Two Texas high school football coaches who had COVID-19 turn to preparations for season

Two Texas high school football coaches who had COVID-19 turn to preparations for season

Hermleigh High School football coach Heath Gibson said it hit him hard — the headache, the fever, the extremely sore throat. He just felt drained.

For Arp High School coach Dale Irwin, it was five days of full-body aches, a soreness and fatigue in every muscle and joint in his body.

The two coaches live in rural Texas towns hundreds of miles apart, leading teams of different sizes, in different divisions, on opposite sides of the state. But they were scheduled to arrive at the first day of practice Monday with a similar understanding of what's at stake this fall.

"When you’ve had (COVID-19)," Gibson said, "it really changes your perspective on it."

As high school football returns to Texas this week, Gibson and Irwin are among a handful of coaches in the state who will return to the sidelines after surviving COVID-19, which has infected more than 4.6 million Americans to date and left more than 154,000 dead. 

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Gibson, 44, tested positive for the disease after returning from a beach vacation, along with his wife and the eldest of their three children. Irwin, 51, isn't sure how he got it — and grateful his family did not. Now, they will try to help their teams navigate the risks of COVID-19 during the upcoming football season, while knowing better than most what the disease can do.

"It really makes you put things in perspective, what’s important," said Gibson, who coaches Hermleigh’s six-man football team. "Yeah, Texas football is king. But I think that, as much as I love that, you have got to make sure that’s secondary to the health and wellness of your athletes."

An undated photo of Hermleigh (Texas) football coah Heath Gibson. (Photo: Courtesy of Heath Gibson)

Experts say football is among the riskiest sports to play during the pandemic, given the close, frequent contact it requires. Yet in many of the southern states that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, including Texas, it is a way of life — with the start of football season symbolizing a crucial step back to normalcy.

"We’re all so excited just because we’re going to have a chance," said Irwin, who has spent 28 years as a coach. "My thinking is let’s take this chance, and let’s do the best job we can."

'You feel like total crap'

At first, Irwin just thought he was a little too hot. He had some pain in his back but chalked it up to age. He will turn 52 this week, "so I’m not as spry as I used to be," he said.

But when his son wanted to visit Irwin's parents, who are in their 70s, the coach considered the possibility that he might have COVID-19. He spent four hours one Sunday getting tested, and the results came back positive.

"You know how (with the flu) your body just aches, and you have a fever, and you feel like total crap?" Irwin said. "Well you feel like that, but it’s worse."

Irwin said he quarantined in the rear portion of his house for 14 days. His wife and son never had symptoms. In fact, he said he doesn't know anybody else in Arp — a town of 970 people just east of Tyler — who’s had the virus. (According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the town's county has seen only 0.5% of the reported coronavirus cases in Texas.)

Irwin said he feels largely back to normal now, and that his fight with COVID-19 didn't change his belief that it is safe to go ahead with the upcoming football season — though it did alter how he views the disease itself.

"I know there’s some things I probably should’ve done a little bit better when I stepped out of this house," Irwin said. "And that’s what we’re preaching to these kids: If you want to play a season, if you want to have football season and not be suspended like we were in the spring, then you’ll follow all the guidelines."

The University Interscholastic League, which oversees sports at public high schools in Texas, has released COVID-19 guidelines for its members, while also pushing the start of fall sports to September for larger schools in metropolitan areas.

Arp High School football coach Dale Irwin. (Photo: Courtesy of Dale Irwin)

UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt said in a statement that there will “likely be interruptions that will require flexibility and patience” in the coming months, but that the organization's guidelines will "provide a path forward for Texas students and schools." The Texas Education Agency has also released recommended countermeasures for COVID-19.

At Arp, Irwin said their plan incorporates those statewide guidelines and local health measures. For example, they'll only allow a portion of the team to be in the locker room at any given time, staggered by grade. Joint lockers have been separated to form individual stalls. Practices will feature masks and social distancing, and Irwin said players will have their temperatures checked daily. 

While the implementation and enforcement of these guidelines will ultimately fall on Irwin and his staff, the coach said he doesn't feel any more pressure than he has in previous years. The local community is very supportive of football, he said. They want to get back to normal.

"If we follow the guidelines, I think we’re going to be OK," Irwin said. "I really do."

'How are we going to do that?'

Gibson said he and his family felt fine as they drove home after a beach vacation along the Gulf of Mexico early last month. They had worn masks, avoided crowds and taken the risks of COVID-19 seriously. They thought they did everything right.

Two days later, though, Gibson's wife Elaine tested positive for COVID-19. She later told her husband that she went to sleep that night feeling so ill that she feared she wouldn’t wake up the next morning.

Within a week, Gibson and their 13-year-old son — who played quarterback on his junior high football team last year — had also tested positive. Gibson said their worst symptoms lasted between one and four days, but some of the residual effects are still there now, even more than three weeks later.

"I still feel (lethargic) a little bit," Gibson said. "I don’t feel right. I don’t feel like my body’s right."

After a 20-day quarantine, though, Gibson said he was ready (and cleared by doctors) to return to work at the high school — where, in addition to teaching and coaching football, he's also the softball coach, athletic director and director of technology.

Hermleigh is a rural outpost roughly 100 miles southeast of Lubbock, with about 400 residents. The high school has 69 students, roughly 20 of whom Gibson expects will go out for the football team — one of dozens across the state that compete in a modified version of the sport with six players instead of the usual 11.

Those small numbers are among the primary reasons that Gibson said he feels comfortable going ahead with the football season, despite his family's experience with COVID-19. Though he admits he still has concerns.

"You look at what’s going on with the Miami Marlins," he said. "They’ve got the greatest doctors, the greatest protocols, the most money to do things how they need to do it. They’ve got nine guys separated on a field, and they have (18) people on their roster that have COVID. So how are we going to do that?"

Gibson said he's poured over recommendations from the CDC, TEA, UIL and local county officials — some of which contradict one another, he said. He wonders if opposing schools will be as careful as they have been, when they play games on the road. He wonders what would happen if even one player or coach on his team got sick. Every "what if" scenario prompts another.

Hermleigh purchased gaiters for its players, Gibson said, so everyone will have a face covering between plays and drills. Every player and coach will have their own water bottle. They're trying to follow every guideline and cover every base. He hopes they'll be able to finish the season, but he's honestly not sure.

"If they say 'you can do it,' we’re going to do it," Gibson said. We’ve just got to do it right. And that’s the hard part."

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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