When the NBA suspended its season March 11, it created a ripple effect that quickly shut down the rest of the sports world, perhaps the first clear hint in the U.S. that the coronavirus was about to upend nearly every way of life.
America never fully grasped control of the pandemic, and six months later it remains unchecked in many parts of the country. Yet sports are nearly back in full swing, offering at once a sense of comfort and familiarity while representing a clear picture of how life has been altered as we knew it.
The stands are empty, athletes are separated from their families in bubbles or traveling around the country in isolation, no beer vendors are needed and the NFL season began without tailgating and some college conferences opened their seasons while most others postponed theirs with safety in mind.
Here are 10 snapshots of life in sports during the pandemic.
The bubble athlete
It’s a game day for the Chicago Sky, so guard Courtney Vandersloot has her day mapped out.
She has a small breakfast when she wakes — some cereal or yogurt with granola — before the team meets in the film room before a shootaround. She gets in a workout before she goes to take her daily COVID-19 test. Grabs some lunch but makes and eats a bigger breakfast. Then it’s time for a nap, usually around an hour and a half but maybe as long as 2½ hours if the Sky have a late game before she wakes and eats that lunch. After that, it’s usually about time to head to the gym for the game.
Vandersloot is a creature of habit, so it comes natural to her to develop a routine. But the days inside the WNBA’s controlled campus — which the players nicknamed the wubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., — make it easy to do so, especially when so many of them feel similar.
The Sky played a game nearly every other day since the season tipped off July 26, squeezing a 22-game schedule into seven weeks, with practices on the days in between.
“It’s crazy because it’s not a lot,” Vandersloot said during a phone interview. “It’s interesting but it’s a lot of the same.”
The safest way for sports leagues to play games during a pandemic has been to create a bubble — an environment in which the players live, sleep, practice and play, where COVID-19 tests can be administered daily and there are no debates about wearing a face mask in public.
Vandersloot feels fortunate the league has created the environment to protect its players and feels especially fortunate to have her wife and teammate, Allie Quigley, alongside her for the ride.
But the bubble also takes a toll. And the athletes, who are isolated from the rest of the world, have to pay it.
“Early on, it was so new and we were so tired from being quarantined that it was kind of exciting that we got to do things and see people and hang out and play basketball,” Vandersloot said. “And then it got to a point where it’s like — we’re still here. It’s flown by but also felt like we’ve been here forever.”
There are some advantages to playing inside the bubble. Vandersloot enjoys not having to travel, and playing games frequently has allowed her to stay in a rhythm on the court. She’s having a career year in her 10th season, averaging a career high in points and assists — a category in which she leads in the league by far — while contributing more win shares per 40 minutes than any other season of her career.
The bubble also has brought Sky players closer together. Social media has been flooded with videos of them dancing together, screaming to blow out birthday candles or just getting together for taco nights or playing flag football to change things up a bit in practice.
“It’s like we have this support system built in,” Vandersloot said. “We have a lot of fun together, but also during the hard time and difficult times we know that we’re all in this together and everybody is feeling the same. We talk about how we will talk about this season for years to come.”
By now, tailgating is down to a science for the Bednars.
“I’m the griller and he’s the bartender,” Vicki said.
They know how much food to bring. How to pack up their SUV to the hilt. Whom to rely on for help. When to set up and clean up. How to get tailgating fans who have had a few bloody marys out of the parking lot and into the game on time.
“Over the years, we’ve gotten it down,” Vicki said.
Their tailgating crew has grown from no more than 20 family and friends when they were dating in 2005 to as many as 100 people almost every Sunday during a Bears home game. Vicki grew up in a family that tailgated at Notre Dame and Bears games and has spread the pregame party planning with her husband.
The Bears won’t allow fans in Soldier Field or to tailgate outside the stadium this season amid COVID-19 concerns.
It’s a tradition the Bednars are disappointed to see end.
“You can’t beat the aesthetics of tailgating outside the stadium,” Greg said. “To me, making a bloody mary at home can’t hold a candle to making a bloody mary in the shadow of the stadium. We enjoy throwing these parties, connecting people and making new friends. We’re going to miss all that.”
The Bednars dedicate eight fall Saturdays preparing for Sunday tailgates. They bring two grills and rely on a friend to bring a third. They have a foldable, L-shape bar that opens and is fully stocked.
Hamburgers and hot dogs are a tad passe. They grill brats but often offer finer finger foods such as lollipop lamb chops and pork tenderloin sandwiches. Sometimes a friend brings tuna to grill.
