In Florida, football forges on

Wildwood defensive line coach Brian Haugabrook wears a mask while directing team conditioning and drills.

At the heart of coaching lies the ability to change plans on the fly.

“You come in at halftime and a team’s been giving you something you haven’t practiced all week on,” said Richard Pettus, the only football coach The Villages High School has ever known. “You make an adjustment.

“If you’ve been coaching for any time, that’s what we do as coaches.”

In nearly three decades on the sideline, though, there’s little that could have prepared Pettus for the adjustments required in 2020.

Dressing out in shifts. Players in charge of their own water bottles. The constant sanitizing of equipment. And face masks — not the bars on the front of VHS’ green-and-gold helmets, but cloth coverings anyplace except the playing field.

“Can you imagine being on a sports team, inside (your) sport, having to wear a mask?” Pettus said. “Obviously, it’s just unusual times.”

Call it the price of having football this fall in the Sunshine State, one of the sport’s biggest hotbeds.

The promising news: Football is in the air.

So is COVID-19, unfortunately, making this a cautious proposition from the outset. One flare-up and a team’s season could be jettisoned quickly. But unlike many other locales across the country, fans of the game at all levels in Florida can have their fill — even if it’ll be more difficult to partake in person.

VHS and Wildwood Middle High School will play seven- and eight-game schedules, respectively, in 2020, scrambling to fill openings caused by some of their foes starting later or restricting games to in-county opponents.

“It’s something everybody looks forward to, like Christmas,” said Wildwood quarterback Nate Mikell. “Who doesn’t want to watch their home city play football?”

Florida’s college season kicks off Thursday night when Miami welcomes UAB to town, with a limited number of spectators scattered around Hard Rock Stadium. Florida State and South Florida follow two days later.

If you’re a Florida Gators fan, be patient. The SEC schedule doesn’t start until Sept. 26.

The NFL rounds out Opening Week next Sunday as the Dolphins, Buccaneers and Jaguars kick off, though only the Jaguars begin at home. Tom Brady, who picked Tampa to write his final chapter after six Super Bowl titles in New England, will make his Bucs debut in front of 74,295 empty seats in New Orleans.

In fact, it could be October before Brady plays in front of any fans. The Bucs announced this past week that their first two home games also will be spectator-free.

“I hate it for the fans,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians told reporters when the move was announced. “You can feel the excitement around town, and for them to not load the stadium up and go crazy, it’s a shame. But it is what it is.”

It is a strange season, one that in many places wasn’t assured until mid-August as college conferences and high school associations — even Pop Warner youth leagues — wrestled with whether to play at all this fall.

“I think it was on and off the whole time,” said Josh Petro, co-director of the Buffalo Stampeders Pop Warner program. “But I would say for the majority of our families, the atmosphere has been, ‘Let’s play.’”

With precautions and protocols, of course.

“We’re trying to educate (the kids) and keep them mindful of it,” Pettus said. “Do you want to have a season? You’ve got to stay safe. Be smart. Make good decisions every day.”

Youth Football

The Stampeders already faced big changes even before factoring in the virus. The organization was in the process of moving from the Indian River Youth Football league to Mid-Florida Pop Warner — the largest division in the granddaddy of youth football programs.

“There is a rule for everything,” quipped Todd Marion, who shares the directorship role with Petro and is an assistant on Pettus’ staff.

“We didn’t know anything like that last season. There were checks and balances, but nowhere near the amount of things we’ve had to do to get these (kids) ready to go for this season.”

Virus protocols are no exception. Temperatures are taken upon arrival at the Tatonka Field gate near the Buffalo Glen Softball Complex. Kids then proceed to a hand-washing station, which they visit again on the way out.

Drills are kept within a nine-minute time frame, with teams split into smaller groups as they train. Every piece of equipment is sprayed or wiped down after practice. Coaches enforce social distancing.

The same goes for cheerleading, which was brought into the program as part of the transition.

“Some of our athletes, the first thing they want to do when they get here, they want to hug and all that sort of thing,” Marion said. “We love that, but we have to tell them, ‘Just give them air hugs.’”

Said Petro: “Our coaches have been awesome with cleaning the equipment and keeping these kids moving. And making sure that while these kids are out here and following all the regulations, they’re still having fun. Ultimately, a 6-year-old kid isn’t coming out here if it’s not fun.”

Though the Stampeders did lose a handful of participants, Petro noted it wasn’t out of line with a normal offseason. They also gained new additions, with 90 kids registered for football across four age groups and 45 for cheer.

“We have kids coming from other programs saying they now want to stay here,” said Petro, who also coaches The Villages Charter Middle School squad.

Formal workouts began last Monday, pointing toward a Sept. 26 opener. The later start will allow players to knock off some of the rust that accumulated in a downshifted summer.

