EAST LAKE — On a recent mid-June morning, small groups of prospective East Lake High School football players gathered at the Eagles’ field, but there were no group huddles to be seen, no cracking of pads or clanging of weights to be heard and not a football in sight.
As the players waited, while socially distanced, in the parking lot, longtime Eagles head coach Bob Hudson and members of his staff collected paperwork and asked 10 coronavirus questions before practice began.
“Get used to this, because you’re going to hear it every day,” Hudson told the second group of players June 16, the second day teams were allowed to practice under Pinellas County Schools’ return-to-play plan.
Hudson, who is entering his 25th year as a head coach, the last 18 with the Eagles, admitted it’s been an adjustment to get used to the new guidelines, which call for outdoor workouts only and no more than 30 players and staff at the facility at one time under phase one of the plan.
“The biggest obstacle was we had only a two-week turnaround to get their doctor’s information when we would normally have had their team physicals in April,” he said. “And the other things is, getting the coaches to come in at different times, because everyone has different work schedules.
“This is my 24th, 25th year and I’ve been through everything from hurricanes to bomb scares, but I’ve never been through anything like this before.”
Hudson said they are trying to get used to the new normal, which includes the absence of physical contact in a sport that’s built around physical contact, both on and off the field.
“One of the biggest challenges is probably the proximity of the kids,” he said. “It’s tough to tell the kids, ‘When meeting your new coach, introduce yourself without shaking hands.’ We typically end each drill with all the players touching hands. Football is all about contact, on and off the field. But I tell the kids you’ve got to keep things in perspective. This is just football. People are losing their lives daily and we need to hammer it into their heads that the most important thing right now is staying safe.”
According to the plan, the first phase prohibits a return to the weight room, forcing the Eagles coaches to come up with alternative methods to get the kids in shape.
“We can bring the weights outside, but I’m not,” Hudson said, noting he’s focusing instead on agility and conditioning with and intense hour of stretching and flexing.
For Eagles’ strength and conditioning coach Mike Lube, the lack of weight room work is offset by the fact that they’re finally able to get back on the field.
“It’s good to just get the players out here, running and conditioning,” Lube said as he supervised a group of players doing wind sprints on the track that circles the football field. “You can only have so many Zoom meetings. It’s good to be able to have them face to face.”
Lube, a former USF player and coach and onetime Tarpon Springs head coach, said dealing with the new normal has “been a challenge, but it’s all about the safety of the players, so it’s all good,” and he joked he wouldn’t mind if they were forced to play games in unoccupied stadiums in the fall.
“I’m fine with no fans because then you’ll find out who’s really all about football and who’s playing for the girls in the stands!” he said.
Hudson, meanwhile, is just hoping they can make it to Monday, July 27, the planned first day of fall sports practice, without any stoppages or setbacks.
“The idea is to start July 27, but that decision has yet to be made,” he said, adding he felt Pinellas County Athletics Director Al Bennett was doing a terrific job getting everything organized. “There’s a lot of things still up in the air. But we still have to prepare. The only thing we can control is these next two weeks and then we’ll see where we’re at.”
Hudson said if and when the 2020 season does start, the expectations for the Eagles program, a Pinellas County powerhouse and perennial playoff contender the last decade, will be the same.
“The scoreboard is gonna be on so we’re gonna go out and compete this year like every year, try to get in the playoffs and try to win a championship,” Hudson said. “We’ve ingrained it in them here and that formula helps us be successful, to work hard, to know the playbook and be ready to play.”