Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Nick Miller is a graduate student in the University of Oregon’s journalism program and is currently taking courses remotely in Maine due to the pandemic. He is a former high school teacher, assistant football coach and head baseball coach at Foxcroft Academy.

Anyone who’s been involved with high school football knows the feeling of being on the wrong end of a halftime blowout. Football is a violent sport, so when you lose control of the scoreboard, it often feels like you’ve lost control physically, emotionally, and psychologically. But those who have been around the game know that there are valuable lessons to be learned when defeat is imminent. You don’t stop playing hard, and you definitely don’t start pointing fingers.

COVID-19 is steamrolling high school sports in Maine, and with the recent decision to reassess football in 2021, we’re well past halftime. We need to stop pointing fingers, and focus on helping student athletes cope without football this fall.

The vitriol directed at the Maine Principals Association, the governor’s office and the Maine Department of Education is all over local sports pages and social media, and it’s understandable. But now that football is out this fall for sure, we need to redirect our energy to the players.

Most people who disagree with pushing football back have cited mental health concerns among players, and they’re right. So let’s work on it.

Competitive sports end for all of us at some point, and the effects of stepping away from a game that means so much can be devastating. The sad stories of ex-athletes who fade away into unfulfilled lives are well documented, and it was a problem well before the pandemic hit. The sense of purpose, self-esteem, community, and identity that define our time as athletes can fade away when sports are done. We need to help our high school football players in Maine find that sense of purpose and identity now — we can’t wait for that first tentatively scheduled spring game in 2021.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that it’s up to us, not outside entities, to take control of our lives. So what can we do? For starters, let’s stop dragging the players into our own vendettas against the forces that put a stop to football this fall. It’s done. Time to stop jabbing the MPA and Gov. Janet Mills and start helping these guys develop lifelong interests and hobbies.

For starters, the Maine woods abound with recreational opportunities in the fall. Trout and salmon fishing can be spectacular in September, partridge and duck hunting heats up in October and deer hunting lasts through November. Let’s get off our keyboards and take a high school football player bird hunting after school. He might be amazed at how good he feels after breathing some fresh air, and he might have a healthy new lifetime activity to pass down to his kids.

Let’s also not forget that school is in session. Your favorite offensive tackle might not be psyched about literature or biology, but there are plenty of clubs and activities to get involved in at every Maine high school. Encourage him to take up photography, learn the guitar, join a drama production or throw himself into community service. The absence of football will still be felt, but it can be mitigated.

It’s important to use time freed up by the pandemic to work on mental health too. Exercise routines like running or calisthenics workouts from YouTube are good daily habits. So are yoga, meditating, reading, cooking and journaling. Let’s encourage our players to adopt some of these habits instead of dwelling on what they lost.

Football is supposed to teach us how to be better men when we leave the field for good. That’s why sports are such a key part of a comprehensive education. We can’t lose focus of those lessons now that the game is gone this fall. The hole left in these players’ lives is bigger than even the most ardent high school football fan can comprehend. It’s high time we stop worrying about what might’ve been, and start thinking about how we can fill that space.