Will Higson and roughly 30 of his Haverford High football teammates went through a grueling, 45-minute workout under a blazing sun Monday afternoon.

Normally, Higson and his teammates would have worn helmets for this training session, as Monday was supposed to be the first day of the PIAA’s week-long heat acclimatization period for football.

These, though, are not normal times.

The PIAA pushed back the heat acclimatization week's start to Aug. 24 as it tries to figure out if there will be high school athletics in the fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. So T-shirts and shorts were the order of the day Monday, with not a helmet in sight.

That wasn’t the only sign that things are different in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. After the session was over, Haverford coach Joe Gallagher called the players together for the usual post-workout pep talk, only the players did not gather around their coach in tight cluster as is customary.

Instead, they spread out, standing the socially accepted six-feet apart, and all wearing masks, including Gallagher.

“We’re preparing as if there’s going to be a season,” Higson said. “We’re working hard every day. When we leave here we do our best to stay safe, social distance, wear a mask and stay away from things that can harm the football season because I know everybody on this team will do anything to have a season.”

Higson has been down this road before. A three-sport athlete who earned All-Delco honors in football last season, Higson missed out on his junior baseball season when the PIAA shutdown the spring campaign before it began. He doesn’t want to go through that experience again.

“I’m trying not to let it affect me too much and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that,” said Higson, who also plays basketball for the Fords and is receiving recruiting interest as a linebacker. “We’re remaining optimistic and hoping for the best. It was tough losing baseball, but there really isn’t anything we can do about it. We’re just going to play the hand we’re dealt and hope for the best.”

At this point, hope is all players and coaches have. The decision on whether or not to play is beyond their control. That’s up to some combination of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, the PIAA and individual school districts. Wolf recommended that no sports be played until Jan. 1, 2021.

The Philadelphia Public League took that recommendation to heart Monday and announced that there will be no interscholastic athletics until the New Year. Pottstown and Norristown have canceled fall seasons in their school districts. Phoenixville did the same for all fall sports with the exception of golf and girls singles tennis. Many other leagues have pushed back the start of the fall sports season. NCAA Division II and III have canceled their fall championships, and the Power Five conferences are reportedly talking about pulling the plug on fall sports, with two mid-major conferences (the Mid-American and Mountain West) opting to cancel all sports including football in the last two days.

Many schools, including Haverford and Upper Darby, announced plans to start the school year in a virtual-learning setting. It’s tough to justify bringing kids physically to the building for athletics if its not safe enough to bring them in for class.

Yet the hope remains that something can be worked out, where sports can be played safely. And that is what keeps athletes like Upper Darby’s Darryl Farmer going, to do their best to spread that optimism to anyone who will listen, especially their teammates.

Dave Barr, Upper Darby’s first-year coach, credited Farmer and fellow senior Josh Dennis with being instrumental in keeping the players upbeat and together as the team tries to navigate these turbulent times.

“They don’t let the guys focus on things that we can’t control,” Barr said. “We talk about that to them all the time. The weather, can’t control it. It’s going to be hot. Hydrate, that’s all we can control. We tell them all the time that we can only worry about the things that we can control.”

Farmer sees keeping his teammates upbeat as a duty, because they’re more than just teammates.

“We’re brothers,” said Farmer, a running back/defensive back who is receiving interest from Division II and III schools, according to Barr. “We go over each other’s houses and see each other every day. We know what we have to do and how we have to do and that is to stay focused.”

Athletes are trained to stay positive and overcome adversity. Their mindset is focused on the next play, the next game, to always get better. That’s what people like Higson and Farmer are doing. They show up every day that a workout session is scheduled to stay in shape and to improve, even as they wait for the go/no-go signal to come from above.

It’s all they can do.

“The way we deal with it is to work hard every day,” Higson said. “We’re expecting to have a season. We’re expecting to play football at some point this season so we’re going to keep working hard every day like any other year and prepare ourselves the best we can for football, whenever that may be.”

They’re sending a message and it is loud and clear.

“Let us play,” Farmer said. “We need to play.”

To contact Terry Toohey email ttoohey@21st-centurymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TerryToohey.

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