In the midst of an unprecedented offseason, Kansas City Chiefs Vice President of Sports and Performance Rick Burkholder engaged in several conversations with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Nine weeks ago, Burkholder took on the task of Infectious Control Officer, a position the NFL required all 32 teams to create. Mahomes, on the other hand, replaced former Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt as the organization’s union representative.
The two roles intertwined through the development of the NFL's and Chiefs' COVID-19 protocols. Burkholder said the relationship has been a key part of ensuring players buy into precautions that are in place to help prevent the spread of coronavirus between training camp and Super Bowl LV.
“One of the things that Pat and I talked about during the whole process — and I talked to Pat quite a bit about it, he was like ‘Rick, some of this you can’t handle. This has to be on the players,’” Burkholder told reporters in a press conference Saturday. “And I said ‘alright you and [Tyrann Mathieu] are going to take care of that.’ And I talked to both and they said ‘we got you, we want to really run it back, we want to be in Tampa and the only way we can do it is if everybody is healthy.'"
Burkholder and the infectious response team he oversees operated with the same objective as Mathieu and Mahomes when the group began coordinating plans to welcome players back to team facilities for the first time since COVID-19 forced the league to shut down in-person activities in March.
He began the process as a part of conversations between the league and NFLPA. The entities split the discussion into subgroups focussed on COVID testing, contract tracing, equipment sanitization and travel.
“I was lucky enough and humbled to be on the group that did acclimation which was the ramp-up for the players,” Burkholder said. “Allen Wright was involved with our equipment managers in the league. Then of course you have Andy Reid, who as you know, was very involved in the process. Clark [Hunt] was at the forefront of ownership during the process. The Chiefs had a big say in the protocol.”
The policies span over 80 pages and instructed the league’s 32 teams to create an infectious disease emergency response (IDER) document.
Similar to the NFL's strategy, the Chiefs split conversations between several different organization members.
Notably, Chiefs Vice President of Stadium Operations and Facilities Brandon Hamilton worked with Director of Facilities Rocco Mazzella to develop a socially distanced Arrowhead Stadium.
Concourses will serve as meeting rooms, while cafeteria seating will be set up for social distancing. Players will not be able to drink water from the spigot or share towels.
The Chiefs’ IDER document, which filled 30 pages, was the first to be approved by the NFL, Duke University’s infectious disease department, and the NFLPA.
"The only way that it gets approved so quickly is because this organization is a team," Burkholder said. "I will stand here today and tell you that us being in the Super Bowl, facing adversity during the playoffs, banding together as an organization and experiencing that week in Miami, absolutely helped make this organization and my team be able to accomplish what we accomplished in the last nine weeks to provide an environment that we think is as safe as possible for these players, coaches, staff, and all of our families."
Two rounds of acclimation COVID testing began with quarterbacks and rookies last Tuesday. Veterans reported for their first test Saturday.
So far, there has been no reported positive case in the organization.
The Chiefs plan to isolate those who test positive for the coronavirus or come in contact with someone who does.
Each person tested at team facilities will wear a tracker while at organized activities, making contract tracing a defined process. The decision to allow someone who tests positive to re-enter will vary by case in an effort to help keep players safe.
Burkholder said the plan wouldn’t be possible without each person involved in the development stages. He added the Chiefs can’t push the protocol aside based on the players’ plan to ‘run it back.’
“It took a village of people to get us to where we are today,” Burkholder said. “It's going to take a whole village to get us to September 10 and a whole extra ship of people to get us through February.”