Football is scheduled to return in the Great American Conference in 11 days, and there are plenty of people -- players, coaches, fans, broadcasters and administrators -- eager to restart their programs after a 21-month absence.
Count GAC Commissioner Will Prewitt among those ready for its return.
Prewitt -- who moonlights as a high school official, something he has done for more than 20 years -- endured a rocky Friday night road after the GAC called off football, and all fall sports, one year ago.
"Every Friday night when I show up to referee, the rest of the guys on my crew would give me a hard time," Prewitt said. "They were like, 'I don't know why he's here.' "
Prewitt said he became known as the man who killed football.
"If you want a friend, bring your dog," Prewitt said. "Anything and everything is going to be fair game so you get drilled on it. Oh yeah, I caught it quite a bit."
It wasn't like Prewitt and the other commissioners of NCAA Division II football conferences wanted to do away with the 2020 season.
They really had no choice.
NCAA guidance was that every player had to be tested for covid-19 each week, an expense that Division II football and many in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) could not absorb.
Prewitt said it would have cost $40,000 a week to play a single game, with most of the expenses coming via testing, but that was not all.
"We maybe could have tried some sort of super abbreviated schedule," he said. "Then they threw in the piece that -- if anyone contacted covid during athletic activities during the fall last year -- the school was responsible for lifetime medical bills."
The dollars and common-sense reasoning didn't make it any easier on the six Arkansas members of the 12-team GAC.
Coaches said they shook their heads each Friday when high school football was played, then watched as Division I played on Saturdays and the NFL took the field on Sundays.
"It was bittersweet," Ouachita Baptist University Coach Todd Knight said. "It's tough when one level gets to play and two levels don't. We got priced out.
"If it's safe for one, it should be safe for all."
Said Harding University Coach Paul Simmons, "Probably the most discouraging thing for us is we were not allowed to play, but our players are sitting here watching high school teams practice and play games on our field."
Knight said OBU, the three-time defending GAC champion, is taking it one day, one practice at a time, even as the restart of GAC football looms.
"We kept thinking we were going to play 11 games [last year], then it was 10, then 9, then nothing," Knight said.
Nobody is taking the 2021 season for granted, especially Prewitt.
"Everything is good and I just hope everything works out," Prewitt said. "I mean, that's all you can do at this point, right? I've got my fingers, toes ... anything that I can have crossed, I've got crossed."
Simmons said he won't know for sure until the Bison take the field Sept. 4 against East Central (Okla.). The rest of the conference kicks off Sept. 2.
"It's kind of surreal, but it's exciting for sure," Simmons said. "It feels like it's been about five years since we had a ballgame."
It's only been 21 months, but so much has changed.
If there is one thing all six football coaches in the Arkansas half of the GAC agree upon, it's that the teams with the highest vaccination rates will be at a competitive advantage on the football field.
NCAA guidance does not require weekly testing or quarantining for contract tracing for the players who have been fully vaccinated.
The guidance is more stringent for players who have not been vaccinated, but it's uncertain at this point how far the GAC will go.
NCAA guidance not only asserts mandatory testing of nonvaccinated players every Wednesday but they also are subject to 14-day quarantines if they are found to have been in contact with somebody who contracted covid-19.
GAC presidents will vote this week on a proposal from the GAC athletic directors that may take a middle ground on NCAA guidance as well as a recommendation that teams unable to play because of covid-19 will be granted a no-contest instead of a forfeit.
It's possible that schools -- instead of testing all nonvaccinated players weekly -- might arbitrarily choose to test 25% of the nonvaccinated players, and base quarantines on that basis.
This should pose no problem for schools such as Henderson State University, which has been at the forefront of educating players why it not only benefits them, but the entire team, if they vaccinate.
Coach Scott Maxfield, Athletic Director Shawn Jones and assistant athletic director Rob Redding, who is in charge of sports medicine at Henderson State, began a three-pronged educational process last spring after the vaccine came out.
