Coaches, ADs turned skills toward pandemic over past year
Athletics have always been a part of life on the Navajo Nation. It’s something that kids and adults can enjoy together and is a source of pride and inspiration for many. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, sports were cancelled for the first time in living memory.
Carl Adams is the athletics director and also girls’ basketball coach for St. Michael Indian School. Like many of his fellow directors, a year ago he heard of the virus and predicted that it was going to come to the Navajo Nation — but not in the way that it did.
“I just kind of thought at the time that this pandemic was bound to hit the reservation. I didn’t expect it to hit so hard on the reservation,” Adams said.
During the summer of 2020, Arizona became one of the most infected states in the U.S. Most of those numbers came from the Navajo Nation.
According to Chinle Athletic Director Shaun Martin, this was something he — and frankly nobody — had ever seen before.
“I would have never thought that something like this would ever happen,” Martin said, “to force us to shut down schools and cancel sports to save our people. We always hear and been told about the Spanish flu and other pandemics that have happened in the past, and there have always been horror movies about breakouts and things like that. But through my coaching and teaching career I never thought we would be in the situation we are in now — having been no students in the school for a year, no sports, no extracurricular activities for a year.”
Ryan Dodson is the athletic director for Window Rock High and president of the 3A North Region. He explained that being an athletic director can be a demanding job. From maintaining gymnasiums to scheduling games, Dodson is used to being busy. The pandemic, however, brought everything to a halt and he realized they needed to adapt.
“So, all of us as athletic directors took on other responsibilities and the shift change from athletics to community,” Dodson said. “(The question was) What can we do to help out communities battle this pandemic?”
Many things, as it turned out. Dodson helped secure a deal with organizations to help distribute food and supplies to his community while also helping to deliver education packets to the students. Martin also helped in food drives, giving out laptops and school packets to the students. He also assisted in converting the Chinle Community Center into an alternative care site for COVID patients when the hospital ran out of room. In Tuba City, AD James Roe, Jr. organized food distribution and used the school’s parking lot as a COVID testing site.
Even though the directors put their minds and hearts to helping the people, they also harbored the small hope of there being an athletic season. But due to the severity of the pandemic on the Navajo Nation, the northeast section asked the Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board to allow them to have their own sports calendar that was separate from that of the rest of the state. The agreement allowed the northeast schools to plan their own schedules among each other when the pandemic allowed while also utilizing resources from the AIA.
To date, St. Michael is the only school that felt confident in participating in sports. They had a brief cross-country season before having a full basketball season.
“It’s not just taking that information and implementing it into our program,” Adams said. “It’s taking that information and how we can do things a little stricter on our side and keeping kids safe and to compete back into athletics.”
Adams explained that the reasoning behind the decision was out of student safety. He said that at the time around winter sports there were many private clubs being created for young athletes to join and compete in. Concerningly, some of these clubs weren’t following basic safety measures when it came to the virus. Adams felt that if the school started its sports activity then at least it could ensure proper safety measures would be taken, from site sanitation to imposing a face-mask mandate. When the AIA voted to remove the mask mandate a few weeks ago, some schools immediately dropped the precaution, but not St. Michael, which continued to wear face coverings all the way up to state.
“The kids were happy that we got the season,” Adams said. “They were happy they got to represent the Navajo Nation. Our girls got knocked out in the final four yesterday but they were humbled to be out there to represent us and knowing that we can do sports safely.”
As for the other schools, they continued to plan and schedule with one another should the opportunity come where they could have a safe sports season for the kids. When schools were cancelled in spring last year, they planned for fall. Then winter. Now some are looking hopefully to August.
“We’re optimistic as athletic directors,” Dodson said. “We were always hoping that the return of sports would happen and we were always planning for the moment … As the dates come and go, you just start to become more of a realist and thought, ‘You know what? It doesn’t look like athletics is going to happen.’ So now our shift in energy has turned to summer activities as well as the upcoming fall season.”
Almost all the directors are of the same mind when it comes to athletics: It’s an essential ingredient for a youth’s development. They see it as something that can build confidence, offer structure and, as a bonus, it presents an opportunity for students to go to college. With athletics cancelled, they can’t help but worry about the students’ development.
“If you study the human psyche and what we thrived on, we are social beings, social creatures and we thrive off of relationship building,” Martin said. “We haven’t been able to do that for a year so we really need to get that picked up and going again when it comes to being able to lean over and talk to your friend.”
As the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic passes, there are some hopes that things will improve this coming year.
“I watch the numbers, all the health data released by the state of Arizona and also the Navajo Nation Department of Health and right now the numbers are improving,” Martin said.
“The data is showing we have less infections, less transmissions and we have gone, on the Navajo Nation, from a red status to an orange status. What that means is that there is a soft reopening for the Navajo nation, that is a good sign, an indicator that we have been waiting for a year for, we are moving in the right direction.”
After a year of crushing anxiety, depression and mourning, the availability of a vaccine and knowledge may help the nation move back to a sense of normalcy.
“A year ago, we were all being very cautious and I always say this: The difference between a year ago and today is we know more,” Dodson said. “We know more information. Is it any more dangerous? Is it any less dangerous? No. … We know how to protect ourselves. We know how to protect our elders.”
As the struggle against the pandemic slowly lightens, the directors give praise to their fellow leaders and thank their communities for coming together and supporting their schools and one another during this time of great hardship.
“Seeing students when they come by the school to drop off homework, or pick up homework, just seeing them in person, it’s so exciting for me as an educator. I’m just so proud of the students for just continuing to not let the pandemic get the best of them,” Dodson said.
St. Michael is planning to host some spring games where safety will continue to be a number one priority.
“We hope that this is just one year of COVID and hopefully next year and hopefully this summer we can see more teams out there,” Adams said. “You will definitely see us out there, wearing our masks and continuing on into making sure we have a summer season as well.”
Although it was a horrible year, lessons were learned and a brighter tomorrow could be around the corner.
“I think the community has done absolutely outstanding in protecting our most important assets: our elders and our children,” Martin said. “Just outstanding work on that end, thank you. And to our school district and administration, I think we did an outstanding job making sure our students and staff are safe, so a big thank you to that side. And then finally to our students, stay strong, stay smart, stay doing the important things to protect you and your families and we’ll get back into the classrooms and back onto the courts soon enough.”