The result wasn’t what we wanted, but yesterday, Kentucky Football returned to our lives. I made the trip to Auburn to cover it for KSR, my first sporting event since they kicked us out of the SEC Tournament back in March and my first time on the road since the LSU game in Baton Rouge in February. What is it like to cover a game during a pandemic? I had plenty of questions, so let me take you inside the experience.
How much hand sanitizer do I pack?
We’re all at a different place with COVID. On the spectrum of “Never leaving my house” to “Life is normal again,” I’m around, “Will eat outside at a restaurant but not inside.” I know people who have had the virus and parents who are high-risk, so I take it seriously. Therefore, I was apprehensive about going on the road, staying in a hotel, being around thousands of people, and sitting inside with strangers for several hours; trusting the unknown can be difficult, especially in these uncertain times™. So, I outfitted myself with the best armor we have until a vaccine is available — masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes — and hoped for the best.
The verdict? For the most part, it was fine. My hotel (Courtyard Marriott) observed safety protocols and had contactless check-in. My room was clean, had a wall AC unit and a window that opened a little bit. I still wiped things down, but that took little time and was well worth the peace of mind. I headed into town to get curbside pickup at The Hound, my favorite restaurant in Auburn, and was pleased to see most people wearing masks as they walked around. So far, so good. Back to the hotel to enjoy my shrimp and grits (The Hound’s are top three in my book), do some work, and hit the hay for an early start on Saturday.
No traffic and no tailgating
The one good thing about limited crowds is limited game day traffic. In Auburn’s case, the majority of the fans allowed in were students, which meant even fewer cars on the road. I planned to get to Jordan-Hare Stadium very early to take in the atmosphere and the drive in was a breeze. Waze (my navigation app) took me along fraternity row and even at 8:30 a.m., there were guys on the steps, presumably enjoying their first cold beverages of the day. Two cars ahead of me, another group of guys sat in the bed of a truck sipping from solo cups. With no tailgating allowed on campus, I guess that’s one way to get around the rules.
Outside the campus perimeter, some restaurants had tents and tables set up for fans to “tailgate,” but at the early hour, they were empty. After parking and masking up, I walked to the media entrance, which was next to one of the main student gates. In a sign of what was to come, some students observed the mask policy and others did not. There was some social distancing happening as they waited in line, which is better than none, I guess. Again, it was early, 30 minutes before the gates opened to fans.
Temperature checks upon entry
On Thursday, Auburn emailed credentialed media a COVID health questionnaire to fill out, which included a self-temperature check. At the gate, temperatures were checked again and I clocked in at a cool 96.8 degrees. As the gate attendant and I joked, there’s always something reassuring about that.
Onward and upward!
Spaced Out Press Box
The press box was probably my biggest worry headed in. We were told ahead of time that masks are required throughout the stadium, inside and out, but would people abide by that policy? Would it be like some pro stadiums I’ve seen that have plexiglass between seats? No to the plexiglass, but chairs were removed to space us six feet apart. Giant bottles of hand sanitizer were available throughout the room and even some bathroom stalls were blocked off to ensure space. Instead of the typical media buffet, we were given box lunches (Full Moon BBQ breakfast biscuits, grits, and a fruit cup). At halftime, snacks were passed out. As for the masks, the majority of people in the press box kept theirs on, I think with the awareness that by doing so, maybe we can keep covering the sport that we love.
Time to head down to the field.
An almost normal pregame
When I cover games in person, the two hours before are always my favorite. I like to set my stuff up in the press box then walk around the field and watch the stadium come alive. In COVID times, this part of the experience is pretty much the same, albeit with masks. Watching Terry Wilson come out of the tunnel and take the field for the first time since his injury was special and almost brought me to tears. The small Kentucky contingent in the stands was mostly family and friends, so throughout warmups, players came over to greet their loved ones. Defensive end Isaiah Gibson got to share the experience with his newborn son, a very cool moment.
Auburn had the protocols in place
As students filed in, it was time for me to head back up to the press box. To Auburn’s credit, they had plenty of signs to encourage social distancing. Aisles and gates were marked one-way to discourage people from getting too close. Students were asked to only sit in the orange chairbacks, which were clustered in groups of two or four and spaced apart. The rows closest to the field were kept empty to protect those on the sidelines. Every police officer and member of the event staff wore masks. The restrictions carried over to the press, with only four photographers allowed on the field per game.
But…college students are going to be college students
You can put all of the protocols in place and beg people to comply, but at some point, people are just going to do what they want to do; that is especially true when it comes when it comes to college students, who think they are invincible. I get it. I used to be one. On my trek back up to the press box, I dodged students, who were clogging entry ways to take pictures and socialize. For most of them, this was probably the first time they’d been in a big group setting, and with football coming back, it was the first wonderful bit of normal they’d experienced in a while. While most stuck to the socially-distanced chairbacks, others did not, and I don’t envy the person who had to enforce that. Masks became fewer and far between as the sun came out and the temperatures climbed.
As the game went on, the atmosphere got weird
It’s one thing to be in a mostly empty stadium for warmups. But, as the game went on, the limited crowd and altered atmosphere became more and more noticeable. The SEC is prohibiting live animals on the field this year, so the War Eagle did not take its traditional flight (a major bummer for me since it was my first football game there). Instead, we got a military flyover, which was still cool but not the same as an eagle dipping around the stadium. The students were surprisingly loud (it seemed like there were more than 17,500), but not as loud as 90,000 unmasked fans fresh off a long tailgate.
We made it. pic.twitter.com/0L3cyDgHL3
— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) September 26, 2020
Auburn piped in crowd noise on third downs and when Kentucky was in the red zone. Their band was there, but Kentucky’s was not. In fact, Kentucky had maybe 50-75 fans there total. Cheerleaders stood in the stands, not on the sidelines. I didn’t even see a costumed mascot. At times, the stadium was noisy, but for the most part, the sights and sounds made it feel like a scrimmage — or, I guess, a Vanderbilt football game.
Will the new normal ever feel normal?
Man, I hope so. On our side, things were especially odd. All postgame press conferences took place via Zoom, with no reporters allowed in rooms with coaches and players. Because of that, only a handful of Kentucky media made the trip. As happy as I was to be back at a football game, many of the essential elements were missing. No tailgates to look wistfully upon as I waited in pregame traffic. No Cat Walk. No overwhelming roar in the stadium to get my blood pumping just before kickoff. No packed visitors’ section to glance at whenever Kentucky made a big play.
Certain things will be easy to adjust to, like wearing a mask. Before Saturday, the longest I’d worn my mask was three straight hours. After seven hours (with small breaks to eat and drink), I was grateful to finally peel it off in the car. Shoutout to those who do it daily. Yet, some things will be impossible to replace. So much of college football is rooted in pageantry and tradition. While it is undeniably wonderful to have the sport back in our lives, my trip to Auburn hammered home just how different this season will be, and Saturday was just the start.