At Chippewa Valley, football's return takes back seat to student-athletes' health

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Clinton Township — From a distance, it appeared to be business as usual.

But as Clinton Township Chippewa Valley head coach Scott Merchant emerged from the equipment room on Monday morning wearing a red and black mask, it quickly became apparent that the first official day of high school football practice in the year 2020 is still everything but normal.

Chippewa Valley head football coach Scott Merchant, shown here during a practice last season, says players' safety and following protocols have made it "hard to think about football."

“Everybody spread out,” he told a group of players standing in line for a drill. “You should not be directly behind, or next to, anybody.”

Merchant is one of thousands of coaches across the country handling the unenviable task of trying to prepare a group of teenagers to play football in the midst of a global pandemic. The countless moving pieces, he said, have made the situation “a nightmare.”

“It’s been kind of hard to think about football, to be honest with you,” Merchant said. “Just trying to keep everybody safe and follow all the protocols, that’s what keeps me up at night.”

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Normally, the weight on Merchant’s shoulders would be caused by the expectations of winning another Macomb Area Conference Red Division title, or getting back to the Division 1 state championship like in 2018. Those goals are still there, and yet, they’re only seen in peripheral vision.

“The No. 1 thing for me is for our kids to be able to stay healthy,” Merchant said. 

“There’s two sides to safety. It’s not just COVID like everybody’s talking about. I’m still worried about a day like today with heat exhaustion. I’m worried about concussions; nobody’s talking about concussions right now, but like, we haven’t been able to lift in three months, so we’re not as strong.”

And then there’s the fact Merchant and his staff can’t control what goes on away from the football field. Are the players following social-distancing guidelines? What happens when a player with allergies gets frightened by a sneeze or cough?

“We have to defer to the side of safety,” Merchant said. “If somebody isn’t here and you don’t hear from them, now you have to kind of be a (personal investigator) and find out what’s going on. Are they sick? Are they not sick? It’s more than just not being here in the past, because if he’s sick, it impacts every player and coach. There’s just a lot of layers to it.”

Merchant still isn’t sure whether his Chippewa Valley squad will even have the chance to play its opener against Detroit Catholic Central, and he’s still not sure what side of the fence he stands on, as far as continuing on with the season.

“I don’t have have any good answers for anybody,” Merchant said. “We’re just trying to do the best we can for as long as we can.”

So for now, he’ll continue to try to keep his players safe by relaying the unofficial rallying cry of the season at every necessary turn.

"Everybody spread out," Merchant said. "That’s our team motto this year."

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.