COLUMBUS (WCMH) – Student-athletes from the state’s largest school district called practice Saturday morning a “second chance.”
“I think it’s as important to us as breathing,” said Shawn Munnerlyn, a senior co-captain for the Independence High School varsity football team.
The 76’ers were practicing plays and running conditioning drills Saturday morning for the first time since Columbus City Schools announced Thursday it was lifting a suspension of in-person athletics and activities. Earlier in August, the district halted both because of concerns over climbing COVID-19 case numbers.
“We all sat there, took a knee and started crying,” Orlando Jones said of the moment his team learned about the suspended season.
The senior co-captain explained the sport had become a critical outlet for him and his teammates during an especially violent year in their east side neighborhood.
“I lost a 2-year-old cousin and I lost a 20-year-old cousin [to violence] and a 14-year-old cousin got put in jail,” Jones said. “This is my only way out, this is my one-way ticket and I’m going to take it as far as I can.”
The multi-position athlete received interest from college recruits during his junior season, but was counting on his senior year to solidify a scholarship.
“I got hurt my junior year and was out for the season. I’ve only got one shot. That’s it,” Jones explained.
Munnerlyn is committed to play football for Rutgers University in 2021. He said he also cried at the prospect of losing a season because he feared missing the final chance to play with his longtime teammates.
“Most of us have been playing since we were 4. Most of us came up together,” Munnerlyn said.
Both captains said the team is not wasting the opportunity to play and everyone is hungry for success this year.
“If we keep coming out and hitting it, I feel like we’re going to have a good chance of going as far as we want to go,” Munnerlyn said.
Head coach Maurice Douglas said the team is balancing rigorous practice with safety measures.
“These kids need to be out here, they need to be around positive role models and this is very good for them,” Douglas said. “But at the same time, we have an obligation to keep them safe.”
The team was practicing Saturday without direct contact and trying their best to distance themselves from each other. Douglas said because they took a several week break, it was important to ease back into playing. Next week, they planned to practice with helmets and eventually full pads.
He explained no one is taking the safety precautions or the second-chance season lightly.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the safety of our student-athletes,” Douglas said. “We want to make sure we can not only get them on the field, but keep them safe at the same time.”
The Independence High School athletic director said CCS schools were still discussing what the 2020 football season will look like. He expected the first games would start by mid-September.