When it’s cold, they serve chili and chicken wings. Of course, Vicki’s “world famous” Brussels sprouts always are on the menu.
Their SUV is packed like “a jack in the box,” Greg said, and a trailer attachment holds four coolers and bar stools.
“We’re there by 8 a.m. (when they open the lot) for a noon start,” Greg said. “We’re not usually home until 6.”
They aren’t ready to give up tailgating entirely, though.
They’ve been brainstorming about how to have safe watch parties at which they still can make food, but the logistics are hard. How can they set up a TV in their backyard? Do they let people inside to use the restroom? Should they wear gloves to make the food and have one person serve it?
For the Bears’ 27-23 Week 1 win in Detroit, the Bednars rented a local pub in Glenview and set up an outdoor tent with orange and blue balloons with big-screen TVs. About 60 tailgate friends floated in and out for their socially-distanced party — with no more than 50 at a time, the Bednars said.
The Bednars know they’ll be at least a few games this year with plans to watch the Bears against the Rams on Oct. 26 in Los Angeles and against the Jaguars on Dec. 27 in Jacksonville, Fla.
They’ll bust out the grill there — and maybe elsewhere too.
“We have to figure out another way to do this,” Greg said. “I don’t want to give this up.”
The pro athlete
The quiet is the most jarring. Standing on the mound at Guaranteed Rate Field, under the lights for first pitch at 7:05 p.m. on one of those nights when the weather is most pleasant to watch a baseball game, it perhaps is the biggest adjustment for a player to take the field and get the adrenaline going while the 40,000 seats surrounding home are empty.
“There’s nobody there,” White Sox pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. “Nobody there. Everything is dead silent. All you hear is the players from the other side, you hear the crack of the bat, you hear — it’s almost to the point where you can hear bubble gum pop.
“You have to have fans in this game. Without them it feels like you’re just playing in your backyard with your buddies. But in some pretty badass stadiums.”
This baseball season like no other is winding down into its final weeks, but COVID-19 has threatened to end it prematurely numerous times. Outbreaks among multiple teams at the start of the season forced the schedule to be rewritten, and Major League Baseball even invented some rules — seven-inning doubleheaders — on the fly in order to complete an abbreviated 60-game regular season as smoothly as possible without putting players inside a bubble. It’s an ambitious goal the NFL also it attempting to accomplish.
It has left Gonzalez with the feeling of figuring it all out as he goes along. The 13-year veteran already is adjusting to a new team and a new city while trying to isolate himself as much as possible. On the road that has meant a lot of time in his hotel room watching TV — he’s binge-watching “Community,” and he and his brother got into “Ted Lasso” recently — and staying in almost constant contact with his family. His wife and their two children, ages 3 and 4, are home in South Florida.
“We go back home and we try to quarantine as much as we can, but it’s not like we can tell the world, ‘Hey, you guys need to stop,’ “ Gonzalez said.
“My family has stayed home, and our kids are about to enroll in school, so for me it was like, well, I don’t want to get sick and I don’t want to pass that to my kids. So as much as I can stay home, I’m going to want to do that. And I definitely don’t want to pass it to my team because they’re all depending on me to play it safe and be reliable.”
The beer vendor
Most summer afternoons, Don Grabowski left his job as a civil engineer and headed to “the best second job you could have.”
“During the day, my hand moves a lot and my mouth moves a lot,” he said. “Then in the evenings people leave their job and go to gym and get on the StairMaster. I go to the ballpark and am actually going up and down stairs.”
Grabowski has been a Chicago baseball concessions vendor since May 1986. It started as a summer job while he attended Illinois Institute of Technology not far from White Sox Park. He mostly has been hawking beers.
It’s not only the physical aspect of the job he enjoys. It’s not just the extra money either.
Yes, it’s a job to Grabowski. But there’s something else he loves — and misses this summer.
Peanuts, cracker jack, a summer night, a cold beer. Grabowski is an element of the Chicago baseball experience.
“Being a part of it is appealing,” he said.
Grabowski’s summer is far different — the 300-section Wrigley Field and the 100-section of Guaranteed Rate Field aren’t allowing fans because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. No fans means stadium workers aren’t needed.
While some of his concessions buddies who rely on the income are hurting, he said because his children are grown, the financial loss hasn’t affected him much.
Grabowski has worked the United Center — and previously Chicago Stadium — for Bulls and Blackhawks games too.