Maxfield reports that 150 of the 154 players (97%) on the Reddies' roster have been vaccinated.
"I tried to give them the facts," Maxfield said. "It's a personal choice, but look at the facts, not listen to stuff on the internet."
Redding said there was plenty of hesitation in the Reddies' camp in the spring, but he kept after it. One day after practice, he asked the players to stand up if their parents or grandparents had received the vaccine.
"Almost everybody stood up," Redding said. "You just keep doing stuff like that and keep educating them. Since we started educating them in March, April, it's worn through.
"Now, they go to their buddy, 'Have you done it?' And they say, 'Yeah, I've done it.' "
Redding, one of three co-chairmen on the GAC covid-19 committee, said he is glad football was played at some levels last fall simply because of the data that was collected
"We did not see a lot of transmission on the athletic fields. It was in the meeting room, or when they went out to dinner, or it was at home when friends came over," he said. "The social settings are where we were seeing all the transmissions and not on the field.
"I feel pretty good from a safety standpoint. Even if there is somebody on the other team that is not vaccinated and they have it, I think our kids will be safe.
"We all theorized, these guys are going to be laying on top of each other, and sweating, and we just didn't see it, and there was a whole lot of football played. We couldn't trace it in any sport. The big deal is, if you are outside, your chances of getting it are pretty low. Then if you're vaccinated, those are some pretty good odds right there."
The problem for at least three of the Arkansas schools, according to coaches, is being prepared to play with different players or what to do if a position group dominated by unvaccinated players comes up positive during the week of the game.
Henderson State's 97% vaccination rate is tops among Arkansas schools just ahead of the University of Arkansas-Monticello (95.6% with at least one dose) and OBU (about 95%).
Arkansas Tech University Coach Kyle Shipp reports the Wonder Boys are at 85%, Harding's Simmons said the Bison were around 75%, and first-year Southern Arkansas University Coach Mike McCarty said the Muleriders will have 75 of 130 players fully vaccinated by the time the season kicks off.
"We've worked hard to encourage the young men to vaccinate," McCarty said. "There's some who can't because of health reasons. And there's a few ideologically chose not to."
McCarty said there are no vaccination mandates at SAU, but that doesn't mean he is not aware of who is vaccinated and who is not.
"Every day, the evaluation is what is the depth, and what is the depth-slash-covid," he said. "We're making sure the nonvaccinated are not monopolizing all the reps. Make sure we're sharing reps with those that are vaccinated to be sure we're prepared for that."
McCarty said enough contingencies are in place so the Muleriders will be able to field a team, even if the nonvaccinated players suffer a breakout.
At UAM, where Coach Hud Jackson has added the title of athletic director, things should be OK by the time the season starts, if not right now.
"We've got four linebackers," Jackson said. "The rest of them are quarantined. We're still going to have those situations. We've got to tell our kids to be smart, and if you really want to play, you've got to do everything in your power to stay away from situations that may have a lot of positive covid."
Jackson said he believes the Boll Weevils will take the field Sept. 2.
"It might be 22 guys playing for each team, but I don't see anything stopping us," he said.
Simmons said he is well aware of the advantages to having players vaccinated, and he's been trying to educate his team the only way he knows how.
"I try to address it on things that are fact instead of opinion," Simmons said. "Leave opinion out of it. Just trying to make sure my guys understand the situation. If they are vaccinated and in close contact, they won't have to get quarantined."
Simmons said he realizes the Bison could face some difficult situations, though he thinks a new conference rule allowing for at least five extra players on road trips will help.
"It could get us, for sure," he said. "It could be an issue."
No Arkansas GAC coach has been touched more forcefully than Shipp at Arkansas Tech.
One of his players, offensive lineman Jesse Bouchard, contracted covid-19 during the summer and has been hospitalized for more than a month. Bouchard, from Perryville, is in the Intensive Care Unit at a local hospital.
"Jesse is still in the ICU and needs all the prayers he can get," Shipp said.
