Idle hands are the devil’s tools.
That old chestnut comes from a man who grew up in a community that had no youth football, no middle school football, and really just a fraction of the extracurricular activities that are available to boys and girls here in the Tri-Cities.
What happens to youngsters who have too much spare time on their hands?
They get into mischief. I know this from personal experience.
That’s why I was so proud that some of our youth football coaches defied the pandemic and organized a safe, albeit piecemeal league of teams spread over three counties.
Of course, the downside was it cost me eight Saturdays in a row doing public address as the “Voice of the Bloomingdale Raiders.”
Then again, adults with too much spare time on their hands also have a way of finding mischief, so maybe it was a blessing for me as well.
Creating the COVID-19 Fighters League
Youth football coaches from three counties whose respective leagues were canceled this fall due to COVID-19 came together and pulled off a safe, competitive, and pretty incredible season for their kids.
This past August, coaches convened on neutral ground, in the Cracker Barrel parking lot at the Jonesborough exit of I-26, and created what they called the COVID-19 Fighters League: seven teams from Kingsport (Bloomingdale), Bristol, Johnson City, Bluff City, Elizabethton, and Roan Mountain, playing an eight-game season.
That made for a busy two months for yours truly because Sullivan North became one of only three venues where the COVID-19 Fighters were allowed to play, along with Tennessee High and Sullivan East. That meant I did public address announcing for 3-5 games in a row on six consecutive Saturdays at Sullivan North.
The league talked Dobyns-Bennett into letting them play their last two Saturdays at J. Fred Johnson Stadium, so we had five games on Nov. 7 and seven games this past weekend on Championship Saturday.
That’s way more youth football than any grown man should be made to endure.
This past Saturday D-B’s stadium hosted seven consecutive games in the season finale: three to determine the season third place finisher, and four championship games for age groups 5-6, 7-8 (Freshmen) 9-10 (Junior Varsity), and 11-12 (Varsity).
By the time it ended, my brain was about as sharp as a bag of wet cement.
Breaking a 32-game winning streak
At least they saved the best game of the season for last, which kept my energy level high.
Game 7 was the JV championship game pitting the 7-0 Elizabethton Canes against the 6-1 Bloomindale Raiders, whose only loss was 16-0 to those same Canes in the regular season finale the previous week.
In fact, the Canes JV program hadn’t given up a point all season and was riding a 32-game winning streak.
Frankly, after the Raiders’ first set of downs Saturday, it looked to me like it would be 33 victories in a row for the Canes after the Raiders got hit for big losses three plays in a row. The scoreboard operator and I were looking at each like this isn’t going to be pretty.
However, the Raiders were tough and prepared to make adjustments. Head coach Lee Carswell was up in the press box watching video most of the day before his game, and every time the Canes scored a touchdown, the Raiders had an answer.
Isiah Coclaugh scored two TDs for the Raiders in the first half, which ended tied at 14-14. Then Admire Fikes scored the Raiders’ only second half touchdown, and regulation ended tied at 20-20.
The youth league overtime rules are similar to the college rule, except both teams start on the 10 yard line instead of the 25. The Canes had the first possession, and their offensive star Ju Ju Sensabaugh scored on a 2-yard run.
The Raiders answered with a bootleg TD run by quarterback Amarion Graves, followed by his game winning 2-point conversion run. Raiders Varsity coach Tyler Brooks said that 2-point conversion was thanks to a “fantastic seal block from Jordan Brown.”
What a great way for those lads to end their 2020 season. Those boys will remember that victory, and this season, for the rest of their lives.
“It was special watching these boys come together and beat a very talented Elizabethton team that had won 32 straight games,” Carswell said. “I look forward to watching these boys play on Friday nights in the near future.”
Canes JV coach Brandon Blevins may have seen his 32-game win streak ended, but he called the 2020 season a win for everyone.
“What a great youth football season for all teams. I told our team last night, ‘Doesn’t matter if a team was 0-8 or 7-1. There’s a lot of kids out there that did not get a chance to even see a football field this year. We, on the other hand, got to practice each week and play eight games against some of the best talent in the area. That’s a W for everyone during this time we live in.”
A night of big-time plays
Obviously Graves’ 2-point conversion was the biggest play of the day, but in seven games there were a few other very memorable moments.
In the JV third-place consolation game, the J.C. Toppers Red had stopped the Cloudland Avengers on the half yard line with just seconds to go in the first half. At that point, you figure the Toppers Red are just wanting to run out the half without giving up a safety. Instead, running back Marcus Jones shocked everybody in the stadium with a 99.5-yard touchdown run.
In the Freshman championship game, Viking running back Isaac Abram set the tone with his first touchdown, breaking about five Toppers Red tackles and dragging defenders into the end zone.
There was also at least one pick six, but for the life of me I can’t remember which game it was. After seven games the brain starts to cramp.
But I do remember my favorite play of the day, which was in the Varsity championship game. Raiders quarterback Elijah Pruitt threw a laser into coverage and right into the extended hands of receiver Jeb Stewart, who caught it on a dead sprint and ran it in for a 70-yard touchdown.
Raiders Coach Brooks said, “Elijah threw a perfect ball. It was a perfect catch just at the right moment. It was a play we hadn’t run all year that they’ve been begging me to let them run, and I let them run it.”
“They’ll remember this the rest of their lives”
This 2020 COVID-19 Fighters season wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for a few stubborn coaches including Brooks, who “started scrambling” this summer when it was announced that youth league football was canceled in Sullivan County and across the region.
“I reached out to a couple of contacts I’d gotten out of the Watauga League, Andrew Taylor and Brandon Blevins, about possibly joining the Watauga League because they hadn’t canceled at that time,” Brooks told me this week. “Like a week later the Watauga League canceled. After it was over and everybody canceled, I just came up with a makeshift league comprised of (the Raiders along with) the Johnson City Hilltoppers, Cloudland Avengers, Elizabethton Cyclones, Elizabethton Canes, Bristol Vikings, and the Sullivan East Patriots.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced pulling off this season?
Brooks: “We had to come up with rules everyone could agree on. We had to come up with safety protocols for COVID-19. Temperature checks (for spectators and participants). COVID waivers for players to sign. Wearing your mask in the stadium. Social distancing. Using both sides of the stadium to get every one spread out instead of just one side like we typically do. Having to clean up extra. Having to clean the bathrooms about every other hour. Sanitize them.”
Why was it so important to you and the other coaches to make sure this season wasn’t canceled?
Brooks: “I wanted these kids to have some sense of stability. With everything that’s going on in the world right now with COVID, and not knowing whether or not they would be able to go back to school, see their friends, things like that, I wanted to do something to provide some sort of stability and fun and entertainment other than eating potato chips and getting better at (the video game) ‘Fortnite.’ ”
What will you remember most about this season?
Brooks: “The people and community coming together is what made this happen and seeing the excitement and smiles on the kids’ faces and seeing the tears rolling down their cheeks at the end of the games made it all worthwhile for us. In times like these, they’ll remember this the rest of their lives.”