Back in the bleachers


Photo courtesy of TJ Colonial Sports Twitter

Jefferson’s football team plays a game with rows of empty bleachers. With the recent changes made to this athletic season, there are many ways students can interact with players– at home and in-person. “This benefits those who are playing sports for the first time in particular because their families want to see them compete. Honestly, it’s a benefit across the board for all families. Although streaming is alive and available to everybody, I don’t think it’s the same. In my opinion, it’s a little bit better when watching games in person,” Director of Student Athletics Rusty Hodges said.

Evelyn Li, Staff Writer

Hearts racing, chests heaving, Jefferson’s football players gather together, cheering loud enough to shake the entire stadium. But there is one element missing. Bleachers once packed with adoring classmates, teachers, and parents are now only packed with dust.

However, throughout this sports season, Jefferson’s administrative team has worked to bring the community back together. In accordance with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) guidelines, the athletics department worked to allow students to spectate outdoor sporting events.

“This started in the middle of the season. The mitigation was a capacity of 250 people. Home schools could have up to 190 spectators and visiting teams can have sixty visitors from their school. That number doesn’t include both teams that are competing, activity staff, athletic trainers, announcers, and game personnel that run the event,” Director of Student Athletics Rusty Hodges said.

On Friday, March 26, Jefferson’s football team experienced the cheering and support of one hundred additional student fans for the first time in months during a home game. Students from every grade signed up on a first come first serve basis.

“At first, we opened it up to seniors who had their senior fling event, and we probably had about 40 to 50 seniors sign up to spectate. Recently, we opened it up to the student body, and we kept the spectating number at one hundred just to make sure that we were under the guidelines,” Hodges said.

Compared to normal years where over two hundred students attended games on average, only a limited number of students can attend each home game. Restricting the number of student spectators to one hundred, Jefferson’s administrative team expressed their reason as to why.

“TJ has prioritized family members; thus, we’re giving each player and coach at least four family members to come. Understanding that a traditional family isn’t just two people anymore, we wanted to be able to have parents, stepparents, and siblings come. If we limit it to two parents and there are children that are young at home, then someone might not be able to come because they have to watch children,” Head Athletic Trainer Heather Murphy said. “We thought four was a good number for families to come watch, and that leaves about 100 students that can sign up to attend.”

Additionally, utilizing clever ideas such as cardboard cutouts, the Student Government Association (SGA) also hopes to join the Jefferson community and fill stadium spots left empty by pandemic regulations. Available to both students and staff, these personalized cutouts can be placed at sporting events or inside the school.

“Traditionally, when football games happen there are at least 100 to 200 people at the games– there’s generally a pretty large audience. We were looking for ways to try to encourage the players by making the games feel more normal and also for students to be able to connect to the games even if they are remote. So, one of the ways we thought about was cardboard cutouts, kind of like what we see from NFL and NBA games,” junior and SGA Treasurer Bhaswith Suresh said. “The cutouts are two and a half feet tall, and any student can get them. Hopefully, this encourages our players to play better and allows us to feel more connected to them.”

Surprisingly, the actual cutouts cost more than what the SGA set as the purchase price for students and staff. Priced at five dollars, the cardboard cutouts are not a fundraising opportunity, but an earnest effort to bring the Jefferson community together.

“The cardboard cutouts actually cost more than five dollars, but we were able to find funds. We have an amazing administrative team, so they were able to find the money to cover part of it,” Suresh said.

“We’re hoping that cost isn’t a barrier to anyone who wants to get them. However, it took a bit of time to secure the funding and also the vendor for where we were going to get them from.”

While filling the bleachers with cutouts is an innovative idea, allowing real fans to spectate and cheer can also immensely boost morale.

“It [spectating] creates an environment that we haven’t had in a while. Now, we have these people that cheer us on, and that’s a big thing. This is important especially with football because you kind of feed off of that energy. So, it’s a big benefit to have people in the stands,” Football Head Coach Aaron Raffle said.

Furthermore, the recent changes made to this year’s football season are especially beneficial towards first year players– primarily freshman. While many returning players have experienced the spirit of fans, the newest additions to the team have not yet been allowed to fully enjoy it.

“When first year players are just getting into the game for the first time, which can be a big deal and a little bit nerve wracking at times,” Raffle said. “Having fans cheer them on eases them into the game a little bit.”

Although the noise and celebration in-person spectators can provide is priceless, the excitement from looking up at the bleachers and seeing stands packed with smiling faces is equally encouraging.

“Even in the most optimistic scenario, foreseeably, we can only be at about 30% capacity given the size of our stadium. So, no matter what happens– and we want as many people to attend the games in-person as possible– there will still be a need for these cutouts. Our goal is to have around 200 of them, so no matter how many people are in the stands, there still is space,” Suresh said.