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A Report From Ground Zero of College Football's Anxiously Anticipated Return

Southern Miss and South Alabama played on Thursday in front of nearly 10,000 fans to mark the beginning of what should be a memorable, deeply weird college football season.

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - April Clopton stepped out of the white Chevy Tahoe ready for football.

Wearing her most festive Southern Miss top, jean shorts and brown sandals, Clopton kept an arsenal of black-and-gold gear in a clear bag slung over her left shoulder. You wouldn’t know it, but she was smiling ear to ear, a cloth facemask revealing only features north of her nose.

It’s almost hard to believe that less than a month ago, the 47-year old lay in a hospital bed in Brookhaven, Mississippi, needing an oxygen machine to breathe, her body aching, her mind in what’s called “COVID fog,” and her only outlet to the outside world FaceTime conversations with her son and husband.

April fought for her life. And she won, now smiling and happy, quite literally breathing much easier than she was during those five days at King’s Daughters Medical Center, about an hour south of Jackson. In her first public appearance since what amounted to a six-week battle with COVID-19, April is returning to society in the best way a Southern momma could.

“My baby is playing football,” she says of her 6-foot-2, 285-pound son Trace, a two-year starter at center for Southern Miss. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on, I’m not missing that.”

The Cloptons, April and husband Tommy, were witness to the first game between two FBS teams of what is sure to be a memorable, historic and all-together-weird 2020 college football season. They saw their son’s USM team, a two-touchdown favorite, dig itself a big hole and never quite crawl out — a 32-21 loss to South Alabama in an environment at M.M. Roberts Stadium that felt like a tame SEC spring game.

No marching bands or congregating. No hugging or high-fiving. But there was football! Maybe not very pretty football, but it was football. There were signs of struggle early on. As Southern Miss players raced onto the field between pyrotechnics, the program’s costumed mascot, an Eagle named Seymour, led the way while holding a giant USM flag — until he tripped around midfield, toppling to the turf.

The Southern Miss Golden Eagles run onto the field at M.M. Roberts Stadium for their game against the South Alabama Jaguars in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

The turf monster was the best tackler of the night. On the third play of the game, South Alabama receiver Jalen Tolbert took a short pass 73 yards for a touchdown, slipping through at least three Southern Miss defenders — the start of a fiery first quarter for the Jaguars. A 13-point favorite, Southern Miss found itself down 13-0 in the first 12 minutes of the game, triggering frustration from the stands. One USM fan, clutching a Michelob Ultra Light in each hand, proclaimed, “They’re whipping our ass!”

Ah, yes, college football is back.

On the field, there were shanked punts, duck-like deep passes and officiating misfires. But quibbling about the performance value of sports amid a pandemic seems frivolous.

Here in this hulking heap of concrete (no wonder locals refer to it as The Rock), everyone seemed quite pleased with any live college sports action at all — the first of its kind between two clubs on the NCAA’s highest level since the last conference basketball tournament was halted back on March 12. The time duration between those events?

- Nearly six months

- 25 weeks

- 175 days

- 4,207 hours

- 252,440 minutes

- 15,146,400 seconds

In short, just be happy. After all, 53 of the 130 FBS programs have already scratched fall ball.

“It’s been all over the place emotionally,” says Southern Miss athletic director Jeremy McClain. “The thing that’s been so difficult over the summer has been ‘Can we get here?’”

The short answer is yes. Even though it looked really weird. Southern Miss sold enough tickets so as not to exceed the Mississippi governor’s capacity maximum of 25% of a stadium. In The Rock, that’s about 9,500 tickets, many of them either player or coach families and longtime season ticket holders as well as — gulp — 1,000 students (school officials may reconsider the latter at some point). Tickets designated a section, but not a seat. Those not part of the same household were required to space six feet apart in their section with ushers monitoring the policy. Masks could only be removed when seated, and plenty of folks took advantage of that, tearing them away to ingest the hot, humid night air.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles Fans wait for the game to begin against the South Alabama Jaguars at M.M. Roberts stadium in Hattiesburg, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020

Hand sanitizing stations dotted the concourse, concessions went cashless and on the sideline, team boxes were extended a few yards so players could socially distance.

“We’re on national television, in front of everyone,” says McClain, himself a native Mississippian. “We want people to view us as trying to do it the right way and be the example of ‘You can do this. You can have fans in the stadium. You can play college football and stay safe.’”

Who would have thunk it? Southern Miss vs. South Alabama garnering the national spotlight. Because of press box seating adjustments, the school had to actually turn back some media requests, McClain says, for a game between Conference USA and the Sun Belt. Yes, 2020 continues to be the most bizarre year in recent history.

Bizarre isn’t really the word the Cloptons would use to describe this summer. Painful. Scary. Troubling. Stressful.

Tommy Clopton, a high school principal, and April, a school librarian, both contracted the virus at some point in late July. Their initial COVID-19 test came back negative. Relief turned to despair quickly when, a few days later, the symptoms arrived.

Tommy and April Clopton

The Cloptons are healthy people with no underlying conditions, the perfect candidates to be asymptomatic carriers. Yet, Tommy and April battled some of the worst that COVID-19 has to offer. Body aches severe enough to wake you in the night. Fever-induced chills. A cloudy mind from COVID fog. And the worst of them all, fatigue and breathlessness from the most minimal of activity. “We would get winded from just talking too much,” Tommy says.

On Aug. 4, nearly two weeks into quarantine, April’s oxygen levels dipped to dangerous enough levels that a trip to the emergency room was in store. That turned into a five-day hospital stay. All the while, son Trace was in camp prepping for the 2020 season. “He was emotional,” says April. “He couldn’t see me.”

FaceTime was all they had. FaceTime and Sonic. One day with his mom on oxygen in the ER, Trace left campus, drove the 90 minutes home to Brookhaven, swung through a Sonic and arrived at the hospital. Nurses took it from there, delivering the meal to April.

As his parents battled the disease, Trace dealt with it on his own team. COVID hit the Southern Miss offensive line hard early during camp. At least two linemen missed time and both lost at least 10 pounds. Coker Wright, in fact, was out an entire month while in quarantine. Thankfully, Trace never got it. Back in Brookhaven, that wasn’t the case.

Those five days that April was hospitalized were the worst. It didn’t help that two more Clopton family members were fighting the virus too. To communicate with his wife, Tommy FaceTimed her from his Tahoe in the hospital parking lot. Why? “Just to be close,” he says. “She’s everything. I just needed to be close.”

Trace learned that his mother was cleared to return home while at practice about a week into camp. That was almost a month ago now. Here she stands still not quite 100%. Tommy only felt completely recovered last week and it’s taken April an extra week to feel OK. “The toughest thing is it’s just relentless,” says Tommy, a longtime high school coach in the state who two years got out of coaching to travel to watch Trace play. “Typically you get the flu and within two to three days, you are going to be OK. With COVID, on day five or six, you feel a little better and you think you’re turning the corner and you wake up the next day and it’s like a bus hit you.”

That’s all behind them now, though. They’ve got normalcy back in their lives. In the Deep South, that’s called football.

The couple strode into M.M. Roberts Stadium on Thursday about an hour before kickoff, hand in hand, mask to mask. They have a new outlook on COVID-19, a different perspective having battled a disease that’s killed more than 180,000 people in America. But football is football and family is family. And maybe they feel a touch of invincibility. After all, the antibodies should course through their veins for at least another two months, doctors say.

“We thought about getting badges to wear to the game,” Tommy laughs gesturing to his chest, “that say, ‘We’ve had it!’”