Some concession workers have a shtick to help sales, he said. Some sing. Some use a unique voice to offer their items. Some even show off their muscles.
Grabowski, a White Sox fan, relies on selling cold beer and making customers recognize him. He misses the banter he has with his regulars.
“It’s like I’m a favorite bartender, but I’m mobile.”
He loves to rib his favorite customers — and they give it right back, he said.
“I engage people,” he said. “They’re there to have a good time. I’m basically there to make money and work, but at the end of the day, if you can have a good time, it’s not a bad thing. There’s been a lot of lean years in Chicago baseball history. I have a little back-and-forth with customers, some sarcasm. If you can make them remember you, they may come back.”
Grabowski quoted the baseball movie “Fever Pitch,” calling his regulars “my summer family.”
Over the years, he has been invited to his section regulars’ family weddings, baptisms and funerals. He jokes with fans who have had babies: “That will be my retirement child” — meaning that when their offspring is old enough to come to games a buy and beer from him, he’ll call it quits.
He wonders what will be different when he goes back to work. So much likely has changed with some of his favorite customers during the pandemic.
He worries about a group of four older men who attend Wrigley Field games every Friday “like clockwork,” enjoying two beers apiece.
“I don’t know if I’m going to see them,” Grabowski said. “There’s trepidation going into next year too.”
The college athlete
Fall signified a new start for Kyle Pugh.
The middle linebacker, who is in his sixth year at Northern Illinois as a redshirt senior, suffered a season-ending right shoulder injury last fall after only two games, requiring surgery for the second time in as many years.
He ranked second in tackles in 2018 after a previous comeback. He suffered a similarly devastating ruptured biceps tendon in 2017, missing all but four games.
So while there’s hope the Mid-American Conference will play games in the spring, Pugh is playing the waiting game yet again.
“The bright spot of overcoming an injury is knowing you’ll be ready for the next season,” Pugh said. “I took a lot of time to get my body back right, get it ready health-wise, for the season. It was hard for me mentally (to hear the fall season was postponed).”
The MAC was the first FBS conference to announce it would not play fall sports this fall, starting a domino effect that included NCAA announcements about fall championships for other sports as well as postponements by the Big Ten and Pac-12.
Pugh is hungry to tackle opponents, for sure. But he also misses the tradition and camaraderie that sprouts from autumnal college football Saturdays.
“Just the atmosphere on game day,” he said. “Having a hundred different guys with the same goal in mind, knowing we’ve all been working for this day. The excitement, the butterflies. It’s a different feeling, and it’s hard to explain. Getting ready, lacing your cleats up, getting taped up and the whole pregame routine. It’s something if you don’t miss until you can’t do it.”
Counting on the lessons of patience and discipline he learned during his injuries, Pugh said he’ll continue to keep his eye on a spring season. NIU practices now are simple workouts as the team bides time until the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs and the Huskies can resume their playing careers.
“Through my adversity, I’ve been prepared for this,” Pugh said. “I’ve been waiting my turn for a while now. The goals I came into college with are very much ahead of me. I still have high hopes and aspirations of doing big things. I’m still very confident. I just have to prove to myself I can do what I put my mind to. That still stands today. It’s just not the same timeline.”
Maddie Bolser was in the thick of the thrill Oct. 19 when Illinois upset Wisconsin and fans rushed the field at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
She expected the excitement of last season, when Illinois played in a bowl game for the first time since 2014, to carry over into a successful 2020 season — not only for the Illini football team but the cheerleading squad.
Bolser noticed a more enthusiastic crowd following her team’s cheers last season than in years past.
“I always try when we have a really exciting game, to take a moment to stop and appreciate it,” said Bolser, a senior. “I know I can get too wrapped up in the games. We have a special environment. Last year there were so many exciting, awesome games. We have an awesome fan base. It was going to be special.”
Like the team, the cheerleaders are sidelined because of COVID-19 restrictions. Unlike the team, the cheerleaders are not even practicing.
It’s a distinct difference for Bolser and her normally busy Saturday afternoons.
For an 11 a.m. kickoff, Bolser usually wakes at 5:45 a.m. and heads to the stadium by 8:30 a.m. Her squad prepares and assembles their giant Illini flags. They help lead the team into the stadium during the “Illini walk.”
They then take part in a parade with the band before mingling with fans and heading into the stadium. This season, the cheer squad planned to visit with fans in the tailgate area before games to help build pregame excitement.
