PRAIRIE GROVE -- Coaches and athletes have diligently followed covid social restrictions advocated by the Center for Disease Control such as wearing masks on bus rides and sitting apart to no avail.
"We didn't get to play our first week game. We had covid issues between our kids on our team having covid and a lot of kids getting quarantined it was tough," said Stilwell, Okla. head football coach Don Harrison following Friday's 42-6 loss for the Indians at Prairie Grove.
Two football games in Northwest Arkansas and one other regional game scheduled for zero week on Friday, Aug. 27 were called off because of covid-19 and quarantine protocols.
One of those Aug. 27 games featuring Pea Ridge at Siloam Springs was made up Friday, Sept. 17 since both schools had a bye week in their nonconference schedule.
Waldron's game at Mansfield set for Aug. 27 was also canceled and could not be rescheduled.
Stilwell, Okla. was forced to cancel its season-opener at home against Rogers on Aug. 27 while another potential cancellation stared the Indians in the face playing at Gentry on Sept. 3.
"We do our best to keep our boys separated and put measures in place to protect them and kind of mitigate the risks that we have or we take on in the locker rooms," said Beau Collins, an assistant coach with the Stilwell, Okla. football program.
But the system contains inherent flaws and fails them which seems to present a contradiction to the CDC's mission statement "To promote health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury and disability."
"Still you never know when they're going to call you and say, 'Hey, he sat too close in class to someone,'" Collins said.
There's a tenacity ingrained within Harrison, now in his second year as head coach for the Indians following stints with Newport and Lincoln in his native Arkansas. Harrison flat out refuses to allow circumstances to dictate an outcome for his football team.
Harrison may find himself making adjustments on the fly or tweaking his offense but there was no way he was going to allow rules set forth by a government agency to rob the Indians of playing on Sept. 3.
That's a story all too familiar in "Indian Country" where a government agency comes in, changes the rules and basically tells the Indians they haven't got any rights because the government will decide what's best for them.
It's happened in the oval office before.
Cherokee Chief Junaluska was sent to Washington, D.C. as a special envoy to President Andrew Jackson, whose life he spared at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812 when a Creek warrior taken prisoner snatched up a knife during an interrogation and lunged at the general.
Junaluska tripped the Creek warrior, but Jackson didn't seem to take that into consideration decades later when signing the "Forced Removal Act."
Not all Indian agents were as resolute in their efforts to protect the interests of their constituents as Harrison and Collins.
"Don't worry about your circumstances, focus on your specifics, focus on your job. Focus on the things that you got to do to overcome whether it is we got so many kids out with covid and we got this and we got that," Harrison said.
Harrison's innovative solution isn't permissible in all jurisdictions. He moved a host of freshmen up to varsity to play the Gentry game on Sept. 3, and absorbed a 42-7 loss to the Pioneers.
Arkansas rules prohibit that tactic stipulating that once a player gets promoted, such as a freshmen to JV or a JV sophomore player to varsity, that individual can no longer compete at grade level in athletics.
"We had some slight trouble in August but nothing as bad as right before the Rogers game when we lost all those guys," Harrison said.
Woes Pile Up
The woes piled up for the Indians.
Stilwell lost a quarterback early on, another guy who was supposed to be playing got mono and he's out for awhile.
"We got a young, sophomore (Tray Chuculate) out there trying to sling it around and last week he got injured in the third quarter and we had a freshmen come in and have to run the offense," Harrison said.
Stilwell scored in the first quarter trimming Gentry's lead to 14-7, but the Indians suffered five sacks and were shut out the rest of the game taking a 42-7 loss.
"The kids did a good job against Gentry. It was tough. We got whupped pretty good but I tell you this we had a bunch of freshmen out there and they gave us everything they could and we're really proud of them and they stepped up," Harrison said.
On a positive note for Stilwell, the Indians freshmen class defeated Gentry's junior high team, 28-14 and then knocked off Prairie Grove's junior high squad, 26-12, on Thursday.
"I think playing in those high school games is really helping them," Harrison said.
Much of the problems for the football teams originated outside of football yet the Indians' gridiron squad bears the brunt of all the restrictions.
"He was exposed somewhere else and you're missing a kid for the next week or the next week-and-a-half. We've had some kids get some other illnesses. We lost kids to injury and it's been a teaching moment and it's been a learning moment for the players," Collins said.
Stilwell didn't get its varsity kids back until Friday, Sept. 3 so a lot of them didn't get to play very much against Gentry. The Indians had a lot of freshmen in and took their lumps versus Gentry prompting Harrison to say last week was almost like week one for the Indians.
"I mean, we had to literally reset everything. We got everybody back and we had everybody on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for practice and for only having three days with everybody back I thought we did pretty good and that's what we kept telling the kids," Harrison said.
The Indians went back to basics during the Sept. 3 contest at Gentry and the coaching staff concentrated on putting that together, a game plan encompassing the entire varsity roster Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for three days of practice as a combined functioning unit.
Collins emphasized to the players that they must habitually be prepared because they never know when it's going to be their time when they're going to get the opportunity to take over a role as a starter or on special teams.
"We talked to them about that in the game of football and in the game of life because you never know when you're going to get the opportunity and you have to be ready to take advantage of it. You have to be doing the hard work to prepare for it before that time comes," Collins said.
Collins acknowledges it's been a challenge for the Stilwell coaches trying to find the best way to take care of individual players and encourage the ones who are setting out and let them know that they have parts to do even if they can't play by encouraging their teammates, helping coach them up as the starter in that position having to sit out.
"They have to help teach that role," Collins said.
Harrison points out one of the things coaches must do a good job of is putting situations into perspective in the heat of the moment.
"Well, it's third-and-20, you can't think about it's third-and-20. You got to think about what your job is and the No. 1 thing I tell these kids is 'Focus on your specifics,'" Harrison said. "Don't focus on the circumstances and what we're going through and feeling sorry for yourself 'cause it's not going to help."
Collins, who coached softball the last five seasons at Lincoln where he also served as defensive coordinator, echoes that philosophy.
"So I think every day brings a new challenge. I think the biggest thing that we're getting from it right now is that you have to come in and be ready to adapt and ready to meet whatever that new challenge brings," Collins said.
For Harrison one of the keys to moving forward comes from realizing one's limitations while exercising personal initiative. It's the spirit this great experiment in democracy in America draws from.
"We talk about the fact that you can't control everything," Harrison said. "You can't control your circumstances, but you can control and focus on your specifics and that's what we tell them."
MARK HUMPHREY GREW UP ON AN INDIAN RESERVATION AND IS A MEMBER OF A FEDERALLY RECOGNIZED TRIBE. HE IS A SPORTS WRITER FOR THE ENTERPRISE-LEADER. THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED ARE THE AUTHOR'S OWN.