A day after McMinn County’s football season had ended via an off-the-field decision, conflicting accounts have arisen concerning the circumstances that led to the TSSAA’s ruling.
The governing body of Tennessee high school athletics decided Monday evening that the second-round Class 6A playoff game will not be played due to COVID-19 and that the Cherokees’ opponent, Dobyns-Bennett, will advance to the quarterfinals.
The TSSAA had attempted to reschedule the game for Tuesday, according to a letter written by TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress to principals of both McMinn County and Dobyns-Bennett high schools. The game had been canceled Friday at J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport after pregame warmups were halted about half an hour before the scheduled kickoff.
However, the letter said that the TSSAA did not receive requested verification from the McMinn County Health Department by deadline Monday evening, which was pertaining to whether McMinn County High School had adequately performed contact tracing in response to one player who had been ill at practice last Tuesday.
Because of that, the TSSAA had “no alternative but to call off the game and advance Dobyns-Bennett High School in the playoffs,” the letter said.
The McMinn County Health Department is a division of the Tennessee Department of Health, as one of the 89 county health departments in the state not under county management. It is also subsidiary to the Southeast Regional Office of the TDH in Chattanooga.
In a statement released Tuesday morning, TDH Southeast Region Public Information Officer Amanda Goodhard said “after following the contact tracing process” that the requested contact tracing information was “turned over to the TSSAA (Monday) evening.”
Goodhard’s statement also said that “we followed our protocols and processes to the letter. Certain HIPAA guidelines and privacy procedures make the time frames of certain case investigation activities out of our control.”
A statement later Tuesday from McMinn County Schools, citing the Tennessee Department of Health in conjunction, corroborated Goodhard’s statement. Furthermore, McMinn County Director of Schools Lee Parkison told The Daily Post-Athenian on Tuesday afternoon that he had confirmed with the TDH Southeast Regional Office director several times that the needed information had been sent to the TSSAA.
“We talked to the regional director of the health department out of Chattanooga, the Southeast Regional Health Department, and he told us point-blank more than one time that (Monday) afternoon at about, he said was right before 7 o’clock, he sent all that information to the TSSAA,” Parkison said.
However, when asked about the TDH Southeast Region statement that it had sent the TSSAA the requested contact tracing information, Childress responded to The DPA Tuesday afternoon that “this is the first time we have seen this information.”
“It may have been turned over to McMinn County High School, but we did not receive it,” Childress said.
State Rep. Mark Cochran had also contacted the TSSAA and the Southeast Regional Office of the TDH, and Cochran said the TSSAA also told him that it did not receive the contact tracing information, but he also concluded the regional department did what it needed to do.
“When I spoke to the TSSAA, they said they had not received it,” Cochran said to The DPA. “Now I had a follow-up call with the Department of Health, that was not a result of anything that had occurred locally, and it doesn’t sound like it was anything from the Department of Health. So I think all information had cleared both of those levels.
“Contact tracing was done at the local level. From the meetings I’ve been in today, and from the calls I’ve been on, it appears that everything locally by the school district was handled correctly, in the opinion of the Department of Health. And then all the contact tracing was completed by the Department of Health.”
The TSSAA had announced its decision to advance Dobyns-Bennett and end McMinn’s season at around 6 p.m. Monday, an hour before the regional department had told Parkison it had sent the TSSAA the contact tracing information.
“It’s important to point out that even by the time they were finished, I think with the contact tracing, the TSSAA had made that announcement,” Cochran said. “It appears it would have been too late already. But I think everything was completed, but I don’t know at what point it didn’t make it over to the TSSAA.”
Attempts to contact the state office of the Tennessee Department of Health for information of which channels the contact tracing information would’ve proceeded through after the Southeast Regional Office had submitted it were not returned as of press time Tuesday.
Cochran also wanted to make it clear that the McMinn County Health Department had nothing to do with any COVID-19 investigation or contact tracing. Such activities would have been done at the regional and the state levels.
“Because of the TSSAA’s statement, I feel like there is this confusion out here that the people working at our local health department had dropped the ball, and I don’t want to besmirch their good reputation,” Cochran said. “And I’m not even saying the state department did anything wrong, but the local folks who administer tests and flu shots and that kind of thing, they had nothing to do with even a contact tracing.”
Parkison also learned Tuesday that the TSSAA said it did not receive the required information from McMinn County’s side of the case.
