Landon Nelson knew he wanted to play college football since the eighth grade. So when officials in California announced that the state would not be allowing fall sports because of COVID-19, he and his family uprooted their lives so he could stay in the game.
“I knew there’s always a possibility that they could not play in the spring, and I couldn’t really take that risk,” said Nelson, a senior defensive back from San Luis Obispo, a city about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
After seeing that Iowa had implemented a belated softball and baseball season, Nelson and his parents decided to move to the Hawkeye State — jobs, home and all — so he could play in the fall semester at West Des Moines Valley High School and keep his football dream alive. He hopes to play for Harvard University.
“There are some schools that are really interested in him that just need one or two more games of film to make their ultimate decision,” said his father, Cory. “By making this move, we’re going to give him a little bit more tape, he’s going to get the in-person schooling, and so I really do feel like it’ll pay off.”
While many may view the disruption of youth sports as just another inconvenience caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the loss of athletics for families who have spent years making personal sacrifices and financial investments in their children’s athletic careers is causing some to take drastic action. Nelson is among dozens of high school athletes who — specifically because of the pandemic — have moved across state lines to continue to pursue their athletic dreams, according to local news reports.
They represent a small portion of the overall competition for college scholarships, which is intense even in regular years. Even before the coronavirus emerged, it was common for students to transfer schools in search of higher-profile teams and opportunities. But now, the pandemic has added a new dynamic to the already complex — and often-critiqued — world of high-stakes high school sports.
Not every family with a talented aspiring athlete has the means to make such a move, raising questions of fairness as the recent trend becomes one of many examples of the COVID-19 pandemic’s widening the opportunity gap based on socioeconomic status. The students who are now moving aren’t just the elite players who have been offered inducements from recruiters to relocate.
Brett Kuczynski is a senior long snapper who has been eyeing Division I schools. So when some states started to greenlight fall football, Kuczynski’s family made the decision for Brett and his mother, Denise, to move to their vacation home in Florida, leaving her husband and daughter behind in Illinois.
“We figured why not utilize the property that we already own to our advantage, so we are very fortunate that we have that,” said Denise Kuczynski, who acknowledged that other families do not have the luxury of having second residences.
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Kuczynski has been working out at New Smyrna Beach High School, where he will play his first game of the season in September — and even if the season gets cut short because of a surge in cases, he said, the chance to play even a few games would still be worth it.
“I don’t think people really understand how attached or bonded student athletes are to the sports that they play,” he said. “Not being able to play a sport that they love that much, that really would take a toll on me.”
The patchwork of state responses has fueled unease and uncertainty for fall athletes in particular.
Iowa and Florida are among 37 states that delayed but permitted fall football, while 17 have postponed the sport until 2021 and 14 — most of them in the Midwest and Mountain regions — have decided to allow all fall sports seasons to proceed as usual during COVID-19.
In June, as many sports were canceled, a Wisconsin study showed that more than two-thirds of high school athletes reported feelings of depression and anxiety at levels typically requiring medical intervention — an increase of 37 percent from past research studies.
Although recruiting was a driving factor, Nelson’s father said his decision was also an academic one.
“We want him to be able to experience a senior year. And we saw what it did to those kids, mentally and emotionally, and it was hard to see them lose those experiences, because they really are experiences you only have once in a lifetime,” he said.
Denise Kuczynski noted that in recent weeks she has noticed more families following their lead. “I think when we made the decision, we were the ‘crazy’ ones,” she said.
Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said the organization is seeing an uptick in sports-related transfers — especially among students who live near state borders — and cautions families against short-sightedness.
“I would say to be patient and to know that the decisions that are being made at the school district level and at the state level are really collaborative and with the best interests, health and safety of kids in mind,” she said.
As for kids who just want to play out their high school sports careers, state associations offer hardship waivers to grant applicants extensions of eligibility, and they could opt to include COVID-19 as a reason. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are pushing for local district decisions on high school sports and calling for an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes.
Meanwhile, the NCAA extended its Division I “dead period” for in-person recruiting until Monday so as to not disadvantage athletes based on their local or state regulations.
“The state of Illinois has switched the seasons, but the United States has not switched the seasons,” Denise Kuczynski said of the state’s decision to push football to the spring. “Some of these other states are continuing as normal with their sports seasons, so it’s also the change of seasons that really puts the students in Illinois at a disadvantage.”
But the kickoff to the fall football season has been rocky — high schools in Utah were the first in the U.S. to play games this month, with one school’s season opener canceled after three players on one team tested positive and another game stopped by officials until fans put on masks and adhered to social distancing guidelines.
In Indiana, two schools canceled their first games after having too many players in quarantine, and the season opener that Gov. Eric Holcomb was supposed to have attended was canceled because of a confirmed player case of COVID-19.
“You risk exposure going to the grocery store, and I really don’t feel like him playing football is overall any different than just the everyday interactions,” Cory Nelson said of the health concern.
As for the feeling of being back out on the field — Landon Nelson is grateful for the opportunity.
“Three months ago, I would have never thought I would have been playing in a scrimmage,” he said. “I think it just goes to show that it can be done. Obviously, every state is going to be different, but I think if we all work together and we take the steps that need to be taken, we can still bring back some normality to our lives.”