Will They Get to Play?

COVID-19 could cost prep players scholarship opportunities

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY
Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at BizNewOrleans.com.

Dripping sweat through preseason football practice in the late summer Louisiana heat and humidity, Jake Dalmado has had one burning question in the back of his mind: Will he get to play this season?

For the more than 1 million high school football players across the country hoping to take the field this month, there was hope that staying home from school in the spring and summer would mean they would be able to return to school and the field in the fall without concern. However, like Jake snaking his way through opposing defenses, the COVID-19 pandemic has been as elusive and hard to take down.

Professional and collegiate programs have taken multiple steps to alter their seasons in the face of the disease, including cutting inter-conference games as well as the number of games played, but with different high school athletic associations governing play across the 50 states, the prospect of playing a full or contracted prep football season in 2020 is as much an enigma as ever.

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In July, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association voted not to allow football games until the state enters Phase 4 of the K-12 reopening from the current pandemic.
Like most players nearing the end of their high school career, Dalmado, a running back at Archbishop Hannan High School in Covington, is looking forward to making memories with his teammates while he can.

“I am very much looking forward to senior year,” he said. “It’s the last year I get to play with my high school friends. It will be heartbreaking to not have a senior season. It’s a special year. If we miss it, we can never get it back.”

But there is more on the line for Dalmado than missing an opportunity to play his last season under the Friday night lights. Like thousands of players looking to make it to the next level, Dalmado, who rushed for 1,359 yards and 16 touchdowns on 181 carries as a junior, has received a couple of coveted athletic scholarship offers already, but would like the opportunity to further show off his skills on the gridiron in hopes that he might draw attention from as many schools as possible.

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“It is an honor to be recruited to play college football, and I’m excited and look forward to playing at the next level,” he said. “I have had a few coaches tell me they will follow my senior season. I have gained 15 pounds while improving my 40 (yard dash) time since last season. I have become a more powerful back and hope I can show coaches more film … if we have a season.”

The joy leaves his face as he considers the opportunity that is seemingly escaping him, and the fact there is nothing he can do about it, undoubtedly wondering if coaches can’t see the progress he’s made in the last year, will they be willing to offer him a scholarship?
“I would prefer to play a delayed or shortened season than having it canceled,” he said. “I think we will have a season, and our coaches seem positive, too.”

Dalmado’s mother, Michelle, echoed her son’s hopes for the year, but expressed concern that if football season is impacted in Louisiana, but not in other states, those players will have more to show to entice collegiate coaches’ attention.

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In addition to providing film, high school prospects are typically invited to college campuses on game weekends to meet coaches and players and get a better understanding of the university and its football program. It’s a huge part of the recruitment process, but with safety protocols in place to fight COVID-19’s spread, player visits aren’t happening as usual, further limiting the relationship progression between future players and coaches.

If he can’t play or make on-campus visits, Dalmado said he will rely on film from his junior and sophomore seasons, talking and texting with coaches and recruiting coordinators, and continuing to get stronger and faster.

With an older son already enrolled at LSU, Michelle Dalmado said obtaining an athletic scholarship for Jake would be economically beneficial, but the Dalmado family is more focused about the prospect of him realizing a life-long dream.

“This would be a big help with the financial burden of having two sons in college, but we’re looking at this as his achievement – the realization of his goal to compete at the next level. Being recruited is an interesting process. We are proud of him and look forward to what the future holds.”

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