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Students scrambling across state lines to play high school football during the pandemic

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                                Mario Sanchez catches a ball during practice in Olathe, Kan., on Aug. 28.


    Mario Sanchez catches a ball during practice in Olathe, Kan., on Aug. 28.

Mario Sanchez thought his only option was to leave.

COVID-19 had claimed the life of his grandfather. It led his father, who tested positive for the coronavirus last month, to isolate for 14 days in the basement of the family home in Olathe, Kansas. And it ended Sanchez’s dream of winning a state championship with his lifelong friends at Olathe North High School, after its football program was suspended amid high rates of coronavirus infections in the area.

So on Sunday, just two days after attending his grandfather’s funeral, Sanchez and his mother, Noemi Jurado, packed up their Honda Crosstour and drove from their home in a suburb of Kansas City to Norman, Oklahoma.

A slot receiver and defensive back, Sanchez plans to play his senior year at Norman High School, about 350 miles from where he grew up. He is among a handful of players from Olathe North to cross state lines to enroll at a different high school, an interstate football migration fueled by young athletes attempting to outrun the coronavirus and preserve their athletic dreams.

“It really wasn’t a hard process,” Sanchez said in a telephone interview before leaving home. “I want to play football in college. I’m looking around, and we are in the red zone in Kansas. I don’t want to risk my future by staying here without playing.”

The coronavirus pandemic has had an uneven impact on high school football across the United States, causing havoc in some regions while schools in other areas have made modifications and forged ahead, almost as normal.

Teams in Utah, Alabama, Texas and other states have already played their first games of the season. In Minnesota, six players on the Lewiston-Altura High School varsity tested positive for the virus before the state shifted football to the spring. In DeKalb County, Indiana, an entire team waits in quarantine after one player tested positive, and in Kings Mills, Ohio, Kings High School had its first game canceled after a player tested positive.

No state has canceled its entire football season — or any sport — for the 2020-21 academic year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, but 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, have rescheduled football for the spring or winter instead of its traditional schedule in the fall.

Other states, like Kansas, where high school football is embedded in the cultural fabric of the region, are caught in the middle, where uncertainty reigns.

Several Kansas school districts have ordered their football programs off the field, while teams from neighboring towns play on. Last week, the Kansas State High Schools Activities Association voted to allow schools to move their seasons to the spring, but that brought another set of complications, especially for multisport athletes or schools with limited fields and facilities.

“It’s all over the map,” Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the national federation, which offers nonbinding guidelines to state athletic associations, said recently in an interview. “For many programs that have re-engaged, there has been more of a successful experience than an unsuccessful experience. But we are paying close attention to the feedback over the next week or two.”

In some Kansas school districts, teams are allowed to practice as long as the rate of virus infections in their county stays below a certain level. Olathe North, considered a top contender to win the state title before the pandemic hit, sits in Johnson County, a largely affluent collection of suburbs across the state border from Kansas City, Missouri. About 11% of coronavirus tests in the county have been positive over the last two weeks.

When the positivity rate creeps above 10%, sports considered high risk, including football, are halted in Olathe, even after teams have been practicing for weeks.

If the positivity rate is from 5% to 10%, teams can practice but not play games. And since teams are required to complete 14 days of practice before competition, some games have already been canceled.

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That was exactly what Sanchez feared. About a month ago, he began pleading with his mother to move to Norman, where her father lives. Initially, she was skeptical of the idea, in part because the past year had been a challenging transition period for their family.

Sanchez’s father was released from prison in May 2019 after serving 13 years on a drug trafficking charge. Mario was 3 when his father went away, and Jurado, a real estate broker, handled the bulk of the parenting. When Mario’s father first came back home, there was friction and disagreement between a teenage son and his newly returned father. Now, Mario reports, they are “tighter than a knot.”

But then Mario’s grandfather, Richard Sanchez, whom Jurado called the rock of the family, died of complications from COVID-19 on Aug. 13. By then, with his high school’s season in doubt, Mario was looking south to Norman, where he could play football, basketball and baseball (he is a shortstop), and his mother could spend time with her father.

“I told him, ‘If you’re willing to make that sacrifice, I’ll make it with you,’” she said. “COVID-19 has really impacted everyone in a devastating way. It’s been a tough run for us.”