“Our coaches were the first ones to notice it,” Petro said. “Two or three months doesn’t sound like that long, but when you’re just sitting inside –—you can’t go out, you can’t do the things that you’ve been doing — it hurts you way more than you can feel.”

Both directors also were quick to give credit to The Villages Youth Sports and director Colt McDowell for their unwavering support.

“From the very first day, he said, ‘I want you to prepare as if we’re having a season until the moment that we know we’re not,” Petro said. “They’ve been so committed to these kids being out here and playing.”

High Schools

For VHS running back Corey Goldwire, a usual summer of going to camps and showcasing himself to college recruiters was replaced by working out close to home. And waiting.

“At first I was just wondering if we were going to have a season,” said Goldwire, a senior. “I’ll admit there were times it felt like we were practicing for nothing.”

After three meetings on the matter and a delay to the season, the Florida High School Athletic Association executive board authorized practice to start Aug. 24, unless districts opted to delay further on their own.

Vince Brown Sr., in his first year guiding the Wildwood program, could discern a certain malaise as well.

“When you have a set date, that’s one thing,” Brown said. “When you have to tell them, ‘We’re working until we hear the word,’ that’s another thing.

“I told them I never thought that they would push back football,” he added, “but I really didn’t know. The best thing for us to do was for us to prepare like we were going to play in August. That’s what we did. Now that we have a date, the intensity level has really stepped up.”

The Wildcats got their first taste on Friday, when they faced South Sumter in a preseason kickoff classic. VHS heads straight into its regular season next Friday at home against Crescent City.

Once he knew a season was on, Goldwire said, “it changed the way I did everything.”

Ask Pettus what he misses most under the new protocols, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“You don’t have that locker room bonding and chemistry right now,” he said.

The locker room is a team’s social center, a place where players can hang with their teammates before and after practices. Bonds created on the practice field can be strengthened without pounding on each other.

It’s far more businesslike now. The VHS locker room is restricted to nine players at a time, with an assistant coach keeping watch on the clock. Players wait outside until their group is called.

“It takes a little bit longer to get on the practice field,” Pettus said, “and it takes a little longer to get off the practice field.”

Likewise, an infrared thermometer rests next to the keyboard on Brown’s desk, as much a part of the Wildcats’ practice routine as balls, cones, whistles and blocking pads.

“It’s not easy taking players through the questionnaire every day — are you coughing, do you have a runny nose, do you have a sore throat?” Brown said. “Just a lot of things that I never in a million years thought would have affected the game of football.”

Water, for instance. In years past, teams would set up their own watering stations, or trainers would administer those squirt bottles. Now every player is responsible for his own water supply.

“Now you’ve got to depend on players to remember their bottle,” Brown said, “and what happens if they don’t have a bottle?”

Said Pettus: “It’s a small thing, but it’s obviously very important.”

Scheduling also became a scramble, replacing games no longer available. For both schools, Marion County’s decision to limit its teams to in-county opponents created a headache. Citrus and Hernando schools couldn’t go beyond their own two-county border.

“You call (potential replacements) up — ‘Aw, coach, we just booked.’ Or, ‘Coach, we have our games set,’” Brown said. “You end up taking what comes.”

VHS was able to pick up three opponents from Lake County, including a first-ever meeting against Leesburg.

“Having to go through this in August is a huge task,” Pettus said.

The Buffalo coach also made the decision to designate Friday night’s opener as Senior Night. Just in case.

“I don’t want our seniors to go through what our spring sports went through,” he said. “They didn’t get to have their senior nights. We barely got to have a graduation. What if we play two games and get shut down? That’s what concerns me.”

College Football

August typically finds Pat Grogan pulling out her Seminole costume well in anticipation of Florida State’s opening game. Though she’s no less loyal to garnet and gold this fall, she admits this summer’s college turbulence has inhibited things a bit.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Pat Grogan, president of FSU Friends Club in The Villages. “But I don’t know exactly what I’m looking forward to.”

No segment of the game has appeared more chaotic than the college sector, where even a few of the sport’s most high-profile programs are sitting this fall out. Maybe.

The Big Ten first announced it wouldn’t play in the fall, but now reportedly is looking into an October start that would keep Ohio State and Penn State eligible for the College Football Playoff. Stay tuned.

No such worries in Florida, where all seven FBS-level programs are in conferences that have green-lighted a fall season — albeit without the packed venues that typically mark a home Saturday at The Swamp, The Doak and The Bounce House.

UF, FSU and UCF have announced limited seating for fans, as has Miami. That’ll apply to USF, too, though not at next Saturday’s opener against The Citadel. Florida Atlantic and Florida International have yet to indicate plans.

Anyway, there’s always the TV option.