“I like just being able to meet people, seeing the little Illini fans,” Bolser said, “knowing what you’re going to be doing on Saturdays.”
When Illinois scores a touchdown, she and her teammates sprint to the end zone to perform tumbles and stunts.
“You get sucked into this adrenaline rush,” she said.
Cheerleaders can participate for five seasons, but Bolser said she’s looking forward to graduating and can’t justify spending another year of tuition instead of joining the workforce. So she’s especially hoping the basketball season will be played to cheer one more time.
The fall season “being canceled has made me so much more appreciative of things I’ve taken for granted,” Bolser said. “I know its devastating for players and fans, but it also makes me realize how serious this situation still is.”
The Wrigley Field rooftops
Cubs fans sit on a rooftop before their game against the Brewers on Aug. 16, 2020.
Cubs fans sit on a rooftop before their game against the Brewers on Aug. 16, 2020. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
The first signs of fall are starting to creep in on a chilly September night as a mist falls and occasionally turns to light drizzle across Wrigleyville. The Cubs are in first place, and a roaring cheer of a crowd echos out onto Waveland Avenue, even though the stands at the Friendly Confines are empty.
“I can hear the crowd noise,” a woman sitting atop one of the Wrigley rooftops across from left field says to her friend sitting next to her. “Which is bizarre.”
“I’m just glad we don’t have the cardboard people,” the friend replies. “I really am.”
The banter continues.
“I didn’t mind the cardboard idea,” the woman says.
Replies her friend: “I don’t like the cardboard people; the cardboard people don’t move.”
A seat on top of these rooftops is one of the few in the country in which fans can get their fix of live baseball. PNC Park is visible from the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. In D.C., a hotel rooftop has a view of Nationals Park. And San Diego’s Petco Park has a bar and restaurant that remains open to the public. Not all of Wrigley’s famed rooftops are open on this night, and the ones that are remain only at about half-capacity.
The security guard at the door checks everyone’s temperature upon arrival, and patrons are supposed to wear a mask or face covering when they’re not at their seats, a rule the staff says most people are respectful of. Every other row of seats is blocked off to limit capacity to approximately 50 people spread across two levels to see the game. Still, business has been slow this summer, forcing cuts to the staff. The atmosphere on most nights resembles more of an expensive, after-work happy hour. (Tickets sold for between $250-$350, up from the usual $150-$300.)
“It’s just way different, the excitement’s not there,” said Aaron Mitchell, 35, of Lakeview. “It’s been hard to get into it, at home watching baseball on TV. It’s not the same, a big, loud bat and ball and no crowd, no reaction. Just a speaker system you know is fake.”
Even during a pandemic, the drive to continue sports is unrelenting.
Mitchell, who grew up in Kentucky, became a Cubs fan by watching the team on WGN, a familiar story across the country. He lives in Atlanta and has a condo in Chicago and usually he brings his 11-year old son with him to watch games. But during this visit to Chicago, he figured he would try to see his team live.
“It’s the only way I can see a live game right now,” he said, staring into the empty stands. “Don’t quite understand why we got a big old stadium and they can’t fit at least 10 or 15% in there. Same ordeal, the way this is going.”
The super fan
Members of Chicago Local 134, the official independent support group of the Red Stars, made banners for the team this summer before it left for Utah to compete in the NWSL Challenge Cup.
They sent some banners with the team and even shipped some to Utah to show support.
The tournament was designed to reduce the chances of COVID-19 contraction. But for loyal fans, missing out on the season — the games, the friendships, the fan events — wasn’t easy.
“The Red Stars had grown a lot, and our group had grown as well,” Local 134 founder Maggie Dziubek said. “We were looking forward to having this year to celebrate the growth from last year and grow even more. In some ways, that’s still true. We still built connections digitally. But we really intended to be in person. I use a megaphone to lead cheers. We tailgate in the parking lot. There’s no replacing that.”
Never deterred, Local 134 members channeled their organizing skills into positive activities.
The group already commits itself to community work as an extension of their fandom. And Dziubek wanted to continue fostering the collective energy she feels in the stands.
They raised $27,000 as part of a coalition of NWSL supporter groups who joined the Activating Communities Through Support initiative benefiting the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake.
Local 134 also matched a pledge by Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden, who vowed $5 for every pass in a game to go to Get Yo Mind Right Chi, a mental wellness therapy group. They raised more than $15,000, Dziubek said.
