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Inside the Battle Between Covid-19 & the 2020 Texas High School Football Season

It’s Friday night in Prosper. The show goes on. Censored rap music pipes into a palace that serves Chick-Fil-A, community pride, and some of the best high school football in the country. A few years ago, all that stood here was dirt.
Photography by Carly May

It’s Friday night in Prosper. The show goes on.

Censored rap music pipes into a palace that serves Chick-Fil-A, community pride, and some of the best high school football in the country.

A few years ago, all that stood here was dirt.

Now, it’s a $52 million brick and turf beacon—a West Egg cathedral with a corporate sponsor—built upon suburban sprawl and overflowing tax coffers. There’s room for 12,000 fans at Prosper ISD Children’s Health Stadium. Students, grandparents, cheer moms, and band dads find seats after exchanging small talk and elbow bumps with neighbors. 

The announcer reads a UIL script, reminding fans of a lingering truth before kick off — one that’s easy to forget as 4,000 roar, bodies collide, and the band whips into a triumphant symphony.

There’s a pandemic going on, ya’ hear. 

It’s week six, though. Meanwhile, as Prosper and Guyer players warm up, the reminders to wear a mask and to social distance go over like routine maintenance. They all know the deal. 

Pods of fans in Prosper green and Guyer silver and black stretch from the front row to the upper deck. 

It’s a COVID-19 sell out. 

Four thousand online tickets were snatched up within a few hours, says Prosper Athletic Director Valerie Little. “They go pretty quick.” 

Through the hiss of nitro gas, players emerge from the fog and onto the turf for a season that hangs in the balance week after week as COVID-19 numbers reach their highest level since the first wave of the pandemic in the spring.

Texas High School Football, the institution, religion, and way of life always finds a way, despite the hospitals filling up and the COVID virus lingering in the air.

“It’s Friday night in Texas,” Prosper football coach Brandon Schmidt says. “It’s what we do.”

Finally, with a booming kick, the game starts. Eyes bounce from the field to the 60-foot wide screen, which happens to be the largest scoreboard/video display at a high school stadium in the state.

Could Texas go without football this year? Not a chance.

To Little, the idea of not offering extracurriculars, whether it be sports or fine arts, was a dangerous one. 

“It’s so important for social and emotional health,” Little says. “Anyone being quarantined and alone, it’s not a good thing. I think you can see that across the nation with statistics of adolescents. They need to be around their teammates and coaches. And our coaches, we need our students as much as the students need us.”

There was a fight to see it through, as the UIL, TEA responded to rapidly changing CDC guidelines.

Schmidt spent his summer waiting, hoping and praying for the go-ahead from the UIL to announce football this year. The news came slow after state tournament basketball games, baseball, softball, track, and soccer were called off in March. First came summer workouts. Then, Class A through 4A schools got a head start. After photos spread like wildfire of maskless swaths of people stacked on top of each other, there was some fear that this wouldn’t last. 

The UIL responded by sending out letters to schools, hinting at a threat of games being forfeited if they didn’t get their act together.

As 6A schools waited, lessons were learned, Schmidt says. “It allowed us the opportunity to see what the smaller schools were doing right to understand how we handle this entire thing.” 

during a football game

A big game

Somehow, midway through the season, the high-wire balancing act of high school sports amid a pandemic appears to have worked. There are hiccups and canceled games, outbreaks small and large. But at this beautiful stadium, on a chilly October night, fans are happy to be there, even if they have to wear masks. 

As the temps dip below 50 degrees, the hot, breathy air on the face is finally welcome.

Guyer, led by Eli Stowers, a Texas A&M commit, strikes first. But Prosper gets going behind quarterback Jackson Berry, a Southern Utah pledge, who connects with Houston Hawkins and San Diego State commit Cameron Harpole, sending roars on the home side after taking a 14-7 lead into halftime.

Class 6A is the highest classification of football in Texas, a state that produced 33 NFL players in the 2020 NFL Draft. Seven Texas high school football products were selected in the first round —  the most of any state.

The players who cross paths in this district often go on to play on Sundays. Former Allen quarterback Kyler Murray is the most recent star to break out. He returned to AT&T stadium earlier this year with the Arizona Cardinals to keep a 7-0 streak at the stadium (that spanned high school, college and now the NFL) alive at Jerry World, beating the Cowboys 38-10.

There are no off weeks in District 5-6A, where a group of Collin and Denton County schools have turned the sport into an arms race. All the teams are good, most are great. But the road to a state title goes through and often ends in this district.

football referee wearing a mask

There’s Allen High School, a dynasty with five state championships and a district title streak that dates back to 2006. Then there’s Denton Guyer, a school with their fair share of gold balls in its trophy case, including two state championships. The district is filled out by the McKinney teams and the upstarts that recently joined the 6A party, like Prosper, Little Elm and Denton Braswell.

Between four of those teams are a combined nine state championships. 

“It’s as good as it gets anywhere in the country,” Schmidt says. 

Schmidt grew up in Texas High School football. His dad was a coach, his brother is a coach. Texas high school football raised him and made him who he is today.

“This is just what we do,” he says.

Now he’s at the helm of a burgeoning powerhouse in his first head coaching job, an opportunity he didn’t envision when he first took an assistant coaching gig in 2015 at Prosper.

Schmidt followed former head coach Chris Ross to Prosper. In March 2016, after one season, Ross accepted an assistant coaching job at Boise State University, a Division I college coaching opportunity that he told the Dallas Morning News was just too good to pass up. Suddenly, after a life that included a couple of state championship appearances as a player at La Marque High School, playing college ball at Sam Houston State University, and rising through the coaching ranks as an assistant, Schmidt was finally anointed as Prosper’s next head football coach.

