Elijah Larbi stood near a practice field shortly after participating in a Frederick County Public Schools Return to Play workout on Wednesday.
The voluntary workouts restarted this week after being shut down on July 29, a stoppage prompted by the postponement of FCPS fall and winter sports until after the first semester because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It feels good to get back to some type of normalization,” Larbi said. “I’m hopeful that nothing bad happens and we have to stop or anything.”
No one could blame Larbi for worrying about such a possibility. His high school athletic career has included numerous stoppages, and the first one came long before the health crisis hit.
Larbi, a senior, plays football for Thomas Johnson. The wide receiver-outside linebacker was a member of the 2019 Patriots varsity team that folded after one game, and he played the remainder of the season on TJ’s junior varsity team.
Like his teammates, Larbi expected the varsity team to compete again this fall. And if all went as planned, the Patriots would’ve played their season-opener Friday night against Smithsburg.
But thanks to the pandemic-related postponement of the fall sports season, the full-fledged return of TJ varsity football has been put on hold. Still, the Return to Play workouts are a sign the program exists again and is poised to play again if some sort of season is held during the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.
“It’s put us into a tough situation, but we bend, we don’t break,” TJ junior quarterback Brandon Hylton said. “We’re going to keep coming back out, we’re going to keep working out, any opportunities that they allow us.
“We’re just going to keep working hard, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
That’s what TJ coach Bobby Humphries likes to hear. He said about 40 football players have turned out this week for the voluntary workouts, which are comprised of agility drills — no pads, helmets or contact. Athletes are grouped in pods, which can’t include more than 15 people, and workouts for fall sports teams run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 23.
“It felt really good because we were really scared that we weren’t going to have anything until spring or anything,” Hylton said. “So it was good to get at least three weeks in the fall to get the groove back and get our numbers back up.”
Humphries, a former TJ star in his third season at the helm of his alma mater, said he still loses sleep over the decision to fold the 2019 varsity team. Seniors saw their TJ careers end abruptly, and a once-dominant program was gone.
Started in 1966, TJ’s football team won a state title in 1982 and played in two other MPSSAA championship games, including in 2011.
But last season, TJ didn’t have enough experienced players to continue competing against varsity competition, especially against state powerhouses like Linganore. After losing athletes for various reasons, its roster shrunk from 22 to 14 players.
“Last year, we didn’t feel comfortable playing a varsity schedule,” TJ athletic director Mike Chavez said. “We just felt that we had way too many young players. We were concerned about safety and we just felt that it was better for us. And we knew it was going to be difficult to shut a varsity program.”
The team planned to return in 2020 with a roster bolstered by a crop of younger players who gained experience on the junior varsity team, which continued to compete after the varsity team folded.
“We felt pretty comfortable with the numbers we had that we were going to have a varsity program regardless,” Chavez said. “Of course, we also thought we were also going to get in the weight room, but that got shut down, too.”
He was referring to the pandemic-related shutdown, which forced schools to close on March 16 and shuttered gyms, including public ones, throughout most of the spring.
If players didn’t have weightlifting equipment in their homes, they likely weren’t packing on muscle, and the loss of that essential offseason ritual was just one of the virus-produced obstacles TJ confronted.
Like any coach, Humphries strives to build and maintain relationships with players during the offseason. Such a task was difficult with everyone quarantined for months.
“Before March, we were getting a lot of guys that were excited,” Humphries said. “And then March happened, and everything just kind of got decimated.”
All county teams suffered a similar fate, but TJ was the only one trying to start back up after folding.
“They need to talk to us and build those relationship ... COVID has taken that away,” Humphries said. “It’s been harder for us not having that team from last year and coming into this uncertain year and trying to go from not having something to rebuilding something in this climate.”
Nonetheless, players talked up the team, trying to get classmates to join up. One who did so was junior wide receiver Cheikh Ndiong.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if I wasn’t playing football,” he said. “I want to get everybody out here to play football as much as they can.”
“It’s been a lot of texts, a lot of calls, putting information out just to increase our numbers,” said Hylton, who wore a dark blue TJ football compression shirt. “Because at the end of the day, football’s a numbers game, so the more you have, the better off you’ll be.”
One of the reasons TJ lacked a steady supply of players was because it went about five years without a primary feeder program after Thomas Johnson Area Youth (TJAY) folded.
That problem has been addressed. Thomas Johnson Youth Athletic Association is rebuilding a feeder program for TJ. Humphries said the organization is holding fundraisers.
“They’re actually having a camp that’s coming up for kids that are in the feeder area, that just want to get out and move around, to use the football terminology,” said Humphries, adding that social distancing would be observed during such activities.
“It’s in place, there’s a committee that’s starting to ask the questions and reach out to the community so that we can start a feeder pattern and start that feeder program,” he said. “So that kids are coming into high school already understanding football and knowing what positions they’re playing and just knowing the ins and outs of football and having that knowledge.”
TJ players like Larbi and Ndiong both played football for the first time as freshmen.
“I tried out, I liked it, and now I play it,” Larvi said.
Of course, when Larvi was a freshman, he actually got to set foot in the high school building. Not so for this year’s ninth graders. FCPS is starting the school year with distance learning to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, so attracting newcomers to the program could be all-the-more challenging.
Humphries said the bulk of players at this week’s workouts were veterans. He hoped to see more freshmen turn out in the coming days.
Program veterans like Hylton, Larvi and Ndiong figure drills they do now will help prepare them to play in the first TJ varsity football game since Sept. 6, when the Patriots suffered a 49-0 road loss to eventual Class 2A state champ Middletown. If that game happens, it likely will be held in early 2021.
The MPSSAA has been working on plans for all high school sports — fall, winter and spring — to have some sort of competitive season during the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.
Cramming sports from three different seasons into half a school year could make it tough on multi-sport athletes like Ndiong, who also plays basketball and competes in track and field. He didn’t seem bothered by that prospect, though.
“Either way, I’m committed to football, honestly, so we’re going to see how that goes,” he said after Wednesday’s workout. “I’m going to try my hardest on this.”