When Madison County senior baseball player Colby Smith and his teammates initially heard about coronavirus, it didn’t set off many alarms.
“We didn’t really think of it as that big of a deal,” Smith said. “We thought of it as another flu or something like that.”
Those thoughts weren’t unlike those of many others.
But with the novel coronavirus now spreading rapidly worldwide and within the U.S. — infecting over 35,000 Americans (as of Monday) — it’s altered everyday life throughout the nation. That’s included the suspension of sports at all levels, and public events, in an attempt to help slow the spread of the highly-contagious virus.
For some high school athletes, it’s been a jarring change.
“It turned into this big epidemic, and we kind of just got hit in the mouth by it,” Smith said. “We weren’t really ready for it. I feel like it’s really starting to set in on all of us seniors.”
Madison County’s baseball team has been shut down for two weeks now. Other spring sports teams have been idle for about as long, too. It remains uncertain if students will return to classes or if sports ever resume this year.
For athletes who are accustomed to daily practices and clock-work schedules, the shutdown is unfamiliar territory. Smith said adjusting to days without that structure has “definitely really tough.”
“Going from having a routine everyday — school, practice, come home and get your work done and all that,” he said. “It’s kind of tough to stray from that, and being a senior as well.”
And the on-going crisis could very well spell the end of the careers of Madison County’s seniors.
“For that to be kind of just taken out of nowhere, it’s just crazy,” Smith said.
‘A VERY, VERY
Madison County athletic director Mike Haynes said the decision to suspend the spring sports season was a tough but unavoidable call in the face of a historic public health crisis.
Young, strong athletes aren’t as likely affected by the virus, but grandparents and great grandparents attending their games are — to a much more serious extent.
“Nobody likes to be cancelled, especially for the kids that are seniors,” Haynes said. “Losing their opportunities, it breaks everybody’s heart. Nobody likes this.
“But by the same token, we have to understand that we’re in a very, very serious situation where literally lives are at stake.”
Still, with athletics being part of a wide-range of collateral damage from the virus, Haynes is saddened that sports are missing from athletes’ lives. He believes athletics positively impact youth daily. Now, that’s not happening.
“We don’t want to lose those opportunities to positively impact young people but unfortunately, in this situation, we have to …,” Haynes said. “Our deepest desire is that something great comes up and we’re able to get back and have some kind of new normal. We don’t know exactly what that might be.”
Though spring season appears to be much in doubt, Madison County and other schools will be on-the-ready should a major turnaround occur and sports resume.
Haynes, speaking on Thursday (March 19), said the athletic directors of Region 8-AAA have been in contact since previous week discussing possible contingency plans should spring athletics return. A “super-high” priority would be placed on playing “some kind of limited region schedule,” according to Haynes.
“We would love to be able to do that … That means we’ve found a way out of this thing,” Haynes said.
Haynes expects to hear an announcement from the GHSA around the end of the month over the fate of the athletic season.
“Right now, we’re in territory that nobody’s ever been through before,” Haynes said.
SAFETY, SENIOR ATHLETES AND AN UNPRECEDENTED
Coach Chris Smith likely stands to lose his spring football season, but that’s not his chief concern.
“First and foremost, for me, I want to make sure our kids are safe and make sure we do the right thing by them,” the Red Raider head coach said.
At the same, he feels for all the spring sports athletes, especially the seniors, who will likely lose their seasons to this outbreak. Smith, himself, is the father of a senior spring sports athlete. Colby Smith is his son.
“So, for them to more than likely miss their senior year, for them, that’s a big deal,” Smith said. “I get to see it from both sides, as a coach and as a father.”
As for Smith’s football team, the spring practice session was set to be a big one. The Red Raiders enjoyed a historic playoff run to the quarterfinals this past fall, but they were also set to begin the search for a new quarterback, center and middle linebacker and multiple defensive backs.
Now, that evaluation process, in all likelihood, won’t start until at least the summer with the coronavirus shutdown.
“This is something that no coach on our staff, and I don’t know that another coach in the state or the country has ever dealt with anything like this,” Smith said.
The coach doesn’t simply see the spring sports season returning. He points to measures already taken by the NCAA and the NBA to scrap their seasons. He expects the GHSA to follow suit and eventually cancel the rest of the spring sports calendar.
“It doesn’t look very good for high school athletics to come back in and take this thing lightly and say, ‘OK, we’re going to play,’” he said.
Smith also wonders what will come of summer practices, pointing out that recommendations against gatherings of a certain size may last for a while.
“Well now what do you do? How far does the GHSA push this dead period?” he said.
Smith added, “We’re going to do what we’re told do … I’m not going to jeopardize a player or a coach’s health for a game that I love, but ultimately in the big scheme of things is a game.”
Smith said coaches will adjust and move on in all of this. He worries more about the athletes.
“For a lot of these kids, sports is their life,” Smith said. “It’s their livelihood. When you take that away from them, a lot of them don’t know how to cope.”
He’s also worried that the younger generation isn’t taking this pandemic seriously enough.
“I know that we’re out of school and practicing social distancing from the school setting, but a lot of these kids aren’t practicing social distancing because they think this is time off and they’re running and doing whatever, which increases the risk of spreading this disease.”
‘STILL KIND OF SHOCKED’
Colby Smith and his baseball teammates felt this season held promise.
They were looking forward to the start of region play, which they hoped would lead to a favorable state playoff seeding and perhaps a deep push into the state tournament. Instead, they might have played their last game.
“I felt like, depending on what seed we got, would have a shot of making a little run there in the playoffs — kind of like we did in football,” Smith said.
“Everybody is still kind of shocked,” Smith added. “We never really expected this to happen.”
Smith, who has a football scholarship to Presbyterian awaiting him, said his days in this shutdown consist of online school work in the morning and working out after that.
While more days of competition lies ahead for Smith, the baseball season was the final time his senior teammates who aren’t playing college sports would compete in anything.
Those are the ones the shutdown impacts the most, he said.
“Because they thought they were going to have the rest of their senior season to play the game they love,” Smith said.
But disappointment doesn’t translate into not understanding the gravity of the situation. Smith said he and his teammates know why they’ve been sidelined indefinitely.
“They definitely understand why all this is happening, why we’re going into such great precautions about it,” Smith said. “I know that doesn’t make it any easier, but they do understand.”
HOPING FOR A ‘SOME KIND OF LITTLE MIRACLE’
Though the return of spring athletic appears bleak, Haynes said that “sports people” are intrinsically optimistic. So, he’s still holding out hope in the face of so much bad news.
“We’re all sitting here hoping for some kind of little miracle,” Haynes said.
He finds himself scouring for any encouraging news item in the fight against coronavirus. He points to possible drug treatments being researched and speculation that the onset of warmer, humid weather may diminish the transmission of coronavirus as potential positives.
Haynes also admits he might just be grasping at straws.
“I used to have to go play football against Buford,” said Haynes, a former defensive coordinator at Madison County. “I’m good at grabbing against straws. Maybe there’s a chance.”
Meanwhile, Colby Smith said he and his teammates aren’t in control of what happens next.
“God is,” Smith said. “And if it’s his will to let us play baseball again that’s great, and if not, then there’s a bigger plan ahead for us.”