“For me, I have to pinch myself,” he says. “This is my first head coaching job. I have been fortunate to coach at some pretty good schools. For me, it really is [special]. I cannot ask for a better place to be as a head football coach. I couldn’t ask for a better place to be.”

In 2019, under Schmidt, Prosper established itself in the 6A ranks, going 11-3 before falling to Rockwall in the region finals. In 2008, Prosper won a state title. They were a 3A team at the time. Growth comes with pangs.

In 2020, the eyes of Texas High School football fall on Prosper as a team on the 6A-landscape’s rise. 

It’s nothing new. These Collin and Denton County schools have been experiencing rapid growth for years, with athletic departments and boosters tasked with keeping up with the Joneses, err, Allens.

Prosper, in particular, plans to build four new high schools in the next decade. This year Rock Hill High School, the second and newest high school in Prosper ISD, started its football program. The Owls also celebrated their first win in program history Nov. 20. There’s more to come.

And as the pads of Stowers and Prosper linebacker and Rice football commit Aidan Siano crack, a showcase of talent that will go on to play at the college level ensues. These kids are playing for scholarships in 6A-5. But first, they’re playing for a coveted playoff spot in a crowded district, along with a heavy dose of Texas high school football glory.

“I have been to high school football games in California and Oklahoma and it’s just not the same—it’s different here,” Schmidt says. “Whether it’s community involvement, band, cheerleaders, the product we put on the field, it’s just a vital part of who we are in the state of Texas, there’s just not another state in the country that does it as big or as good as we do.”

prosper band plays halftime

Playing through it

During a pandemic, high school sports and extracurricular activities go on, at least most weeks. After beating Euless Trinity 29-21 Oct. 1, Prosper didn’t play again until Oct. 24. Three active COVID cases can mean a dozen close contact quarantines, which in turn, can quickly flip a varsity football depth chart on its head in days. 

Health and safety comes first this year. So does being able to field a varsity football product on game days. In between the sidelines, the game looks normal. It’s just football, good football, under the brightest of lights. Still, it’s the same game. 

Along the periphery and in the days before the game is where things have changed drastically. Players on the bench and coaches scream through face coverings. There are limited spots for media on the sidelines. The steps taken to get here is where things have changed the most.

Football programs have also had to change the way they practice to make sure they can still play. Junior varsity and freshman squads don’t intermingle or work out together, Schmidt said. Compartmentalizing squads is key for pandemic football. 

“We had to look at everything in a new light,” Schmidt says. “Had to look at the health of the kids when they come in every day. We had to look at how we do laundry, how we disinfect the locker room, how do we disinfect our facilities. The whole thing was finding things that had to be done, and doing it differently.”

Doing things differently, for the most part, has worked. Presently, district play has yet to be flipped on its head as COVID-19 spreads through schools and communities at unprecedented rates. The playoffs will likely go on, even as some schools have been forced to switch to virtual instruction.

Preventing infection from the novel coronavirus has emerged as a crucial skill for a postseason run. As 2A through 4A schools in Texas began bi-district play in November, several had to forfeit. Playoff games don’t get rescheduled. If there’s a COVID-19 outbreak in December, your season is over.

It’s a fact that Schmidt preaches to his team. Practice like you play has now turned into practice social distancing, mitigation measures, and hygiene so you can play.

“It’s really no different than an injury on the field,” Schmidt says.. “We talk to our kids every year about how the teams who are healthy and playing well go far. This year you have to add COVID to that list. The teams that are wearing their masks, socially distancing and don’t have kids testing positive, it’s an advantage, especially when playoffs roll around here. It’s just something else we have to be prepared for.”

high school football player wearing a mask

More than just a game

As the second half begins, a pair of Prosper fans stretch out their legs from their assigned seats by the concourse. Rosalie Palmer, 81, and Tom Woodfin, 80, wouldn’t miss the opportunity to watch Fisher Naumann, their senior, play. Watching Naumann play sports has been a can’t-miss event for the past 11 years.

“It’s been stressful, and of course, he’s looking to go to college, and it was a big ‘if’ of whether he was going to get to play this year,” Palmer says. “You don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. Every week we’re hoping he can play and if he does, we’ll be there.”

To the fans, parents, and grandparents here, it’s evident that high school football is a life-sustaining element to a community’s ecosystem. It brings pride and a tether that connects thousands, bringing them together for about three hours, once a week.

Beyond the football fans and the kids going crazy in the student section are parents with kids in cheer, drill, and dance team. All of it comes together on Friday night.

“This year, every game feels special, even more so than a typical senior year,” says Tammy Meyer, whose daughter Aryn Andrade is senior cheerleader. “For us, it’s special, whatever we get.”

Schmidt is reminded of that fact every Friday. Like every football coach, the obvious goal is to win. But there’s more to it then that. “I think 2020 has been rough, it’s been a rough year,” he says. “Texas high school football, it brings communities together, it helps.”

Guyer ended up winning after breaking through on a goal line stand. It took Guyer all four downs before Stowers eventually punched in the final score in the waning seconds. With the home stands rocking, pleading for a blocked kick that would send the game to overtime, Guyer kicker Michael Mayfield booted in the extra point to seal a 24-23 win.

However, as Schmidt looked into the stands, he saw disappointment after the football sailed through the uprights. Two teams played, and one had to lose. Texas high school football continues and the joy and heartbreak it brings remains immune to the global pandemic gripping the county, the state, and the country in fear as COVID patients continue filling hospital beds.

“When I look up in the stands and see families getting to cheer for their loved ones, it makes all the extra stuff we have to do worth it,” Schmidt says. “At the end of the day, it’s why we do what we do.”