TOPEKA – It was anything but normal as local area football players geared up for the 47th annual Shrine Bowl on Saturday evening in Topeka.
The best seniors in the state, including those from Erie (Caype Johnston), Humboldt (Josh Hull and Conor Haviland), and St. Paul (Adam Albertini) high schools, were staying in Topeka hotels days ahead of the game – a contest in which the West won over the East by a score of 14-9, improving the historical record of 29-17 in favor of the West. Health precautions due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for this historical week included hand sanitizers every 15 feet in hotels and staff disinfecting players’ equipment twice daily.
Albertini recollected his bizarre experience throughout the week.
“So for the hotel, you couldn’t have more than four (people) in a room, they were enforcing that,” Albertini said. “You couldn’t have any contact from the outside, so when my parents came, they dropped their stuff off and they left. They didn’t get to meet with any of the coaches or anything like that. You had to wear masks everywhere you went. And then, in practice, you had to socially distance. I don’t know. We all had tough times tonight, but they were constantly reminding us to stay apart or stay back. And if you don’t have your helmet on, you’re supposed to be wearing a mask.”
One standout moment was when Albertini’s East squad was going over the game walkthrough on Friday. He said coaches informed players that they needed to wear masks from the locker room to the field before the start of the game.
Albertini, who will attend Pittsburg State University as a redshirt freshman for football, said it caught him a little off-guard.
“We weren’t expecting it, and it was a monkey wrench, and on top of that, you had to remember where your mask was, put it in your pocket, and it was just an uncomfortable situation honestly,” he said.
From a media and fan standpoint, it was indeed an uncomfortable situation. Media and fans had to have their temperature checked before entering the game, and the cutoff point for entry was 100 degrees. Everyone also had to wear a mask the entire time, not ideal when temperatures were in the 90s for much of the game.
East head coach Steve Buhler of Washburn Rural High School in Topeka also talked about the strange experience of the week.
“Earlier in the week, the young men came in, and had to jump through a lot of hoops, temperature checks three times a day, checks every morning about their health, wearing the mask all the time, doing all those types of things, and to be real honest with you as far as football goes, by the second or third day, it was just routine, it was a part of what we are doing and the kids were really focused on playing the game. Football kind of took over after that,” Buhler said.
Buhler said it was important to follow protocols given the state of the country, and following these guidelines will likely lead to fruitful results.
“I think it’s great that people take the responsibility to try to help out the communities that they’re in. I think it’s really important, especially if you’re a high school coach,” Buhler said. “We had a lot of seniors last year lose a lot of things in their high school career. I would hate for that to happen again, and I would hope that the rest of our communities and adults in the world would do everything possible to give these young people the opportunities that they need to have in their high school careers.”
Buhler said he wants to see how all the players are health-wise after the game, which is a huge step in the Kansas State High School Activities Association determining the direction of Kansas sports.
Johnston’s stellar play at Erie has led to a scholarship at Kansas Wesleyan University. But his participation in the Shrine Bowl will have huge ramifications on the upcoming high school and college football seasons. He, too, shared his overall experience of living in this new world of COVID-19.
“It was kind of weird because I’m coming from Erie, Kansas. Neosho (County) didn’t pass the mask thing, so I’m really not used to wearing the mask, but if I get to play football and it shows that we can play football, I’ll do that – all year,” he said.
Still, from Johnston’s perspective, everything went smoothly thanks to the countless “wear your mask” signs in hotels, security ensuring that was done, and coaches prohibiting groups of people congregating in hotel rooms.
But only time will tell if there will be high school sports. The KSHSAA will make its decision soon enough.
“The KSHSAA believes participation in school and school activities is critical for the students of Kansas and we strive to provide those opportunities for students this fall,” KSHSAA wrote in a statement on its website. “(Last Friday) the KSHSAA had planned to distribute considerations and guidance for all fall activities to take place starting August 17. With the announcement (of the delay in schools opening) from Governor Kelly, we will not release any information Friday. Rather we will go back and look at models and plans that are in place with a delayed start and release information when appropriate.”