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I went to LA to cover football, but in true 2020 style, I saw the airport instead

Here’s how these peripatetic, and sometimes pathetic, 24 hours went as Utah’s game against UCLA was canceled.

The LAX Gateway Kinetic Light Pylons are seen lit up in blue near Los Angeles International Airport, Friday, April 10, 2020, in Los Angeles. For Deseret News Utah football beat writer Jeff Call, a flight from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, turned into a quick flight back to Salt Lake City after the Utes’ game against UCLA was canceled.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY/LOS ANGELES/SALT LAKE CITY — Fresh off my flight, I’m standing outside the baggage claim at LAX early Friday afternoon, desperately trying to explain my plight.

“I’ve landed here in Los Angeles to cover the Utah-UCLA football game,” I stammered, “but I just found out that the game’s been canceled. I need to cancel my hotel reservation.”

The woman from the hotel on the other end of the phone didn’t comprehend, and she lacked any sort of empathy.

“Reservation for what day?”

“Today,” I said. “Friday.” It then dawns on me that it’s Friday the 13th. Figures.

“If you cancel, you’ll be charged the full amount because it’s after our 24-hour cancellation policy,” the woman said.

Worried that the Deseret News would be on the hook for an unused hotel room, I spoke in the universal language of the global pandemic.

“The game was canceled because of COVID-19,” I said.

“Oh, for COVID-19 reasons?” the woman responded, her demeanor brightening. “We may be able to help you.”

Someday, someone might ask me what was it like covering college sports during a pandemic.

I’ll tell them about the NCAA Tournament being canceled just days before Selection Sunday last March, followed by months and months of no sports at all.

I’ll tell them this was my first flight since the pandemic started. My last one, before the pandemic, was also to Los Angeles for a BYU basketball game at Pepperdine last February. But it seems like that happened decades ago.

I’ll tell them that in the first two weeks since I was assigned to cover Utah football, the Utes’ first two games of the season — in November — were canceled.

I’ll tell them about Friday’s fruitless trip to SoCal. I was wondering what it would be like to be at my first Pac-12 football game and cover it in an empty, fan-less 98,000-seat Rose Bowl. Not anymore. As a sports writer once wrote: “Now UCLA, now you don’t.”

All week I feared this scenario. Knowing that last weekend’s Utah-Arizona game was canceled Friday afternoon the prior week, I realized if that similar timing struck again, I’d be in Los Angeles with no game to cover.

I felt like the Griswold family showing up at Wally World, only to find out that it’s closed.

Fortunately, I didn’t react the same way Chevy Chase did to that disheartening news, but I was feeling a little frustrated — and a little disillusioned about the future prospects of the 2020 Pac-12 football season. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a player or a coach of a team going through cancellations. Four Pac-12 games have been canceled by COVID so far. I don’t like this cancel culture.

Early Friday morning, I woke up, took my son to school, then filed my Utah-UCLA advance story. It was the start of an odd odyssey, the latest chapter of covering sports during a pandemic.

But, please, don’t feel sorry for me. That’s not my intention here. I had to write something to justify my flight to LA, right?

On Thursday, Utah set a new record for daily positive coronavirus cases, with the grim total reaching nearly 4,000. Everybody’s wearing masks, socially distancing themselves, marinating their hands in sanitizer. We’re receiving instructions about how to safely hold Thanksgiving get-togethers. And we’re trying to play sports. With emphasis on trying.

Then came freaky Friday. Here’s how these peripatetic, and sometimes pathetic, 24 hours went:

6 p.m., Thursday: I, along with about 30 others planning to cover the Utah-UCLA game, participate in a 30-minute Zoom meeting with UCLA officials, who give detailed instructions about the protocols to be allowed into the Rose Bowl. But it might as well be the Pentagon. I take copious notes.

I make a note of the warning that I need to dress warmly, and to bring a jacket, because the press box windows at the Rose Bowl will be open Saturday night. Then I remember I’m from Utah and I look up the weather. The low temperature in LA Saturday is 53 degrees. The high temperature forecast Saturday in Salt Lake City is 39 degrees.

I’m ready to arrive early at the stadium and go through the gauntlet to the press box.