The difference between getting vaccinated and not getting vaccinated, Shipp said, is the difference between possibly ending up in the hospital or simply being asymptomatic in most cases.
"We've tried to tell the kids, 'Here's the things if you don't get it, here are the things if you do get it,' " Shipp said.
The bottom line to Shipp is that players who are not vaccinated run the risk of missing two games every time they are in contact with someone who gets covid-19, whether the player tests positive or not.
"I'm not a medical expert," Shipp said. "We just tell them, 'Call doctors and listen to them. If your doctor says no, don't do it; if your doctor said yes, it's a good idea, then listen to them.' "
Bigger, faster, safer
Nobody knows for sure what the quality of play will look like when the GAC teams take the field.
Harding's Simmons said he believes the quality of play will be as high as it ever has been across Division II.
Others, like Jackson, are taking a wait-and-see approach.
There have been two winters and summers of conditioning, two spring practices and two fall practices since the last games were played in December 2019.
There are players galore, thanks to everybody receiving an extra season of eligibility, including large numbers of seniors returning for a fifth or sixth season.
Jackson said 13 of his 14 players who were to be seniors in 2020 have returned to the football field and are in grad school.
"They came back," Jackson said. "They just want to play football."
SAU's McCarty is taking over for longtime Muleriders Coach Bill Kopple, who retired before the season was called off Aug. 14, 2020.
McCarty said about 60% of his 130-man squad is made up of true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and third-year freshmen, those who were redshirted in 2019 and still haven't taken the field.
The extra time has allowed players to heal up from any serious injuries in 2019, gain strength in the weight room and get ahead in the classroom.
NCAA rules also have been loosened to allow schools to go beyond the normal 36-scholarship limit of Division II because coaches are not only juggling seniors with an extra season, but also a large percentage of players who have never played a down of college football.
"It's amazing with some of these kids," McCarty said. "You kind of think they're old, but they don't even know what college football even is. They think college football is lifting and practicing. You don't even get to play."
Now, it looks like they will. While nobody knows what to expect, the teams are stacked with players, many young, some old.
"I expect to see some really good football in the league this year from lots of teams," said Simmons, whose Bison have been a perennial GAC power. "It would make sense that everybody will be playing a higher level of football than what we're used to."
UAM's Jackson said he'll take a wait-and-see approach to the overall quality of play in the conference.
"You've got all kinds of freshmen," Jackson said. "It's funny, but when you take your team picture and three-quarters of your team is freshmen, you get a little nervous about that. Some of those freshmen, like I told them, have got to be ready to mix it up and be productive for us.
"Everybody's going to be experiencing that. Everybody's not going to have the same vaccine numbers that we're having. We might not be as high as somebody else. We'll have to wait until the end of the year to see how that pans out."
For coaches such as McCarty and Shipp, the conference's lost season was a blessing.
The extra time allowed McCarty to install his offensive, defensive and special teams schemes.
Shipp, entering his third year but only his second season at the helm of the Wonder Boys, has had more time to retool his program that finished 3-8 in 2019.
"I told our guys last fall, this is a redshirt season for our football team," Shipp said.
The ability to bring back seniors who are in their fifth or sixth years has resulted in teams with some unprecedented experience as well.
"I think we've got six guys 25 or older," Maxfield said. "We've got some men, now."
Mixing the men with the boys, the vaccinated with the nonvaccinated, the motivated with the downtrodden, has made the job of head coach a stressful one.
"You're a mix of doctor, psychologist, life coach, academic coordinator, football coach," Shipp said. "And a dad and a husband, too. It's been interesting."
GAC football openers
All times Central
Henderson St. at SW Okla. St., 6 p.m.
Okla. Baptist at Ouachita Baptist, 6 p.m.
So. Nazarene at Ark.-Monticello, 6 p.m.
SE Okla. St. at Ark. Tech, 6 p.m.
Southern Ark. at NW Okla. St., 6 p.m.
East Central (Okla.) at Harding, 6 p.m.