LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The biggest victory of 2020 for the Louisville City Football Club came against an opponent that was nowhere on the team’s schedule – but everywhere it went.
It came against COVID-19. How do you beat the novel coronavirus that has killed more than a quarter-million in the United States and forced untold disruptions to life in Kentucky and around the world?
You could do worse for insight than to ask the players and staff at LouCity FC, which reconvened in mid-June after the first wave of the virus and played an entire season – in front of just under 5,000 fans per game – without a single positive test.
For a 4-month span from mid-June through mid-October an average of 36 team personnel – players, coaches and some support staff who came into contact with the team – were tested weekly. Out of more than 600 tests administered by Baptist Health, none returned positive. Preseason optional antibody testing also returned no positives.
LouCity came one game short of a fourth consecutive trip to the USL Cup Final, a game that itself wound up being canceled because of multiple positive COVID tests. It had games of its own canceled during the regular season because opposing teams tested positive. But LouCity came through unscathed.
And while that certainly takes some good fortune, it also takes three things that came up repeatedly in interviews with players, coaches and front office staff.
Discipline, sacrifice and character.
“To say that those were crazy times and steps, yeah, all of it was,” LouCity head coach John Hackworth said. “But the resolve and character of our group is such that you just, once things are laid out, this is what we need to do to be able to work, it goes straight to expectation. I’ve said this many times over and to colleagues worldwide, this group of men is one of the best I’ve ever been around because of that. We didn’t have to harp on it. We didn’t have to go into crazy details about the whys. It was, this is what we have to do, let’s do it. I use the word trust. You trust it. We all trusted it. All of us had lives affected and changed, but we put it on each other to do what was right in this crazy pandemic to try and get through it.”
The effort stretched far beyond the playing field and the training grounds. From the time they returned to training, first in small groups then as an entire team, LouCity players and their families and roommates essentially entered a Phase I existence and never got out of it. They did not eat in restaurants. They did not go into crowded public places. They did not engage in even moderate family gatherings. They did not gather with friends. Birthday parties were missed. Outings were curtailed.
“It’s a true testament to the professionalism of our players and our staff, and to our health partners at Baptist Health,” club president Brad Estes said. “They put protocols in place and were extremely serious about those protocols. … The design was very strong, but the execution is where these things typically fail, and our players took it very seriously, as did our coaches and our staff.”
Before a player left his home for morning training, he took his temperature and recorded it. He either drove to the facility alone or with a roommate – never with anyone else. He took his temperature again and recorded it once at the facility. Players brought and handled their own water bottles. They did their own laundry, game kits, training kits, the whole deal. They packed and handled their own bags.
Masks were required, especially when traveling. Seating on buses was socially distanced. LouCity’s locker room was limited to players and coaches only.
Once at work, the players did their jobs. They practiced largely in masks but competed without them. They continued to conduct in-person press conferences, but with masks required and socially distanced.
“It was tough at times, something we haven’t had to deal with. Global pandemic, new rules, no playbook,” said Niall McCable, a 30-year-old midfielder from Dublin, Ireland. “We took it really seriously. We were disciplined and professional. We didn’t want to not be able to play in this building. We wanted to give ourselves the best chance we could to play in this building, to play the game we love, so it wasn’t so difficult because we knew the goal of what we wanted to get to. … But it was strange at times.”
The protocols didn’t just go into effect at the beginning of the season and ease off. Discipline came into play as the season wore on, and the rules got old. Or as the bus rides dragged on, and the masks got uncomfortable. A structure of fines helped keep the urgency in place – and provided some laughs.
“It was all about keeping each other safe, but also holding each other accountable,” Hackworth said. “Doing their own laundry, bringing their own water bottle every day. A guy would forget his water bottle once in a while, or not have time to wash something. But there was no choice. He was still coming to training. We had some really kind of comical situations involving our own fine system when guys didn’t do things the right way. It could be that it was going to be a super-light day, no real need for a water bottle, but if a guy forgot it, he was going to get fined. We had fun with that in our culture as well. You not only have to adhere to standards, but you have to enjoy the process while you’re going though all the hard work.”
If a player wanted to complain, he kept it to himself. It was a sacrifice, but the culture of the franchise is to face challenges willingly. That culture translated easily to play during a pandemic.
“Character is revealed in moments like these,” Hackworth added. “And I already knew it was there. It’s one thing to say that you need 9 hours of sleep at night, or you have to get up early and get a good meal on early training days. But it’s another thing to say, you’re not allowed to visit your friends and family. You’re not allowed to socialize. You’re not allowed to go to a restaurant. We need you to be extremely cautious even in something like getting a haircut. All of these little details, just to try to get through. Looking back on it, with what was going on all around, it is amazing, and probably lucky, too, quite frankly, that we didn’t have more problems.”
Several players separated from their families at times when a family member was exposed, or when they noticed that they themselves had a symptom. At least one moved into a hotel briefly. For those players with children, it was especially difficult.
“The hardest part for me was with the kids,” McCabe said. “I have two small kids at home, and to not be able to take them to places they enjoy going -- they love the zoo -- that’s hard. We went on isolated walks, but with small kids, it’s hard. And away from the family, definitely washing my own laundry was not good.”
This wasn’t a strict bubble. LouCity players were still out in the community – and playing in front of fans, who after some acclimation, accepted the strict mask guidelines at games themselves. ASM, which manages Lynn Family Stadium, executed its own safety precautions through a program called "VenueShield," which ensured clean conditions and safe protocols throughout the facility.
“When our players got home, they didn’t do anything outside of the bubble, so to speak,” Estes said. “And to do that without the infrastructure of a true bubble just shows the willpower and seriousness that these athletes have, and we’re extremely proud of that.”
To be sure, you can do everything right and still wind up with the virus. Such is the nature of its contagion. But this also is true – you don’t have a chance of beating it like LouCity did unless you’re doing everything right.
The experience of this team is that a group that takes the virus threat seriously and mitigation efforts even more seriously can navigate through the pandemic, and even succeed. LouCity didn’t test its players more than any college team, and probably less than most NFL and pro baseball and basketball teams. Its weapons against the virus were not secret, nor complicated.
Sacrifice and discipline, mixed with accountability and leadership.
“I give a ton of credit to the guys,” McCabe said. “This city has a ton of places to go, restaurants, zoo, things you’re used to doing. Then all of a sudden it stops you in your tracks, especially if you have young kids and you just want to get out of the house. It did take a tremendous amount of discipline, but this is what this group is all about, being super-professional, doing what it takes. I was really proud to see that we had no positives, and seeing other teams have trouble with it, made me feel it was such a professional group of guys. It takes an enormous amount of self-control and discipline.”
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