Making the decision easier was the fact that Sanchez’s best friend since grade school, Arland Bruce IV, was doing the same thing. A star quarterback at Olathe North and a cousin of former NFL receiver Isaac Bruce, Arland Bruce IV enrolled at Ankeny High School in Iowa last month.

But in a development that underscored the confusion surrounding the whole season, Bruce was ruled ineligible by the Iowa High School Athletic Association on the day of Ankeny’s first game, and his family has hired a lawyer to appeal the ruling.

Sanchez is optimistic he will avoid such a mess. He arrived in Norman on Sunday evening and began practicing with the team the next day.

Back in Kansas, Chris McCartney, Bruce and Sanchez’s former coach at Olathe North, is left behind, clicking the refresh button on the Johnson County health department’s website “several times a day,” he said, hoping to see the positive test rates in the county drop low enough so the team can play.

Olathe North was shut down for a week, but on Monday, the day after Sanchez left for Oklahoma, the team was given permission to practice. Whether it can play games is still unknown.

“This has been really tough on the kids,” McCartney said. “At this point, we’re just looking for a yes or no answer. Are we playing or not?”

While each school district in Johnson County can determine its own course, the health department there has established guidelines that most of them follow. That makes Sanmi Areola, the Johnson County director of health, an unpopular figure among those who want high school football at all costs.

Areola said he also wanted children to play sports for the exercise, socialization and lessons in teamwork and structure — as long as it was safe.

In addition to worrying about the spread of the virus, he is also concerned about myocarditis, a heart inflammation that can lead to cardiac arrest with exertion, which in one survey was found in 15% of college athletes who had the virus. The science around myocarditis is still evolving, and there is scant data on high school athletes.

“There is some evidence that there can be some cardiac effects,” Areola said. “What that translates to when you have high intensity activities, no one is quite sure yet. Hence the need to be very, very careful.”

High school coaches insist they are being careful and have implemented protective modifications. One of McCartney’s players tested positive after a family gathering, McCartney said, and a few more had to be quarantined. But the contagion never spread to other team members, he said.

“To me, it showed we can handle this,” he said. “We are outside, we’re social distancing, we’re masking up. To see it taken away from them is heartbreaking.”

What makes it even more painful is that Olathe North lost in last year’s state championship game. This year, the players were determined to win it all, at least before practices were halted and some of the best ones left for other states.

They have finally resumed practices, but they know at least two games have been canceled, and perhaps more. And there is no guarantee they won’t be shut down again.

A dozen miles from Olathe, Weston Moore has been working out harder than ever, in preparation for his senior year at Shawnee Mission West High School, also in Johnson County. This was to be Moore’s big year, as the starting quarterback of the Vikings, something he had dreamed of since he was in first grade. Still, he understands that safety comes first.

“But at the same time, it’s your senior year, what you’ve been working so hard for all these years, and it might not even happen,” he said. “It’s so disappointing.”

Despite organized practices being shut down, Moore has been spinning perfect spirals to teammates in shorts and T-shirts at the school field, all while friends at other schools — some just five miles away, across the border in Missouri — prepared for their first games without fans in the stadiums. And 40 miles west, Free State High School in Douglas County, Kansas, is also allowed to play.

But the pandemic has still threatened Free State’s season. Kevin Stewart, the Firebirds’ head coach, said that six of the eight teams on their schedule, including Olathe North, had canceled games. He scrambled to find replacement opponents, securing two so far, but the season remains murky.

“Team morale is less enthusiastic,” he said. “We’ve lost a little bit of energy.”

Stewart said that if his program was shut down, too, he would worry what a few of his players might do with their spare time. They need the structured supervision of football, he said.

Sanchez needs football this year, too, he said. He needs it to earn a scholarship and get into college. As a sophomore defensive back, he led his league in interceptions, with seven, but last year he was injured and could sense fans and opponents wondering if his previous season was a fluke.

This season, he was aiming to prove them wrong. To do so, he has to play. But even in Oklahoma, more than 100 school districts have reported a positive test result. Still, Sanchez remains confident his team will play. He has to.

“This is a big step for me,” he said. “I won’t be able to see my family and friends for a while. But I’m starting a new journey.”

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