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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, July 31, 2020

Titans eager to play despite risks of contracting COVID-19. Will they get the chance?




Rookies arrive for first day of COVID-19 testing at St. Thomas Sports Park. - Photo by Donald Page | Tennessee Titans

If second-year Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Isaiah Mack had any reservations about playing the 2020 NFL season through a pandemic, he didn’t have to look too far to find encouragement.

Mack’s mother, Sequoyah, has seen the COVID-19 pandemic on the front lines as a nurse at Hamilton Regional Medical Center in his hometown of Dalton, Georgia.

So with a little bit of a sense of humor and a lot of good, strong, motherly advice, she informed her son that playing football this fall with the necessary restrictions being imposed has her blessing.

“My mom is a nurse, so she deals with the corona all day,’’ Mack says. “But for me, you don’t want to get anyone sick, and you don’t want to get sick. It’s just about trying to be safe and knowing who you’re hanging around with, and at the same time, practicing social distancing and just trying to stay as healthy as possible through this time.

“Mom treats it like a lot of people. She’s a nurse just trying to do her job and keep everybody safe and taken care of. She’s doing a wonderful job.”

Mack, who returned home a few weeks back and had dinner with his mom, says she offered him this simple advice:

“She just told me make sure you don’t get sick. My mom is a very funny lady. She’s a ball … and jokes around with me,” Mack adds. “But she said if she can handle it, then I can handle it.”

Taking precautions

“Handling it” is what all NFL players have had to do since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. It’s not unlike what people in all walks of life have had to do to try and find a way to take care of their families and work since social distancing began nearly five months ago.

Titans long snapper Beau Brinkley knows all about it. Not only were he and his teammates limited to Zoom meetings in the offseason with no face-to-face organized team activities or minicamps, they also will head into the 2020 season now with no preseason games.

Brinkley might have a little more knowledge of the inner workings than the average player because his wife, Kayla, is an athletic trainer at Brentwood High School and is tasked with a similar responsibility as the Titans training staff.

She has to find ways to keep all the athletes as safe as possible and try to prevent the spread of the virus in the midst of playing a sport that has contact on every single play.

“She’s actually an athletic trainer, so she’s kind of going through the same formalities as what we’re going through as far as the steps we’re taking for high school kids and the trials they’re going through,” Brinkley explains.

“She’s just doing her part to make everything safe up there, so she kind of knows the ins and outs of what everyone’s going through in the sports world and that aspect of it. We’re both holding pretty true, and we just want to play some football.”

The Titans welcomed their rookies, quarterbacks and injured players July 23. The full squad reported Tuesday. Players were to be tested for Covid-19 upon arrival with tests continuing regularly for two weeks.

The practice process will begin with conditioning, followed by some 7-on-7 work and finally working up to 11-on-11 padded practices. Full padded practices – of which there are 14 – won’t be allowed by the league until at least Aug. 17.

Let them play

Titans players seem eager to play, despite health risks. They also know that they have to take extra precautions in order to keep themselves, their teammates and their families safe from the spread of COVID-19.

“We have this persona of being alpha males, but we’re people just like everyone else,’’ Brinkley says. “We might be a little stronger and a little faster in that regard, but we’re people first and foremost, and we worry about our families.

“Family comes first, and that’s just what everybody is worried about – me too. We just want to make sure our families are safe. We don’t want to put anybody at harm.

“But we also want to play football. I’m sure there’ll be guys that opt out. I’m sure there’s gonna be articles written about that, but when it comes down to it, it’s family first.

“You want to do everything you can to protect your family. In regards to football, you’ve got to be safe and you’ve got to be smart. You see these rules that the CDC is sending us, and you see the rules that our doctors and medical staff are sending us, and you’ve got to take them to heart. You’ve got to make sure you protect the ones you love.”

While neither Brinkley nor Mack say they have had anyone in their families test positive for the virus, running back Dalyn Dawkins says some who are close to him have had it.

