Falfurrias football player Anthony Carabantes wears a plastic shield inside his helmet during a scrimmage Friday in Falfurrias. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

FALFURRIAS — It almost felt like fall in Falfurrias Friday.

It was unseasonably cool out in the morning, cool enough to make people dig out sweaters and windbreakers. Someone had already decorated their yard with ghouls and ghosts for Halloween, and kids were back in school.

There was even a football scrimmage planned for Friday evening at the Jersey Bull Stadium, an almost shocking apparition of what a Friday in fall would look like in any Texas town before the pandemic began.

There have been no football games, not so much as a scrimmage or a practice, in Hidalgo County.

The question of fall sports in the Rio Grande Valley has sparked long discussion, rampant speculation and heated debate over whether sports should come back this year and how they could be brought back safely.

Although there are indications fall football will be coming back in Hidalgo County, at least for some districts, it’s not entirely clear what a football game in the age of COVID-19 will look like for most Rio Grande Valley athletes.

To get a clearer picture of how those games may look, you had but to drive up Highway 281 for an hour, to that scrimmage between the Falfurrias Fightin’ Jerseys and the San Antonio Cole Cougars Friday evening.

In some ways, it looked like any football game before the pandemic: dozens of athletes running plays on the field, coaches shout from the sidelines, a pretty South Texas sunset to the west.

In other ways, the scrimmage was incredibly odd, the result of a long list of health and safety precautions designed to keep players safe.

There were a grand total of three people sitting in the stands, a board member and his children. On a Friday evening last year, those stands would have been bustling with students and parents.

Players filled out a questionnaire as they walked into the stadium, stopping to have their temperatures checked. They wore gaiter masks and face shields on the field, and drank out of meticulously named water bottles that were not to be shared under any circumstances.

“J.J., get that mask back on,” one coach shouted while the players were drilling before the game.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has recorded 280 cases of COVID-19 in Brooks County and 20 deaths related to the virus so far, a fraction of the 29,082 cases and 1,319 deaths the organization has reported in Hidalgo County.

Proportionately, however, Brooks County has seen more of its residents die of the virus than Hidalgo County: about .28% compared to .16%.

Those 20 deaths, Brooks County ISD Superintendent Maria Rodriguez Casas says, hit the close knit community particularly hard. Several cases and a few of the deaths were connected to a single family gathering, she says. Every death was a friend or a neighbor or an acquaintance — some of whom were young, others who were members of the same family.

“In a small community we can learn from those,” Casas said. “When we knew that so many people, three people, died from a family gathering, we don’t have to pinpoint but it’s a lesson learned.”

Casas says when the district started talking about bringing back sports, some board members and county Judge Eric Ramos were wary of the prospect after seeing COVID-19 cases jump into the hundreds over a span of days.

Other factors pushed Casas and district leadership to promote bringing athletics back. One of those factors, she says, were the reports her counselors began receiving from students who were depressed and thinking about suicide.

“We have had a high percentage of suicides at all levels,” she said. “Adults, young graduates — I’ve lost already three — and also a top honor student that lost her life as a freshman due to suicide. We know that this pandemic has taken a lot away from children, and in a small community we don’t have much. So that was a critical factor too.”

Another factor that pushed Casas to support gradually rolling out athletics programs was seeing her students socialize and play sports in parks without supervision.

“We knew kids were playing games regardless with no supervision. They were going out in the parks. Here, at least we’ve got people monitoring, at least they’re wearing the masks,” she said.

Athletics gives the district the ability to influence students in other ways too. Students who weren’t participating in online classes now have to if they want to play, Casas said, and repeatedly emphasizing that a COVID-19 outbreak could shut down sports encourages students to isolate off the field and stay healthy.

The district can even use athletics to fight the pandemic in an almost underhanded way: They specifically held a practice on Labor Day, Casas said, hoping to avert a spike like they saw after the Fourth of July.

Students can’t travel to COVID-19 hotspots if they have to be at practice, after all.

“You can hold people accountable with a carrot,” Casas said.

That positive reinforcement seems to have sunk in, at least for some of the athletes.

“You have to be cautious a lot,” James Garza, a 15-year-old sophomore right tackle said. “You have to be thinking about how you can protect yourself and your teammates and everybody on the other team.”

The South Texas sunset silhouettes a school employee during a varsity football team scrimmage on Friday in Falfurrias. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

The safety precautions aren’t always ideal, Garza said, but they’re worth it if it means he gets to be on the field.

“The shield, it’s not very hard to breathe in, but every now and then it fogs up again. That’s the only downside about it, but it does keep us safe,” he said.

The compromise reached between the county, the district and the community was what put Garza back on the field for that scrimmage Friday, including sanitizing and self-reporting, no fans for now and requiring athletes to provide negative COVID-19 tests to the district.

Casas says six out of 73 athletes wanting to participate were asymptomatic and positive. Those athletes could participate if they self-isolated and later tested negative.

“It’s entirely voluntary as far as participating, we’re not making anyone participate, we’re not holding it against anyone that chooses to opt out for now. We understand the pandemic we’re in,” Athletic Director Ruben Garcia said.

Garcia says he has weekly meetings with Casas and administrators as well as members of the county’s emergency management team and the county judge. The collaboration where the pandemic stands in the county and whether to continue athletics or roll them back based on active cases.

“Right now we’ve been lucky, we’ve been blessed. We’re following all these guidelines, the kids are doing what they need to do to make sure they’re safe, and we haven’t had any issues,” Garcia said, taking a moment to knock on a nearby piece of wood.

Casas says resuming athletics gradually has been key, along with being prepared to act decisively if the situation calls for it.

If the athletics rollout continues going smoothly, the district is even hoping to fill some of those stands. Ideally, Garcia says, they’ll issue two tickets to participants at games, enough for their parents to come watch.

Many of those parents, and many community members, are clearly ready to watch sports again. People parked around the stadium watched the scrimmage through the fence Friday, sitting in their truck beds or on cautiously distanced lawn chairs.

Rev. Dennis Zerr, the priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Falfurrias, sat in a chair just outside the stadium’s entrance, wearing a face mask that matched his black shirt and clerical collar.

Zerr says he’s a regular attendee at Falfurrias football games.

“I try to make all the home games and all the away games that I can. Pretty faithful,” he said.

It’s great to be able watch the games, Zerr said, but the thing that’s really great to see is kids back on the field.

“You felt so sorry for the kids last year, they were the seniors and they’d been working toward this, and it was all taken away from them. I felt so sad for them that they were missing out on that stuff,” he said. “Of course we want to be safe and all that, but it means a lot to these kids.”