By James Kelly, Head Coach E.O. Smith High (Conn.)
No coach can say he has experience leading high school student-athletes through a pandemic. We’re all learning as we go, and we find ourselves leading in many different ways this school year.
Editor’s note: James Kelly is a head football coach and special education teacher at E.O. Smith High in Conn. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference made the decision on Sept. 16 to cancel the fall football season after originally planning an Oct. 2 start date.
Like all other coaches around the country, I have had to embrace the reality of a football season with many changes for our kids and coaching staff. However, we also have had to deal with the realization that the decision to cancel the fall football season was made later in our state.
Edwin O. Smith is in its 24th year as a football program. E.O. Smith actually shares land with the UCONN campus, but this year neither the UCONN Huskies nor the Panthers of E.O. Smith are playing football games. It is difficult to go to bed, get up in the morning, and realize we are not competing against the great schools in our conference and the other coaches in our great league. I feel for them as well because I know what we are going through with our kids here.
HELPING TEENS DEAL WITH LOSS
There comes a point where as a coach where you have to take the disappointment of no season and quickly turn it around to finding something positive because the 60 kids we have are in an even worse place mentally and need something and someone to turn to. We didn’t want to have any of our guys get themselves into trouble. so we decided to get back to it as quickly as possible so that they had something positive to do. Our athletics director and school administration recognize how big football is as a part of our student/athletes lives so they allowed us to continue our cohort groups and Covid-19 guidelines set forth by our state so that we could continue.
CONNECTING AS PEOPLE
We work with our kids 3-4 days a week, conditioning, working on position groups, individual skills time as well as the best part, which is having the daily time to see the kids and talk to them about what is going on in their lives. Talking to and getting to know our freshmen and ask them about their classes are and the transition into high school has been good because they are taking on so much right now, a hybrid schedule in a new school, wearing masks to practice, to classes, learning how to navigate everything and learn coaches and how to be a teammate in a varsity football program. My coaching staff is unselfish and they jumped at the chance to keep coaching our kids which it is obvious to say they should feel this way but I cannot emphasize enough that having coaches that are willing to do what is best for the kids is so essential for any program. If an assistant coach cannot rise above a pandemic or a negativity, they probably aren’t right for the program.
The realization for seniors is very traumatic and have struggled with it every day, but again as coaches and adults we have to help them rise above. I talk to them a lot about life and not taking each day for granted as well as how to handle difficulties you encounter in life, like paying your rent and mortgage when you have recently lost a job and how to cope, all real life situations that are great teaching points for all of us. The seniors that love the game have been able to come and run routes, work bag drills, work run fits and get their minds away from the sorrow and focus on getting better at something they love and be around their teammates.
For our underclassmen it has been an opportunity to spend time with the seniors and have some laughs, but also continue to learn our systems and refine their skills for the future. The juniors have matured into team leaders, realizing they are a year away from their last time and reflecting on what the seniors must be feeling, realizing to never take a day for granted because you never know in life. Little do they know they are helping to build a program through hard work, perseverance and dedication without even playing a single football game in 2020.