KINGSLEY — The length of a football field is all Tim Wooer can walk in recent weeks.
A cruel irony for one of the most decorated high school football coaches in northern Michigan the last several decades.
Wooer contracted COVID-19 the week before his Kingsley Stags team canceled its Division 5 district championship playoff game with Reed City.
He still won’t utter the word “forfeit.”
“I’m never going to put a loss on our senior class because of something that was out of their hands,” Wooer said. “We ended our season. The administration took the classy, appropriate, safe decision.”
Wooer’s daughter Lauren, a Stags cross country star, also tested positive. She showed symptoms days prior to her father, and was tested after his result came back.
Lauren Wooer experienced fatigue and a fever for 24-48 hours, Tim Wooer said, first feeling symptoms after Kingsley’s Nov. 7 playoff win over Gladwin.
That was a Saturday. Tim Wooer developed symptoms the following Monday night.
Wooer said one Stags player experienced shortness of breath during that game. One of the two players confirmed to have tested positive is still dealing with symptoms more than three weeks later. Both those instances involve young athletes in excellent physical condition.
Without enough time for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to do contact tracing before the game, the school started its own to identify and quarantine cases.
When a second coach became symptomatic and another player tested positive the morning of the Reed City game, administrators made the tough call to cancel the game.
“We thought we had done a pretty good job,” Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said. “Then we realized we had to shut it down. If we missed two (cases), it wasn’t possible to go on. At the end of the day, football is important, but it is a game. It’s not worth somebody’s health. ... It’s too bad the kids’ season ended, but we made the right decision.”
“It definitely affects different people differently,” Wooer said. “I had body aches for less than 24 hours, then I felt great.”
The team’s physician advised him to take a rapid test anyway. The result came back positive, and Wooer isolated himself from the team even before the results came back.
Within days, he experienced shortness of breath and chest pains. The 51-year-old said he has no pre-existing conditions and works out regularly.
“We’re going on almost three weeks where I can’t walk 100 yards without not being able to catch my breath,” Wooer said. “I would certainly take those any day over the concerns with respiratory and heart functions. My heart has acted differently through this.”
He said the mental part of dealing with the disease comes in stages.
“I remember feeling extremely guilty, trying to remember who I had contact with, who is at high risk, that I could’ve given this to,” Wooer said. “There were several sleepless nights.”
Thoughts of hugging Rick Hansen before the Gladwin game raced through his mind. Hansen’s son Justin played for Wooer and died in service in Afghanistan. He served as an inspiration for Wooer to start the TC Patriot Game, an event honoring local military and first responders when rivals Traverse City Central and West face off each season.
Then quickly came the concern for his family. His parents, both aged 76, live right next door, but stayed away since pandemic numbers surged in the Traverse City area in September.
“There were many times when I thought if I was 20 years older, this would be the end of it,” Wooer said. “It’s a very alone feeling. You don’t want to go to the hospital to get checked out and risk infecting front-line workers.”
Once past the contagious stage, Wooer checked with the health department before going to a doctor for follow-up. He still uses a meter to check his oxygen levels three to four times a day.
When the meter reads below 90, it’s advised to go to the hospital. Wooer said his lowest reading was 92.
Wooer’s story isn’t alone.
Rochester Adams head coach Tony Pattrito, 55, tested positive in July and was close to being put on a ventilator during two weeks in the intensive care unit at Troy Beaumont Hospital. He since recovered.
“I leaned on him during this process,” Wooer said. “He told me, ‘You have to take care of you and your family, because this can kill you.’ Those aren’t words you want to hear.”
Chad Wilson, a 47-year-old youth football coach in Marion, passed away Nov. 30 from COVID-19. Wilson played on the Eagles’ 1990 state championship team.
Wooer and Kingsley officials developed a plan to play the game.
Assistant coach Ray Fischer would step in as head coach, with Jared Case calling the defense as usual and special teams coach Tim Peterson helping out with the offense.
The Kingsley school board voted the day before the Reed City contest to go ahead with the game, something Smith agreed with, given the information they had at the time, thinking they had identified all the positive cases and quarantined them.
Wooer was very confident the Stags would beat the Coyotes and move on to the state semifinals for the second straight season.
“I think that was at least a semifinal team again this year,” Wooer said. “I still feel incredibly sorry for our seniors.”
Three of the last four schools the Stags played had outbreaks around the time they faced off, including Sault Ste. Marie, Benzie Central and Gladwin.
“It’s an unfortunate reality now, when you’re bringing two schools together,” Smith said.
An outbreak at Benzie Central forced the Huskies to play their next game at Grayling without more than half their starters.
“I remember when we played the Soo I had concerns,” Wooer said. “I knew they had a JV kid test positive. Then we played Benzie and they had their issues. I don’t think we were reckless, but until it hits somebody close, you let your guard down a bit, thinking it wasn’t going to happen to you.”
Smith said Kingsley had a middle school staffer and a bus driver test positive around the same time as Wooer, and the school would have lost the seventh and eighth grade to virtual learning and had to go without transportation if the pause announced Nov. 15 hadn’t gone into effect.
“Our school was very proactive,” Wooer said. “They looked at the football roster and kids who had been out of school and they had them tested.”
Wooer and Smith both look back and wonder what more could have been done.
The Stags spaced out practices as much as possible, with groups of players moving from station to station to avoid intermingling. No more than 12 players in the locker room at once. Team meetings moved to the cafeteria so players could spread out. Junior varsity players weren’t promoted to varsity as usually happens for the playoffs. Hand sanitizer stations. Disinfecting wipes. All the standard precautions.
The Stags played five of their last six games at home, so there weren’t even bus trips to factor in.
“We managed kids when we had them much better than when they left our supervision,” Wooer said. “You can chase your tail ... but I don’t think there’s stopping that when it gets going.”
Wooer remains convinced the outbreak didn’t come directly from the football team, although the health department listed Kingsley’s outbreak as the only one in the state attributed to a specific athletic team. Smith agreed that the designation seemed arbitrary.
Wooer said it’s likely his daughter contracted the virus from school or other activities. Her last cross country meet was Oct. 31 in Buckley.
“I’m not so sure the health department would have cleared us,” Wooer said. “I think the administration slept on it and made the right decision.”