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Greg Hansen: COVID-19 proving to be toughest opponent for most college teams
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Greg Hansen: COVID-19 proving to be toughest opponent for most college teams

Freshman defensive back Jaydin Young (37) talks with head coach Kevin Sumlin during football practice at Arizona Stadium, 1 N. National Championship Dr., in Tucson, Ariz., on October 16, 2020.

This won’t be reported on Saturday’s many college football TV shows — not with titans like USC and Oregon returning to action — but the most telling development of the week in American football might’ve occurred in Thatcher, a remote town near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

On Wednesday afternoon, Thatcher High School’s junior varsity football team traveled two hours to San Tan Foothills High School to play a JV game.

When the Eagles arrived at the school near Florence, they were informed the game had been canceled. COVID-19 had already won.

As Lee Patterson of Safford radio station KATO so aptly reported “it was the definition of being all dressed up with no place to go.” Thatcher’s JV players got off the bus and, in game uniforms, held a practice on San Tan’s field.

No one is immune. The coronavirus has infected every Middlesex, village and farm.

Those kids from Thatcher couldn’t have felt any less anguish than Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell or linebacker Jalen Harris did at noon Friday, when they were informed Saturday’s game at Utah had been canceled.

The coronavirus doesn’t play favorites. The best player in college football, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, missed last week’s game against Boston College and will be out for Saturday’s game at No. 4 Notre Dame. Wisconsin had six coaches infected by COVID-19, and will postpone/cancel a second consecutive game Saturday.

Ironwood Ridge High School’s Friday night game against Sierra Vista Buena was not played. Nor was Cienega High School allowed to play its scheduled opponent, Nogales.

The spread? It’s no longer a football offense. It’s a disease we can’t contain.

On this date last year, the Tucson Roadrunners led the American Hockey League with eight victories, flush with success and eager to fill 6,500 seats at the Tucson Arena. This year, the Roadrunners aren’t scheduled to play an AHL game until Feb. 5, 2021, if then.

There is no Ground Zero in the fight against COVID-19. Everyone and everything is in play. Thatcher’s JV. The Utah Utes. The mighty New England Patriots had to postpone a game against the Denver Broncos.

Arizona was about three hours away from boarding a charter flight to Salt Lake City on Friday when athletic director Dave Heeke was informed there would be no game. It became the 47th Division I college football game this season to be postponed or canceled. The count seems sure to hit 100 before any sort of playoff structure can be put in place.

Poor Arizona? Poor Utah?

What about poor UTEP? The Miners’ scheduled game last week against North Texas was postponed because North Texas refused to travel to El Paso, which has been hit hard by COVID-19 infections. A few days later, Saturday’s UTEP game against Florida International was eliminated. Same reason. No one wants to go to El Paso to play football in the middle of a pandemic.

Or anywhere.

The risks universities have taken to play football during the pandemic almost defies logic. Factors out of the control of the world’s best microbiologists, virologists and epidemiologists don’t care if Cal’s rising football program and its coaches were steamed that Saturday’s opener against Washington was canceled.

There are more infections than touchdowns.

There are more quarantined quarterbacks than all-star quarterbacks.

Last month, UA president Robert C. Robbins, the former chief resident and head of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford — a man who has performed more than 500 heart transplants — told Atlantic Monthly magazine that heart surgery “was a lot easier than the job I have now.”

If you get a minute, you should consider reading the Atlantic Monthly piece, a provocative and insightful piece Charles Fishman wrote after spending three months following the UA’s efforts to reopen campus.

It puts an otherwise insignificant Utah-Arizona football game into perspective. What Robbins and his staff has done was far more complex than an offensive coordinator’s game plan to attack the Utah defense.

Wrote Fishman: “The UA facilities staff re-tuned the air-conditioning system of every building on campus to bring in more fresh air, and upgraded the filters to those used in hospital operating rooms.

“They fabricated and installed 1,755 plexiglass shields and sneeze guards, replaced 3,000 paper-towel dispensers with the touchless, battery-operated variety, and mounted 1,530 hand-sanitizer dispensers in 326 campus buildings.”

Just to try to get an edge, any edge, on the coronavirus.

Robbins and his staff spent more than $8 million trying to reopen the campus safely. Guess what? It didn’t always work. After an initial test of 4,275 returning students, only nine tested positive. But a few weeks later, the UA had more than 400 positive COVID-19 tests in consecutive days.

Football? Does it really matter?

There is a crazy possibility that Arizona won’t play a single football game in 2020. Maybe the Wildcats will play four or five, a truncated, throw-away season without fans that — even if the Utah game had been played — was going to amount to nothing more than TV programming.

At 3:05 p.m. Friday, I received an unsolicited email that said, word for word: “The Pac-12 needs to stop hiding behind the ‘player safety excuse’ and get out of college athletics.”

The madness is no longer reserved for college basketball in March.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com.

On Twitter: @ghansen711

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