down. Some amount of light penetrated every part of the experience. Would a high school football game during a pandemic be any different? Would it be worse?

Those questions swirl in the air alongside the opening kickoff and, perhaps somewhere in the stadium, coronavirus spores.

That possibility seems like something from another lifetime when observing the stands. Herriman seniors embrace a Hawaiian theme, with two separate student sections packed tightly and shouting, their feet stomping the metal steps. Masks are required, and the eyeball test shows almost everyone seems to be complying. Perhaps that’s because folks here are really into social responsibility; perhaps it’s because the announcer implored them to keep masks on and stay in their assigned seats at least three times before the game even started.

The seats are another matter. Aside from at least appearing to be over the advertised 25%, there’s plenty of clustering on the home side — especially in the student section. The school forced spectators in through specified gates, and it issued each of them a wristband to combat potential fence-hopping. But there’s no denying demand was high.

“It’s pretty hard to get a ticket,” says Davis senior Sam Slatter, his quarantine-looking blond hair hidden under a backwards cap. “We were lucky enough to get one.” But many of his friends weren’t, which makes the whole experience feel … off. This, after all, is the beginning of the end of his high school experience. “It’s super weird,” he adds before exchanging a wink and a wave with a few passing cheerleaders. “We really don’t have a student section, so it’s weird.”

Among some other weirdness: The concession stand is an order window, a payment window, and a separate window for anyone wishing to purchase Mustangs merchandise, and the menu is limited to quickies like Oreos and bottled drinks.

The ushers, of which there are many, all wear face shields and encourage social distancing, although there’s some irony in them not staying socially distanced themselves. The 150-member Herriman marching band is sidelined, and not in a literal way; they’re nowhere to be found. And while the cheerleaders roam the sidelines and entertain fans, they do so masked (at least for the most part).

Still, the weirdness means little to Herriman senior Johnathan McElprang, clad in a pink dolphin skirt, a flower in his ear and a coconut bra atop his white T-shirt. “I’m really glad we’re able to do it,” he said, acknowledging that even next week’s game isn’t a given. “Because I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to do many things this year.”

After holding Davis to a three-and-out on its first drive, Herriman returns a punt 60 yards. The crowd erupts, showering the hometown squad in easily its loudest ovation of the young evening. The Mustangs score two plays later to take a 7-0 lead.

It doesn’t last.

The Darts clobber Herriman for the rest of the half, reeling off 21 unanswered points and carrying a 21-7 lead into the locker room. The crowd falls silent — until halftime. Herriman’s dance team serenades them to a pop mix, and with the Mustangs heading back out onto the field, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” blares from the speakers.

“We’ve waited all summer for this!” the announcer yells.

“C’mon!” he continues, his intensity rising with each pause in the song.

“Here we go!”

When the song finally reaches the chorus, the crowd bursts. “BUM BUM BUM.” Even though their team will go on to lose 24-20, for at least a moment, most Herriman fans — even Davis fans — are lost deep within their blankets. And when play resumes soon thereafter, somewhere in the stands, Ogden native Cory Maw will look for No. 22. His son Jake, he explained before the game, is “on the list of players to watch” tonight, his pride visible even through his mask. “It doesn’t bother me as much as it did when it first came out,” he added of the virus. “I think most people are being responsible about it.”

Still, he knows risk remains. The effects of this game — and the 50 across Utah that will follow it Friday, and the thousands to come across the country — won’t be known for weeks. And COVID-19, regardless of how much someone enjoys a football game, remains potentially deadly.

But unsure how long the crisis will rage, Maw and his fellow fans on this night don’t care. Their blankets might not be all the way down, but as the sun sets over the Oquirrh Mountains, they’re still lost in a pocket dimension where the only thing that really matters is Herriman football; where sports become more than background noise.

The Mustangs are back, baby, and pandemic or not, irresponsible or not, the folks here are going to enjoy it while they can.

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