“I’ve had some close friends and family. I’ve witnessed it from them, but they’ve recovered from it,” Dawkins says.

As a result, Dawkins says he understands why some players might choose to opt out in 2020, though he is ready to play as training camp was scheduled to open.

“We want to get back to playing, but we want to do it in a safe way, the safest way possible. The biggest thing is we just want to play,” Dawkins adds. “But I understand some of the people that have families or they’re worried about their pregnant wife or something like that. I understand what they’re worried about.”

But for Dawkins, who has bounced back and forth between the active roster and the practice squad during his two seasons in Tennessee, opting out was not an option.

“It’s our livelihood. For me, personally, I don’t want to waste a season if they’re playing.”

A matter of trust

While the NFL won’t put its players in a bubble, sealed away from the public like the NBA and NHL have done, plenty of testing measures will go on throughout the process, and players who test positive will be quarantined.

The NFL has agreed to allow practice call-ups for this season to replace players who test positive and to be able to return those players to the practice squad without the risk of losing them on waivers, which would normally happen under the collective bargaining rules.

That will make the movement of players more like major league baseball, with teams calling up a player from the minors when they need a replacement.

“I think guys are just kind of going with what they feel is most important,’’ Brinkley explains. “They’ve given us the option that if we want to stay home, we can. They’re giving us the best options to make sure we keep ourselves safe as well as our families.

“They’re exhausting all options in that regard, and so far I’m pretty happy with what they’re doing. It seems like they’re going in the right direction.

“Obviously, there are still a few things to be ironed out, but we’re just looking forward to it and trying to be as safe as we can.”

Mack, a bachelor in his second NFL season, admits staying home isn’t necessarily his first choice, but if it means the difference in being able to play football or not – or maybe even jeopardize the team or a teammate – the risk simply isn’t worth the potential consequences.

“It’s going to be tough, but you’ve got to think about your team. The team comes first,” Mack says. “There’s going to be an offseason, so you’ve just got to make it to the offseason. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Dawkins agrees.

“I don’t really go out anyway,” he says. “I’m kind of a chill person. I just like being by myself and hanging out with friends. I don’t think it’s going to affect me as much as it does somebody that really enjoys things like that.”

Ready for the unpredictable

One thing football coaches pride themselves on is having their players prepared for every possible scenario and being able to put their players in situations to succeed even in the most unpredictable situations.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel showed he was ready for the unknown when, in his first game as a head coach, he had to guide his team through two long lightning delays in Miami.

But compared to what has gone on this offseason and what could transpire in 2020 on the field, the lightning delays probably seem mild in comparison.

The Titans players credit their head coach with having a solid system set up for them through the use of Zoom meetings to get through the offseason. Now, they hope that off-kilter type of preparation can pay dividends for a team that has playoff and even Super Bowl aspirations.

Of the unusual offseason and how the Titans handled it, Mack gives a huge thumbs-up.

“It was good. A lot of us were very impressed with the coaches and how they did it. In a way, it was fun,” he says. “It was like being in a meeting, but with a computer. Guys were laughing and enjoying seeing each other, because we hadn’t seen each other in a good while. It was a good time.”

Adds Dawkins,” It was super weird, but it was still real productive.”

Brinkley notes that the changes are, and will be, a distraction for a time, but is confident the Titans staff will guide the team through it and find success.

“It’s just another distraction in football. Obviously, we know it’s gonna be different, but when it comes down to it, we want to perform and we want to win. All athletes are competitors and we want to win the game when it comes down to it,” Brinkley says.

Mack agrees, and says the key is simply making the best of the situation and being a professional, no matter the setting.

“It’s been different. It’s just one of those things where I feel like as a player, you’ve got to learn how to adjust to it and try and make the best of the situation,” Mack says.

“Coach tells us all the time, ‘You’ve still got to be a pro,’ and you’ve still got to handle it like a pro. I just feel a lot of us are trying to treat it like it is and make the best of the situation.”