Meade football traveled to Middletown, Delaware, with only 26 players on Sept. 10. By halftime, there weren’t enough healthy bodies left to continue the game.
Seven players suffered injuries in those opening two quarters — one serious enough to land him an overnight stay in the hospital. So coach Mike Francis, already with several junior varsity players he pulled up playing out of position, was faced with a decision he never thought he would have to make.
“I feel more comfortable forfeiting for the safety of our kids than go through what we went through,” Francis said after that Friday game. “I’ve never felt so low, as a coach, as a leader.”
Shortly after that trip, Francis predicted Meade wouldn’t play another game. So far, it hasn’t, but it plans to.
Although last Friday’s canceled game was due to an officials issue, the Mustangs intend to play Broadneck this Friday evening.
Currently, Meade lists 20 varsity players on its roster. It’s a fluid number and likely to change again after Oct. 1, when academic probation us up.
Meade athletic director Jamie Cook noted the team had similar numbers in the spring and opted to play.
“When it goes lower, we’ll consider the safety of it,” Cook said. “Right now, we feel we can compete.”
Everything that could’ve gone wrong for Meade on its trip to Delaware did, according to Francis.
A bus mix-up led to an arrival past the scheduled game time. Francis said a warm-up period was carved into the adjusted kickoff time, but it wasn’t enough. The injuries piled up quickly.
Junior Darrell Walter suffered PCL and meniscus tears in addition to torn ligaments and a fracture in his knee, ending his season. Around the same time Walter went down, Meade staff was attending to and cutting the pads off one of his teammates, CJ Straughn, for another injury.
By halftime, there were several other players knocked out with knee injuries and another with an injured neck.
Long before the rash of injuries, Keisha Walter had concerns about her son Darrell — who has asthma — being asked to play entire games. He’d ask his coaches to come out, drink water, and then get put back in.
But he wanted to be out there. Now, post-injury, Keisha Walter said she sees a drastic change.
“He broke his wrist playing with JV, he hurt his ankle playing youth football, [but] my son was always stressing about getting back on the field,” she said. “Now, he’s not even talking about it. He’s not worried about getting back into football.”
Two years ago, Meade football was changing its culture and making a return to playoff contention. Its student-athletes were getting better grades. Things have unraveled quickly.
“It’s like the spring. We’re still feeling the effects of COVID,” Francis said.
The Mustangs dealt with low participation during the four-week spring season, which Francis attributed at the time to mostly discomfort from athletes and their families about playing during a pandemic.
In 2020, the coaching staff from the previous season also exited the team. Before this fall, several players transferred out of Meade as well.
The effect of the numerous transfers was compounded by the fact that 11 athletes, many of them experienced players expected to start at skill positions, were deemed academically ineligible to play this season.
Academic struggles at Meade aren’t just reserved for football, though. The Mustangs’ varsity field hockey team has only 12 players after two would-be starters, both seniors, were deemed academically ineligible.
For the football team, however, the lack of players has created safety issues.
Anne Arundel County student-athletes must have maintained a 2.0 GPA, or “C” average, during the previous semester to compete in fall sports. The county has a process in which an athlete can regain eligibility after 16 school days of a study hall period after the start of the school year. The earliest, then, an athlete can regain academic eligibility and return to the team is Oct. 1, a month into the season.
“We certainly empathize and understand. We don’t want to put teams in a position where athletes struggle,” Anne Arundel County coordinator of athletics Clayton Culp said, “but at the same time, we always prioritize the student first and athlete second. This is a program we’ve had for over two decades and is something we really believe in.”
Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard counties each waived grade-point average requirements for fall athletes. Carroll County adjusted its eligibility requirements so that athletes no longer were required to have a weighted 2.0 GPA, instead only needing to have earned passing grades in the final marking period of the 2020-21 school year to compete in fall sports.
Culp noted COMAR, or Code of Maryland Regulations, allows each local school system to establish standards of participation “which assure that students involved in interscholastic athletics are making satisfactory progress toward graduation.”
“That’s what we feel like we’re doing here,” Culp said. “I do understand some counties have different policies this year. We have stuck with our program that we really believe in, that doesn’t prevent someone from participating. They can still be on a team and be actively engaged with their team. They just can’t play until such a time that they get a grade check.”
Carmen Valle said her son Alvis Gunn, a senior and football player at Meade, is unmotivated in class without sports this fall. Last year, fall came and went without a football season amid the pandemic, and Gunn’s grades reflected as much.
Valle felt that if this was a problem at other schools there would have already been a change. At football tryouts for other schools around the county, more than 100 students came to tryouts. “And here we are at Meade with a bunch of kids who are already struggling to find a purpose, and then you’re making them ride the bench for half the season,” Valle said.
Valle tried to take her concerns to the Board of Education on Sept. 1, but the board closed the session to the public citing safety concerns. She also spoke with some other parents and hopes to organize some kind of protest before the board to enact change.
But now, more than three weeks into the season, she fears that she’s too late.
“I’m not saying that my kid is the only difference [on the team], but you can tell when he’s not on the field, and it’s frustrating because his junior year was [already] taken from him,” Valle said, “and it’s not anything he did, it was the world circumstance. Yes, we need to enforce their grades, and there need to be restrictions in place. But keeping them from the one thing they love to do I feel is detrimental as opposed to beneficial to them.”
Shannon Bigelow’s son, Victor, achieved honor-roll grades before the pandemic but his academics suffered during the 2020-21 school year and he was deemed ineligible to start the fall.
“The pandemic mentally disturbed some of these kids, really got to their psyche. My son was in football six days a week and then went to nothing,” Shannon Bigelow said. “And now, he’s like, ‘Now, I can’t even play.’ It’s just disheartening. There should be, at least for this year, some exception.”
Victor Bigelow missed a true junior season alongside countless other players, wiping out a key year for college recruiting. Now, he’s missing an additional five weeks of playing time, leaving the burden on his mother to send out old playing film in order for her son to potentially get noticed.
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“Our county is being strict with the eligibility requirements, but you have colleges who will come and take a kid that has bad grades and work with them to get eligible for their college or have them on probation entering their college,” Bigelow said. “So why does it fall on them in high school?”