After nearly 25 years as a head coach, there’s very little Mark Freeman hasn’t seen. You can now add COVID-19 to that short list.
When we all started to receive awful news in March of the virus spreading and the subsequent shutdown of businesses, schools and sports, a great number of us had to simply stay home, stay safe and hope for the best. Coach Freeman already had his eye on the future.
“Initially I think there was some concern and doubt. Young people, and coaches too, need a plan of action and without that they didn’t have anything,” says Freeman. “There was no offseason training or workouts in the Spring so the biggest thing was: when can we get our kids back?”
During the missed time, the Thompson football staff and players missed a lot of the things they hang their hats on as a program. The Warriors had already started their offseason program just weeks after winning the 7A state championship, but over the course of the shutdown over 70 workouts--and the progress they would’ve enabled--were lost.
However, many coaches on the staff expressed positivity when their student-athletes returned. The time off appeared to have narrowed the focus for many and that focus has led to incredible gains when the Warriors were allowed to resume their normal offseason routines. Thompson’s ability to keep student-athletes and staff healthy in the summer months was no small thing, as well.
“We came back June 4th and we’ve been tremendous. Our strength and speed numbers were really good after these eight weeks so I️ was pleased with that,” says Freeman. “The enthusiasm has been better than if we had been out there because people say “Play like it’s your last,” but as crazy as the world is right now we’re thankful to be out here and believe the future is going to be great.”
As players’ rejoined the team and a sense of normalcy returned, Freeman and his staff continued their mission: a dual focus on developing great players and great people. Only a small percentage of high school athletes will reach elite levels of competition, while the rest of them will likely enter secondary education or the workforce. The importance of the lessons high school athletics and academics can teach always weighs on educators’ minds heavily.
“The majority of what our kids need from football are the life lessons for when they leave high school,” said Freeman. “A lot of the kids don’t get a chance to play college football so when they finish here, but football is an avenue for us to help them down the road with decisions. Accountability, punctuality, being courteous, making great decisions in stressful situations.”
Education and athletics teach lessons that carry us throughout our lives, but also provide much-needed structure for children that are being molded before our eyes by their experiences, their mentors and the friends they choose. They also provide opportunities to kids to increase their knowledge and opportunities in the future. Another lost season for high school athletes will lead to unintended consequences.
“I believe that we are going to play. It will be a means for a lot of kids to go to college,” says Freeman. “It’s very important to have a football season because they did not have spring training. It’s critical.”
America is already facing the novel coronavirus pandemic, the subsequent financial crisis, 30 million unemployed and an impending housing crisis. Now, thousands of student-athletes across a range of sports from high school to college stand to lose out on existing or potential scholarships to improve their education if their seasons are cancelled. This would only further hinder our country as we look to rally from a catastrophic 2020.
“In the average spring we have 50-100 schools come through, look at our kids, make an evaluation and go back to meet and talk about our kids. The only opportunity they’re going to get now is for us to have a season, and the kids that have all these offers, they have to have a season so we can make sure that they are still in line to receive this financial aid to go to college,” said Freeman. “The rest that don’t play college football, it’s still beneficial for them. You don’t get into coaching for your Division I️ kids. You hope you have some, but what you want to do is impact young people. Football is such a great tool for them later on in life.”
Thompson football is looking to defend their title in 2020, but the heart of the staff is on the personal development and future opportunities for their student athletes. The same can be said for hundreds of other programs as the state of Alabama looks to begin play in less than two weeks.
Sports are quickly categorized as entertainment and an extraneous, auxiliary facet of society, but a quick look inside these programs would inspire a completely different sentiment. Sports play a key role in our communities that goes far beyond mere enjoyment and diversion--a fact we ought not lose sight of.