They’re now selling “Air Gorden” T-shirts to help support Gorden’s new nonprofit, HoodSpace, aimed at helping girls of color through yoga, meditation and sports.
“Sports are about community and a collective experience,” Dziubek said. “That is the fuel keeping us going and connected through this time. It’s cool. People feel good to have somewhere to go and people want to be part of the community and helping right now. There’s a lot of places people can do that. We’re happy to be one of the places people can go to feel connected, not just to give money but to give money within a community.”
Edwige Lawson-Wade stayed awake recently to watch the conclusion of the Chicago Sky’s game against the Minnesota Lynx live, a narrow three-point loss decided in the closing minutes. She admits she regretted the decision the next morning. She currently is an ocean away from the Sky in Montpellier, France, and far from their coach, her husband, James Wade. Games usually don’t end until around 3 a.m. local time in France, then she has to wake at about 7 a.m. to get their 4-year old son, Jet, ready for school.
“I was exhausted,” she said with a laugh. “So I told James that will be the last game live I will be watching. I’m going to start a new routine, I’ll drop off my son to school and then I will watch the games.”
Lawson-Wade is used to spending time apart from her husband. She is the general manager of a French professional basketball team. In addition to being the Sky coach, James is an assistant for a team in Russia. But they’re not used to being separated by this much distance. When the Sky play home games at Wintrust Arena, Lawson-Wade usually is watching from the crowd, sometimes preferring to attend games alone if she wants to pay attention to details. The two debrief after she watches each game, and she gives her husband feedback or listens to him vent.
But they never spend this much time apart, especially after getting to spend so much time together when sports went on hiatus in March. Although some families accompanied players and coaches into the WNBA bubble, it never was a serious consideration for the Wades; they thought it would be too hard on their son.
Instead, technology has helped carry them through. Edwige sends James so many videos of Jet that sometimes Jet takes the initiative and tells her to film something to send. FaceTime also has been crucial, including one time when Edwige caught Jet just playing with his toys while James was on the other line being told what Spiderman was doing.
“It’s so amazing that they’re so far from each other but they’re kind of playing together,” she said.
But Edwige also feels the days getting longer for Jet, who asks more often when his dad is coming home. She goes over the results of each game with him, and if the Sky have an early start, they’ll watch. For now, she’s trying not to spend too much time counting down the days.
“We should all be proud of what they’re doing,” Edwige said. “I don’t think people understand how hard it must be for them to stay in that bubble because we see from outside and we see videos where they’re having fun, but I’m pretty sure they miss a lot — their friends, their family, even their pets and being able to see something else.
“It’s a unique experience, but I’m hoping it’s the last time it happens. Even if it’s working and they’re having a season, it’s a lot of sacrifice that they are all doing.”
The athletic trainer
Taping ankles is one of the more mundane parts of being an athletic trainer. But for Kevin Kikugawa, it’s an important time before Northwestern football games.
“Sometimes it’s an underrated time with guys, taping ankles,” said Kikugawa, the team’s senior associate athletic trainer. “It’s usually a great conversation. They’re preparing for what to do, but we keep them loose or can keep them from not getting too amped up.”
There’s a sense of something missing — a mission unfulfilled — without football after the Big Ten postponed the season because of COVID-19 concerns.
Kikugawa likens it to a conversation he had with his dad, who was in the military. He prepared to be deployed to Somalia but ultimately was not sent.
“I asked him, ‘Are you glad you didn’t go?’ “ Kikugawa recalled. “He said, ‘From a family perspective, I’m glad I didn’t go but I spent my whole career training and it would have been nice to put that to the test.’ You feel the same way for (the players). Our football high-performance team has been working, rehabilitating injuries or getting guys stronger and faster.”
On Sept. 5 Kikugawa planned to be at Penn State for the Wildcats season opener.
Instead he was home playing with his 4- and almost-1-year-old. He watched BYU play Navy and Texas State face SMU. He sent good luck texts to trainer colleagues working those games.
“(I miss) the game-day prep and general intensity,” Kikugawa said. “It’s really the icing on the cake to get to those games. You train all year long. We’re working month-in and month-out. Not having that is disappointing.”
He plans to help Northwestern athletes channel those emotions into preparation.
“We’re viewing this time as an opportunity to get our guys even better,” he said. “We know we’re going to play at some point. We have to do our job to reduce risk of soft-tissue injuries when they do come back to camp. We’re going to take advantage of this time.”
©2020 Chicago Tribune