“If we can at least see the guys play and they can stay healthy all year, fantastic,” said Scot Shipic, president of The Villages Gator Club.

Said Harlan Thrailkill, founder of The Villages UCF Alumni & Fans Club: “Football in the South — what do you do other than football in the fall?”

That was a too-real possibility in the summer, as colleges worked on plans to create some sort of athletic bubble along the lines currently used by the NBA at Disney and the NHL in two Canadian cities.

“We have done everything we think we can do to make this a safe environment,” FSU president John Thrasher said at a Tallahassee roundtable last month put on by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Our coaches want to coach and our players want to play. It’s up to us to make sure the environment’s safe, and we think we’ve done that.”

Other leagues haven’t been so confident. The Big Ten was the first “Power Five” league to cancel, followed in short order by the Pac-12. The ACC differed, with Duke’s chief of infectious diseases out in front. The SEC likewise held firm.

As with other places, FSU players are temperature checked and must answer a set of questions as they enter the athletic facilities. They must wear masks in the building, stay properly distanced in meetings and keep separated from other athletic department staff.

“I don’t know where it would be safer,” said defensive end Josh Kaindoh, who redshirted last year after a September ankle injury. “It’s accountability. We have all these protocols in place and we trust in our teammates to be accountable and take care of business. I think that’s really our best bet.”

At USF, where former VHS standout Mac Harris is a freshman, football players are separated from the rest of campus life. Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer wears a clear face shield in practice. So does new FSU coach Mike Norvell.

Limitations on gatherings will take a huge bite out of watch parties locally. The Crimson Tide Club, for instance, typically draws more than 40 fans to watch Alabama on Saturdays at Gator’s Dockside in Brownwood Paddock Square.

This season, said outgoing club president John Gafford, the club will be limited to one 10-person table. As will all the other clubs who typically watch games at the eatery. “I don’t know that we can gather anywhere,” Gafford said.

On occasion, Shipic said, the Gator Club would reserve a large room for viewing at one of The Villages’ recreation centers. “If we need to space 10 feet apart, fine,” he said, “but I can see why nobody wants to take that chance.”

Thrailkill said he’s considering setting up a big-screen TV in his garage and having his UCF clubmates drop by for driveway viewing. It helps that most of the Knights’ games are set for evening kickoffs.

“That way we’re outside. We can spread out and stuff like that,” said Thrailkill. “That’ll make it a little more workable, assuming the weather’s nice and it’s not 93 degrees.”

NFL

For all the changes the NFL has made in responding to the virus – no minicamps, no preseason games, training camps at home facilities – there’s one thing that’s remained intact.

Chiefs vs. Texans, Thursday night. And every other game on the Week 1 schedule.

Like the NBA and NHL playoffs, though, the league will be pretty much a made-for-TV enterprise at least through the month of September. Just five of the league’s 32 teams are making plans for limited attendance at this point.

That said, two of them are in Florida. The Miami Dolphins will accommodate up to 13,000 fans at Hard Rock Stadium when they play their home opener in two weeks. The Jacksonville Jaguars set their limit around 16,700.

They join the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in cracking open their gates. Others may join as the time passes.

“I believe that will continue to grow as the season goes on,” commissioner Roger Goodell told CNBC last week. “I think people want to get comfortable – not only our fans but also the local officials. And we support that. We want to take a cautious approach, a responsible approach.”

The Dolphins, in fact, may become a model for the rest of the league to follow.

Eyebrows were raised when the club announced it would allow fans to gather in a locale that has been a virus hotspot all summer. What folks may not realize is Hard Rock Stadium was the first sports facility in the world to earn Star certification from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.

The council launched the ratings in March as a way to certify that a place has been cleaned, disinfected and treated for infectious disease prevention at the highest level possible.

“I’m confident in the environment that we’ve created, that it’s possible to keep people safe,” club president Tom Garfinkel told Sports Illustrated. “We need (fans) to be respectful of these protocols. And if you are, we can create a safe environment. But it’s up to you.”

Hard Rock Stadium, by the way, is set to crown the College Football Playoff’s next champion in January. The Super Bowl also will be a Florida affair, four weeks later at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.

For September, though, the only NFL ticket in most markets is NFL Sunday Ticket. That includes brand-new stadiums in Los Angeles (Rams/Chargers) and Las Vegas (Raiders). And in Tampa, which created the biggest splash of the offseason when Brady traded his Patriots colors for pewter.

Goodell said the NFL is in the process of finalizing guidelines to lift its ban on artificial crowd noise in 2020. Several teams have been practicing with piped-in noise this summer, not unlike a typical year in anticipation of road trips to boisterous rivals.

“They practice in that stuff all the time, so it just gives you a migraine,” said Arians, the Bucs coach. “It’s different than fans. You can’t feel the noise. You can feel fans.”

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.