How Mullen High navigates football in age of COVID-19

The gun looks like a phaser set to stun, a Star Trek prop in cream and purple. Jeremy Bennett picks up one of the two on the table in front of him, points at an imaginary head and pulls the trigger like James T. Kirk, boldly going where no Colorado high school football coach has ever gone before.

“We take their temperatures with really expensive thermometers,” Mullen’s first-year football coach says as he sets one of those expensive thermometers, the ones that look like phasers, back where he found it. “Down to a tenth of a degree.”

That’s the second step. The first is the waiting.

With COVID-19 back in the air and up off the canvas, before any of the Mustangs can participate in summer Organized Team Activities, or OTAs for short, the football staff gives them the airport security treatment.

Players line up outside The Green Room, a 60-by-40-foot indoor training facility, queued six feet apart. They’re let in one by one, then zapped quickly in the noggin by one of those aforementioned thermometer guns. That temperature is recorded next to that student’s ID number on a form provided by the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. They’re then asked if they’ve felt any of the seven symptoms:

Fever of 100.3 or above?

Cough?

Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing?

Chills?

Muscle aches?

Sore throat?

New loss of taste or smell?

If the answer’s “yes,” to any of them, you go home. “No,” you practice.

Bennett and his subordinates have been running OTAs for about a month now, three days a week, two hours per session. The check-in process took a little more than a half-hour at the outset. They can knock it out now in about 10 to 12 minutes.

“If (a temperature) reads high, we let them sit in the shade for a second,” Bennett says. “Then they come back in The Green Room and I shoot them again. If it’s still high, we send them away and I call Mom and Dad.”

Mullen has averaged at least 60 kids per practice. Which means they’ve asked those seven screening questions 180 times a week and at least 720 times since mid-June.

How many kids have you sent home?

“None,” Bennett replies. “Everything’s hunky-dory. That said, which one of these 14-to-18-year old kids is asymptomatic?”

And, more to the point, which ones might be pulling your leg?

“It’s irritating,” junior safety/tailback Jaxson Heil says. “I wouldn’t do it if we didn’t play football. But to be on the field, I’d be willing to do anything.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Mullen football player Matthew Peters is tested for his body temperature before being allowed to participate the practice at Spirit Center by the practice field in Denver on Thursday. July 16, 2020.

“This is a work-in-progress”

Welcome to football practice in the coronavirus age: Questionnaires, long waits, temperature checks, and social distance.

The sort of spread-out lines reserved for pregame stretching are the new normal — even if some guys lean closer to one another in order, on occasion, to share the usual practice giggle.

For receivers, gloves are mandatory. The same goes for linemen, who aren’t allowed to engage an opponent directly unless there’s a padded bag between them.

Mind you, distancing and contact sports — let alone a collision one — don’t exactly mix.

“It’s half-football,” Heil says. “It’s not real football until we can get together.”

Assistant athletic trainer Johnnie Garcia watches wideouts and quarterbacks pitch and catch in a navy-blue cloth face mask with “MULLEN” emblazoned on the front. And that’s one of the first things you notice: Every adult, watching or teaching, wears a facial covering. Most of the teens, however, zip around without one.

“It’s mandatory to wear a mask when you come through,” Bennett explains. “Once you get out here (to the field), we encourage you to wear it, (but) we can’t make you wear it, and I’ll leave it at that.

“Coaches, we want to make sure we’re wearing masks. We have been, but especially now with Gov. (Jared) Polis making the masks mandatory again. We’re on private property. But we do want to play football again. We want to get this (season) in.”

You notice something else, too: Between the plates and the medicine balls, there’s a small bottle in the middle of the field with a nozzle on the end, not unlike the kind your neighbor uses for spraying weed-killer. In the football offices, Bennett’s got a tub of botanical disinfectant solution squirreled away, purchased to rub down equipment and footballs.

Lemongrass Grapefruit Scent, the label reads. Kills 99.9% of Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi & Molds.

“We just opened up our fourth gallon of that bad boy,” Bennett says. “We’ll lay down a towel and lay (the balls) in here, roll them out on the towel, spread them out and roll them (in the disinfectant) like an ear of corn in butter. That’s the best way to describe it.”

The Mustangs have wrangled five temperature guns in all, Bennett notes, along with 20-some boxes of gloves in storage, as well as spare masks. Disinfectant reserves are shared with the maintenance department.

The school purchased a month’s supply of sanitizer in reserve, just in case it flies off the shelves the way toilet paper did in March. About 200 bottles worth, 24 ounces each.

“This is a work-in-progress, I’ll be honest with you,” Bennett says.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Zaide Mitchell, front, and Mullen football players work out at the practice field in Denver on Thursday. July 16, 2020.

“Football is everything to me”

At the Mustangs’ first OTA in June, despite all the temperature checks and the waiting and the masks, Bennett decided it was all worth it.

“I watched kids walk up and just stare at each other and just smile,” the coach recalled. “It was maybe the first time they’d seen each other in person in 60 or 90 days.”

After the coronavirus kiboshed spring drills, along with scheduled visits to at least six 7-on-7 tournaments, most of these kids have seen each other for almost two months straight now. And while that’s been great, the COVID data over that corresponding window has been anything but. What if the plug gets pulled again?

“You know, there’s a mental health aspect to this,” Bennett says. “And there are a lot of kids out there, not just at Mullen High School, but everywhere in the state, that this is all they have. This is what makes them go to school, whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, maybe marching band — it keeps their grades (up) and it gives them an opportunity to go to college, and there are a lot of kids that can’t afford to go. Kids get depressed about that. ‘What am I going to do, how and I going to get a scholarship, if we don’t play?’”

The Mustangs have about a dozen seniors on their roster. One of them, kicker Aidan Lehman, contracted COVID-19 in March — an occupational hazard spread from his father, an orthopedic surgeon.

“My dad was hospitalized for three days. But I didn’t have any symptoms,” Lehman recalls. “Our whole family self-quarantined, so we made sure we didn’t spread it.”

Fortunately, everyone’s healthy and back in the flow. But when Lehman sees the state and national numbers trending like it’s early April all over again, “it’s a little bit discouraging,” he says.

“But I think as long as we all wear masks, that we’ll get back to where we were.”

Until then, football, our American given, feels like a giant maybe. Arizona’s a hot mess. New Mexico high schools are postponing football,  by order of the governor, until the spring. Wyoming is expecting to open as normal. Ditto Utah and Nebraska, where the annual Shrine Bowl was held last weekend in Kearney.

“I’m worried,” Heil says. “Some states have closed. Some are open. I’m hoping Colorado stays open. Football is everything to me. And without a season, it’s not the same. High school’s not the same experience.”

Publicly, Bennett is encouraged by CHSAA’s most recent statement Thursday, in which it announced that the organization has submitted safety guidelines to the governor’s office, that they’ll be “ready to play, with planned modifications.”

In other words, extra precautions. Extra steps. Extra space.