WEST POINT – Bob Beretta has been working Army football games for the better part of three decades. He’s seen sparse crowds at Michie Stadium before but that was for things like the spring Black-Gold scrimmages.
Never before has the venerable Michie been so spacious for so few fans.
“It’s surreal,’’ Beretta said Saturday, less than an hour away from kickoff for the season opener between Army and Middle Tennessee State. Beretta grew up in the Mid Hudson and is an assistant athletic director for Army Athletics.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted officials all over the country to ban access to multiple sports – all you have to do is look at Major League Baseball, plus the NHL and NBA playoff games being played at neutral sites before empty arenas.
West Point, being a federal institution, did not fall under the current fan restrictions being imposed by New York state. Still, U.S. Military Academy officials recognized the need to limit access to Michie Stadium for the opening day of college football.
So paid spectators were told to stay home and only 4,400 cadets – who are sort of in a self-imposed bubble as it is on post – were allowed to watch their fellow students compete, making it the first athletic event in the state to have spectators since the pandemic restrictions started in March.
“It’s very surreal today, driving in and not seeing any traffic at all, and looking over at those East stands empty,’’ Beretta said.
“But we also have to be very thankful. I’m very grateful that we have this opportunity to play at all, and a tremendous tribute goes to our (academy) superintendent, General (Darryl A.) Williams, and athletic director, Mike Buddie, steadfast in the belief that athletics is so vitally important to the mission of this Academy, to the development of our officers who are going to lead our sons and daughters, that they understand how important this physical piece is to their development and, really, that’s the reason we are able to play.’’
At 11:30 a.m., some two hours before kickoff, the cadets, dressed in green battle fatigues, made their way up Mills Road, bordering the glimmering Lusk Reservoir, and slowly made their way into the stands. The cadets spread out over 24 of the 32 sections of bleacher seating, but none in the East stands, behind the Middle Tennessee bench.
The East stands weren’t barren, however, as cardboard cutouts of parents and fans adorned the lower row of seats of sections 28 and 29, at least giving the impression of support.
“I feel the pain of our fans that are missing this,’’ Beretta said. “This is a big part of many of our people’s lives and they can’t wait until that first Saturday in September and that means Army football home games and it’s a part of their lifeblood. They come and tail gate. Hopefully this is temporary and this too shall pass.’’
Despite the restrictions, you still had cheerleaders, a parachute team show and fly-overs by Army helicopters before the start. Missing were nearly 30,000 paid spectators, the wafting smoke of tail-gate barbeques from nearby parking lots and the Army mules.
The sidelines looked a little different, with team boxes extended 20 yards, to the respective 15s, to allow for more social distancing among team personnel.
A disc jockey intermixed music sound bytes between plays to entertain the cadets, who showed great support for their team.
Access to the press box was limited, and the two long rows of window seating were separated by numerous panes of plastic, with empty spots for every other seat. To even get to the press box, reporters and broadcast crews had to undergo medical screening at the adjacent Foley athletic center. Questions about COVID-19 tracing had to be passed, legal waivers had to be electronically signed and everyone had to walk through a temperature screening.
“It’s a joint effort between the athletic department and the academy itself,’’ Beretta said. “It’s very collaborative, and everything was synergized to the point where we feel very confident that we could pull this off in a very healthy and safe manner. That’s why we’re playing today and that’s why we have Cadets in the stands. If we felt there was any chance of this not being executed with the utmost care for our cadets then we would not have proceeded forward, but the superintendent felt very strongly we could pull this off.’’
Saturday was essentially a dry run for what will take place next Saturday when Army hosts Louisiana Monroe in another game, and for six ensuing home games. There will be no fans allowed next weekend, and Academy officials will soon determine whether paid spectators may attend the highly anticipated Sept. 19 Brigham Young game.