10:44 a.m. MST, Friday: As I wait at the gate at the gleaming, rebuilt Salt Lake City International Airport, ready to board my flight to Los Angeles, I read an ominous tweet from Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford: “Exposed to COVID19. 8 days of testing. 20 plus negative tests later. LA county still doesn’t want me playing. Disappointment and frustration are both understatements for the way I feel. When it’s finally my time to step back on the field... feel bad for whoever I’m going against.”

Uh oh.

12:01 p.m. PST: I gaze out the window at the cloudless sky and bright sunshine as the plane makes its final descent. Ideal football weather.

12:11 p.m. PST: As I check my phone while we’re landing, the first thing I see is a two-word text from Deseret News sports editor Kent Condon: “Game canceled.”

My first thought is, “Can I just stay on the plane and go back home?”

I can’t say this cancellation came as a surprise. We all knew this was a possibility all week. But the reality of it hits me as I disembark the plane. I think about those Utah players who are experiencing their season opener being canceled — again.

For the second straight week, I spend considerable time writing my game advances, only to see them become obsolete not long after I file them.

12:33 p.m. PST: I trek to baggage claim and pick up my black duffel bag. After a quick conversation with Kent, I begin the process of re-booking my flight back to Salt Lake City.

12:55 p.m. PST: I find out that Utah athletic director Mark Harlan is scheduled to conduct a Zoom news conference in 35 minutes.

1:12 p.m. PST: My flight has been rescheduled for 5 p.m., with a minimal change fee.

Then there’s my conversation with the woman handling my hotel cancellation. After waiting on hold a few times, I’m notified that my reservation has been canceled and I won’t be charged.

That’s good news. But so much for going to bed with a mint on my pillow.

1:48 p.m. PST: I’ve missed Harlan’s press conference. Others at the Deseret News cover it for me. I sit down in a corner on the mezzanine level of Terminal 2 at LAX. I soon discover that none of the power outlets in the area are working.

From trying to find an empty seat to work at to being “momentarily mesmerized” by some Los Angeles Dodgers memorabilia, Deseret News sports journalist Jeff Call had an eventful few hours Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, after finding out the Utah-UCLA game was canceled. That meant filing a story and finding a quick way back home, all while canceling reservations.
Jeff Call, Deseret News

1:51 p.m. PST: I’m wandering around LAX like a vagabond, searching for an empty seat and a power outlet that works so I can get some work done.

But I am momentarily mesmerized after being drawn into a gift shop filled with Los Angeles Dodgers gear, commemorating the recent World Series title of the team I’ve cheered for since I was 8 years old.

Do you think that the Deseret News would allow me to expense a $35 Dodgers T-shirt?

Neither do I.

1:56 p.m. PST: I find a power outlet and open my laptop. I check Twitter for updates on Harlan’s news conference.

“Obviously a terribly disappointing day here at the University of Utah,” Harlan says, adding that he “does not foresee” Utah’s season being canceled. He adds that there have been no conversations with the Pac-12 or upcoming opponents about changing future home games.

USC is scheduled to play at Rice-Eccles Stadium next Saturday. The clock is ticking.

2:18 p.m. PST: While I’m writing, I see people boarding a flight to Honolulu. I’m tempted to change my flight again.

2:31 p.m. PST: I see the report that instead of playing Utah on Saturday, UCLA is playing Cal on Sunday at 9 a.m. PST.

Wait, I’ve been told it takes years to schedule a college football game.

2:36 p.m. PST: I begin writing with the smell of a nearby Jersey Mike’s Subs wafting in the air. Lunch, and dinner, will have to wait.

4:56 p.m. PST: I settle into my seat for the return flight of my shortest road trip ever.

The sun sets on what was a busy day for Deseret News sports journalist Jeff Call, after Utah’s game against UCLA getting canceled meant a quick flight back to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.
Jeff Call, Deseret News

8:01 p.m. MST: My flight lands at Salt Lake City International Airport.

8:19 p.m. MST: I realize that my bag didn’t show up. (No, I’m not making this up).

8:35 p.m. MST: Well, the airline doesn’t lose my bag after all. It finally shows up on carousel 8. I leave the airport and start my drive home in the cold November rain.

At least next week’s game is in Salt Lake City and I won’t have to worry about juggling flights and hotel reservations, no matter what happens. But I’m really hoping I’ll be able to cover my first Pac-12 game next Saturday — Utah vs. USC.

As I drive home, I’m thinking about laying my head down to go to sleep at the end of this long, surreal day. I doubt anybody has put a mint on my pillow.