There’s two minutes left until kickoff for Long Beach Poly's first football game in more than a year, and head coach Stephen Barbee has one final piece of preparation.
Sporting a Baby Yoda beanie and Poly hoodie, his sons Michael and Davis rush for hugs as Barbee approaches the sideline. He bends down, kissing his children on the cheek through two layers of face covering. He leans into their ears to whisper a simple message: “I love you.”
To Barbee, after the toll the pandemic has taken, this moment is “everything.”
“Everything that’s happened has really made you take a look at family and what’s truly important,” Barbee said after the game Friday night. “We’ve had players whose parents have passed away in the past month, multiple ones, and their grandparents. It’s just a blessing to have not only my football family, but my family … [be] able to come and support this football team.”
In the stands at Long Beach Cabrillo's Jaguar Stadium, family members of players and coaches on Gardena Serra's and Poly’s football teams, sporting layers of down jackets to ward off the chill and masks to ward off COVID-19, were seated in scattered clusters. Despite the risk of infection that gathering might pose, many in the stands said they felt safe and were excited to see loved ones step onto the field for the first time in a year.
White “X’s,” separated by six feet of dashes in orange spray paint, marked areas where attendees could specifically sit to follow social distancing guidelines on Poly’s side of the bleachers.
“I love that they have it all marked off, so we have our own little spot,” said Barbee's wife Robin while sitting next to their sons and parents. “It’s so important for these parents to be able to see their kids play. Some kids, it’s their senior year. And I feel very safe — it’s outside, and we’re very socially distanced.”
The crowd of about 150 largely obeyed those markings throughout the night. Across the field, on Serra’s visiting side, a similarly sized crowd also kept their distance, spreading themselves out in pods across the bleachers.
Tamela Ford, the mother of Serra senior Devin Ford, felt comfortable with the setup, she said, but lamented the reduced turnout.
“I feel kind of sad because this is not the atmosphere that we’re accustomed to — there could be more family here to support him,” Ford said of her son. “But we’re happy, and we’re glad that he has the chance to play.”
According to Ford, each Serra player was allowed four tickets for guests that could be bought online. A document sent to Serra administration, which The Los Angeles Times obtained from head coach Scott Altenberg, established ticket costs for the game at $10 for adults, $5 for students with ID and $5 for children 13 and under.
Multiple Poly parents noted their players received the same offer of four tickets. Poly athletic director Robert Shock said about 500 tickets were available, and some requests for more than four for a family were accommodated.
"People were very cordial," said Shock, who added the seating and ticket arrangements would be in place until further notice. "People were very understanding in following directions."
Normally, a Poly-Serra game is so loud that one need only listen, rather than watch, to understand what was happening, Altenberg said. Despite the reduced turnout and health regulations, those present carried the energy of previous rivalry matchups. Masked cheerleaders and band members shouted encouragement to Poly’s defense, and when the Jackrabbits scored a touchdown in overtime to clinch a 27-21 victory, the home bleachers erupted in muffled cheers and metallic stomping.
“Even when it’s 10,000 people, after 10 minutes of a game, it becomes football,” Altenberg said Wednesday. “The crowd becomes like a soundtrack.”
After the game, a few players climbed into the stands — some maskless — to take pictures and embrace family members, while students gathered outside the field entrance to mingle with Poly players, an impromptu dance circle forming to the bass of SpotemGottem’s “BeatBox 2” thumping from a boombox. The postgame festivities, which saw some undistanced interaction, formed the only blip on an otherwise relatively compliant night from the standpoint of COVID-19 safety.
Yet, even as a small parade continued out of Jaguar Stadium’s gates and spilled onto West Hill Street in Long Beach, with music still blasting while players and families marched giddily across the road, many kept their masks on.
“We really want to keep playing,” Robin Barbee said. “We want everyone to stay healthy.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.