At 73, Phil Hayford is on his second rodeo, at least as it pertains to infectious diseases with a global impact.
In some ways, the COVID-19 crisis seems the rerun of a snippet from his youth in west central Nebraska. The Keswick Christian football coach remembers standing in a line that snaked outside the Ogallala High gym as townspeople awaited a dose of the polio vaccine developed by a researcher back East named Jonas Salk.
“I can remember standing out there for hours and stuff, and we went inside and we got the vaccine,” said Hayford, embarking on his 50th season of coaching. “I do remember seeing people before that with masks on. I had two friends whose mothers had to sleep in an iron lung.”
More than 60 years later, Hayford finds himself embedded in a similar worldwide medical crisis. Though not a worrier by nature, he is taking no chances with the novel coronavirus. His age, coupled with his rheumatoid arthritis that requires a shot every couple of weeks, prompted him to put on a mask before they were even mandated.
“I may dry up because of all the hand sanitizer and all those kinds of things,” he said. “But I just try to be safe.”
Nonetheless, if and when the Crusaders are permitted to practice and play, Hayford will lead them, buoyed by his deep-seated Christian faith and what he deems a lifelong calling to coach.
“I thought, ‘Is this something I really need to be doing?’ And I think it is,” said Hayford, who now coaches his grandson.
“I just feel like at this point in time, if I walked away, man that would be another hard thing. These kids are resilient, they’d bounce back, but I just thought, ‘Here’s one more thing they’d have to consider.’”
The bay area’s oldest active head football coach, Hayford will have company in his age demographic whenever the area’s prep season commences. At least five area coaches are 64 or older, making them members of the chronological bracket considered more susceptible to COVID-19 and its unyielding effects.
One of them, 65-year-old Rick Kravitz of Admiral Farragut, won’t coach this fall because his school — an international boarding academy — has chosen not to participate this season. But the others are forging onward. Albeit cautiously.
They include Hillsborough’s Earl Garcia (68), Berkeley Prep’s Dominick Ciao (68) and Dixie Hollins’ Dale Caparaso (64).
“I’m a little concerned,” said Caparaso, who also teaches physical education at the school. “If we’re going back to school, I’m as concerned about going back to school as I am about coaching. I can keep my distance in coaching, I’m not sure I can keep my distance in school.”
Similarly, Garcia remains sobered by the statistics he sees daily in newspapers and on social media. In light of those grim numbers, he says his staff is following all county guidelines for supervised summer workouts “to a tee.”
But he’ll carry no fear into his 47th season on the sideline.
“I wish we could’ve gotten started (Monday),” said Garcia, 68. “As soon as they tell us we can go out, we’ll do exactly what the protocols mandate us to do and we’ll go. I’m not worried about it at all, not for myself.”
Speaking of protocols, Caparaso has assembled a sprawling list of “return to play” guidelines for the Rebels that he has shared with his administration and coaching peers in Pinellas. He acknowledges compiling it as much for his staff — which features two other coaches over 60 — as his players.
The guidelines include shorter practice times (typically 90 minutes a day), less live contact, and “helmet cleanse” periods every 15 minutes, during which staffers spray down players’ helmets with a bleach-and-water mixture.
Additionally, Caparaso will allow only 10 players inside the locker room at a time before and after practices. In that staggered system, linemen would exit practice first on a given day, allowing skill players more time on the field. The following day, the order would be reversed.
And film sessions, for now, will be done virtually.
“We can proudly stand in front of our parents and say we are doing everything that we possibly can to protect our kids,” Caparaso said. “And to be really honest with you, as an older guy that’s concerned about this, if I’m gonna touch a bag, I want every bag wiped down. I want every helmet wiped down.”
Yet for all these precautions, Caparaso says he’s no more concerned about coaching than any other aspect of life during this surreal juncture.
And when coaching is your life, you adapt and press forward.
“I think these kids really need it,” Hayford said.
“We’re all teammates. We need that fellowship, we need that common goal and those kinds of things, and that’s what you’re gonna get from football. And if we take that away, boy I tell you, that’s gonna be tough. It’s gonna be tough on me.”
He’d rather take the calculated risk that will accompany the upcoming season, all while exercising protocols and prudence.
Panic? That dissipates with age.
“I’ve decided I’m not gonna get [the virus),” Garcia said. “And if I get it, I’ll beat it. And if I don’t beat it, it’ll kill me. So what is there to worry about?”