With excitement - but caution - welcome back to high school football

It's been 473 days since the last high school football game was played in Illinois.

That night, in frigid temperatures and driving rain at NIU's Huskie Stadium, Lincoln-Way East beat Warren 12-0 in the Class 8A title game.

No one had an inkling on Nov. 30, 2019, it would be 473 days before another prep football game would be played.

On that Thanksgiving weekend, little did any of us expect a deadly virus would render sports of all kinds insignificant for the better part of a year.

And now, we stand on the brink of high school football spring-style for 2021.

Yes, it's time for Friday Night Lights - and Saturday afternoon football, and Thursday night football - whatever it takes to get six weeks of games in for all the athletes, coaches, parents, fans and high school sports writers who have waited patiently, in most cases anyway, to hear the pads cracking again.

Let's be perfectly clear: The next six weeks will not come without challenges.

Already some schools have canceled their Week 1, and in some cases, Week 2 games due to COVID-19 protocols.

"Never been through anything like this, ever," lamented Niles North and former South Elgin coach Pat Pistorio Tuesday, just hours after having to tell his team its Week 1 game was canceled due to Vernon Hills' COVID-related issues.

Athletic directors have been scrambling, trying to come up with the fairest way to accommodate spectators, with the state public health department just last week easing the gathering restrictions for outdoor events from 50 people to 20 percent of stadium capacity.

The bands may play, the cheerleaders may cheer, and depending on which school you're at, maybe you'll be able to get a cold (or hot) drink, but who gets those precious tickets will vary from school to school. The one clear thing is, as one AD told me, "Darned if I do, darned if I don't."

But more important than who gets to watch the games is keeping those participating - the athletes, coaches, officials and trainers - safe. People have been reminded the pandemic is not over despite great strides in slowing the spread and vaccine availability.

Everyone at every game, including the players, will be wearing masks. Schools will be diligent about protocols, including social distancing. An abundance of caution will be the priority.

The other priority will be to see the kids having fun playing the game they love.

As we get ready for high school football spring-style, it's incumbent on each of us who has a part to ensure this season happens.

No one deserves it more than those who have waited 473 days for it to happen.

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