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Troy Renck reflects on pandemic's impact on sports over last year

NBA's season suspended after player tested positive for coronavirus
Posted at 10:45 AM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 19:12:14-05

DENVER – Anxiety began to develop in the previous days.

Sports, the world in which I make my living, always finds a way to move forward as a distraction even as reality clobbers us over the head. I thought naively this would be the case again. A few days into the COVID-19 pandemic, however, concerns began to emerge that sports were vulnerable given how the disease was transmitted.

Then, as I sat on my couch watching the Denver Nuggets play the Dallas Mavericks on March 11, the news broke. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who had playfully joked about the novel coronavirus a few days earlier at a press conference, touching microphones and recorders, tested positive. I remember telling my family this was a watershed moment. My explanation was not as eloquent. It was more like: Uh-oh.

What unfolded over the next few hours and days brought sports to its knees. The NBA suspended its season and other professional sports began slowly following suit. What followed was understanding, confusion and disappointment.

We are a sports family. We make no apologies for this. I played sports from the age of 5 to 18, my father coached it, and my sons were active in football, basketball and baseball for years.

Let’s be clear, sports halting was a first-world problem. But it was jarring, nonetheless.

It was weird not to plan nights around watching hoops, spring training and, of course, March Madness. When the NCAA pulled the plug on its annual championship tournament, I remember appearing on a radio show and saying, “No sports are safe now.” It is the biggest American sporting event outside of the Super Bowl.

Aside from the UFC fights, horse racing and Russian ping-pong, sports went dark.

It affected our family directly. I became a sports reporter providing coverage without sports. It became an endless stream of FaceTime and then ultimately Zoom interviews. I admittedly had never heard of Zoom a year ago. It’s hard to imagine my job without it now. I love reporting, walking through the locker room to glean information about why a play happened, how an injury is healing, why a scheme was used. This is the thrill: Taking the audience where they can’t go, telling them what they don't know.

And this disappeared overnight.

There has been no locker room access in a year. It stinks. There have been positives. Remote interviews allow for more flexibility in covering additional topics – so I wrote stories on high school athletes, a former Rockies pitcher turned firefighter, college baseball players and gymnasts and Broncos working through their offseasons.

As was the case with this pandemic, bad news always lurked with some pending announcement or press release.

While occupying time watching more Netflix — “Outer Banks” with John B became a family favorite before transitioning to ESPN’s “Last Dance” on Michael Jordan’s championship run with the Chicago Bulls — another abrupt ending arrived.

Our sons’ college baseball seasons were over. Like many families we held out hope, as fruitless as it was, that their schools would find a way to play. My youngest son Brady was competing in his freshman season for Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., on a team pushing toward a conference title and NAIA tournament berth. It stung knowing that group would not be together again.

It hurt more with my oldest son Dagin. His college career ended with the pandemic. He pitched at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Of course, he could return to school. But he graduated in three years and graduate school did not make sense as he wanted to start his career in baseball. As such, we only saw him pitch once in person last year.

He was cool with it. I selfishly wanted his career to fade to black with a senior moment on the field, acknowledging his accomplishments. I talked with a family friend who lost this opportunity for her son at a Division I school in football. That would be worse. Walking out to 80,000 folks cheering is a goosebumps experience. And, instead this athlete’s career ended in silence.

Many athletes share these stories.

I was often told when sports shut down how they are not essential. And by definition of a pandemic and public safety, they are not. I will say as someone who has spent my life in sports, they bring added benefit beyond results. Too many kids I have coached and know have suffered through mental issues without sports. It is often the guardrail that keeps them in line, keeps them motivated in school, wakes them up for workouts and tethers them to teammates and friends.

Sports are not about making a career in most cases. Yet, they teach valuable lessons and create connections that I have never observed in any other business.

Having burned out on Netflix, outside of new releases, I find myself longing for sports like before. Not the competition, but the environment. I miss going to my sons’ games and hanging out with the families. I miss being at a packed restaurant when a big play happens in a Nuggets or Avs contest. And, of course, I miss the Sunday vibe of Broncos Country packing the parking lot and the stadium. That energy cannot be matched at the grocery store when you find a sale on Diet Snapple. It’s just not the same.

And I truly miss the people I sort of know through sports. Those daily interactions with a player or a PR person or a Broncos fan. They provide a caulking that makes life feel glued together and more interesting.

Yes, it is just sports. Like most, I have learned to consume it in different ways. It’s not the same. I root for health and safety in our lives every day because I know it will bring normalcy to sports.

And I hope I never experience another day like March 11, 2020 again.

Troy Renck reflects on the pandemic's impact on sports over last year