“Somebody is not telling the truth, and I don’t know what else to tell you, because we put out a statement ourselves with corroboration from the Tennessee Department of Health and McMinn County Schools,” Parkison said. “And we followed our protocols and processes to the letter. And after the contact tracing process, the requested information was turned over to the TSSAA. Because that’s exactly what we’re told. Somebody’s not telling the truth here. But I can promise you we’ve done our part.”
The McMinn County High School protocol requires contact tracing for any individual who had been in close contact with the ill player either 48 hours before onset of symptoms, if any, or 48 hours before the test date if asymptomatic. Players under contact tracing protocol were not permitted to participate in the game Friday.
According to the letter, the ill player was sent home from practice Tuesday. McMinn football Coach Bo Cagle had previously told The DPA the Cherokees did not practice Wednesday, and the player who was sick did not attend practice Thursday.
The player, who is taking virtual classes only this semester, was tested for COVID-19 Thursday morning, receiving a positive result, according to the letter. However, the player suffers from asthma and received a second examination from his physician Friday morning, which discovered “no stigmata consistent with COVID-19” as well as a lack of antibodies in his blood for COVID-19 — leading to the physician concluding Thursday’s test was possibly a false positive, the letter said.
Regardless of that second examination, the player did not travel with the team on the buses Friday to Kingsport and ate the team meal in a separate part of the restaurant from the rest of the Cherokees, the letter said. During that meal, the player was informed that he was not allowed to play in the game.
“I hate this for our kids and community,” Cagle said in a statement. “The rules and protocols in McMinn County being used for exposure and quarantining all year for this situation were totally bypassed. New rules were evidently put into place for this situation and we have no idea why. I guess sports are a microcosm of life and it’s not fair. The kids and our community are deeply saddened by the way all of this unfolded.”
The Cherokees had practiced Monday in hopes that their possible dream season would get to continue. Instead, their campaign ends after a 10-1 record, their second straight Region 2-6A runner-up finish and their first win in a playoff game in eight years.
For several of McMinn’s 19 seniors, whose careers with the Cherokees ended via an off-the-field decision, the news was especially hard to take.
“I just want to say how terrible this is because all we did were the right protocols in this situation and nothing else,” said offensive lineman and team captain Garrett Priest. “And to have this ripped from us like this is disgusting.”
Defensive back Bryson Fox felt the Cherokees were “robbed” of the chance to settle the result on the field.
“I have been taught all my life to respect the authority of the world around me,” Fox said. “In this instance, it is hard to understand how a decision to end our season, without an opportunity to win or lose between the white lines, can be respected.
“I am Cherokee strong. Coach Cagle has taught us that. I will be strong through this but always know that the class of 2020 was special and was robbed of an opportunity to prove that on the field. Much love to my coaches and my team. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this.”
Wide receiver/defensive back Nick Bottoms said the news was “devastating for sure,” but he also took the time to thank all of his fellow seniors, the rest of the Cherokees, the coaches and the community.
“To the McMinn County community, I want to thank every single one of you guys for coming out to support us during this season,” Bottoms said. “I will never forget but always miss the sound of you guys stomping on the stands before kickoffs and on third down.”
And for the “Voice of the Cherokees,” Johnny Coffman, it was a most unusual end to a legendary 48-year career on call for McMinn County football games — although he did consider it was possible on the way home from Kingsport following Friday’s cancellation announcement.
“That was on my mind all the way back home and had been until just a couple hours ago, when I got the news that the season was over for McMinn,” Coffman said to The DPA. “I had tried not to think about it and had held out a glimmer of hope that it could be worked out and they would still tee it up. The general consensus of people in and around the football program was optimism in having a great chance to beat D-B. I had thought about what I might say after they played their last game but had decided to do it all off the cuff, but that plan didn’t work out too well.”
But whatever Coffman was feeling about the manner in which his retirement began, he said his situation “pales in comparison to what I feel for these young men.”
“I have been watching (grandson) Bryce (Goodner) and a large part of the others play for years back to junior days,” Coffman said. “My heart breaks for them. I know how much the game meant to them, how much they cared for each other and how competitive they were. I also realize how talented they were. They were in the top three or four teams I saw in my 48 years of broadcasting and my years watching going back to the mid-’60s. Sadly, we will never completely know where their place in history will reside.”
Dobyns-Bennett, meanwhile, moves on to play Friday at Maryville in the Class 6A quarterfinal round. Maryville remains the only opponent to have defeated the Cherokees on the field this season.