MONTGOMERY, Ala. — With masks, social distancing and mostly empty stands, the college football season kicked off COVID-19 style.
Austin Peay and Central Arkansas, two teams fresh from FCS playoff appearances, took the stage at Cramton Bowl Saturday night in the Guardian Kickoff Classic. But college football was the star of the show.
“It’s the first game from the pandemic, and so it should mean that much more to everybody. Not just the players,” said Dave Dotson, whose family drove in from Texas to see son Simeon, a defensive back for Central Arkansas.
Only 2,000 tickets were distributed at the 22,000-seat stadium, and there appeared to be significantly fewer fans actually attending. A number of them were family members of players.
Masks were required coming into the gates, walking around the stadium and at the concession stands. Coaches and players also wore them on the sidelines.
Dave and Juliana Dotson decided to make the drive with teen sons Reuben and Ephraim — which turned into about 12 hours Friday because of Hurricane Laura-related detours — after seeing the precautions being taken at the game.
“It made us feel a little better about being here,” Juliana said. “It said there would be four seats in between each group and two rows, so there would be social distancing put in place.”
UAB professor of infectious diseases Michael Saag said the game would be “a good test case” for college football and other events. Both teams were tested Wednesday.
“Let’s pull back to the big picture: Everything we do in this epidemic is an experiment of sorts,” said Saag, who is also associate dean for global health. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen at any event or with any type of exposure.
“We know the general principles and I think every human being on the planet can quote line and verse about mask-wearing distance. But each situation is different. I have been awed by the power of this virus and its ability to being transmitted from person to person.”
Austin Peay didn’t disclose the number of players, coaches or staffers affected by COVID-19. But athletic director Gerald Harrison posted on Twitter that the team brought 70 players as usual.
The biggest name missing was wide receiver DeAngelo Wilson, a second-team AP FCS All-American last season.
“None of the individuals representing Austin Peay in Montgomery, Alabama, tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19,” Harrison wrote.
Central Arkansas coach Nathan Brown acknowledged leading up to the “Week Zero” game that there had been some uneasiness with going forward with a season. It was hard to avoid the news that leagues like the Pac-12 and Big Ten opted against playing this fall.
“This season was hanging on a thread and we knew that we had to do things right and we knew that our players had to truly buy into that,” Brown said. « As a human being, you’re naturally going to go through the emotions of what you see and what you feel.
“But what I encouraged our guys to do was not pay attention to social media, pay attention to what’s right in front of you in Conway, Arkansas, at the University of Central Arkansas and base your judgment on that. And I think we’ve handled things well.”
Fans and teams — and college football in general — are hoping for a positive outcome for both players and those who sat in the stands for Game 1 of the COVID-19 experiment.
The first glitch came when Austin Peay’s freshman CJ Evans scored on a 75-yard touchdown run to start the game. The referee’s mic was live when he cursed “God damn mask.”
The family of Austin Peay’s Geordon Pollard drove down from Birmingham to see the starting wide receiver and his team play. Father George Pollard is used to being around people for his job at a car manufacturing plant and said he had no reservations.
“Ready to get out of the house,” Pollard said. “Ready for college football to kick off.”
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