BILLINGS — The phone call and its accompanying news struck second-year Rocky Mountain College football coach Chris Stutzriem as surprising.
He’d had no symptoms, no strange physical manifestations and was still not spared by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Stutzriem flew home to Oklahoma in May to tend to some family matters, and was informed that he had sat next to someone on the airplane who had tested positive for the virus. Stutzriem then underwent his own test, and upon his return to Montana was notified that he, too, was positive despite the use of masks on the aircraft — though it was seemingly a small viral load, indicated by his lack of symptoms.
He is among the nearly four million Americans to test positive.
Stutzriem, 31, says he is now virus free and is hopeful that the Frontier Conference will be able to follow through with plans to play an abbreviated football season this fall between the league’s five Montana teams after its affiliate members opted out. But the issue of coronavirus still looms large.
Stutzriem and Rocky as a whole haven’t confirmed any positive tests within the football program, but Stutzriem was candid about his own situation during an interview Tuesday morning with 406mtsports.com.
With voluntary workouts ongoing at Rocky, Stutzriem talked in the following Q&A about testing positive for COVID-19, explained his team’s effort to mitigate the spread of the virus, discussed the Frontier Conference’s designs on playing a Montana-only schedule and takes a stand on the use of face coverings, joining Montana’s Bobby Hauck and Montana State’s Jeff Choate, who earlier this month participated in a joint public service announcement for the “Mask Up Montana” campaign.
Q: Can you walk us through the story of finding out you were positive for COVID-19?
A: “It was a couple months ago, early or middle of May. I needed to go back home for a few days. When I got back I got a call from a health official with United (Airlines) who told me I was sitting next to someone on the airplane that tested positive. They asked me who I’d been around in close contact. It was only my parents and my brother, just those three people. I ended up getting tested and was positive. I was a little shocked because it was somebody that was sitting next to me. You kind of say hello to them but you could tell there was a different feel and atmosphere of, hey, I’m not going to hold a conversations with this person or that person.
“I never had any symptoms. There was maybe a day or two where I took some Tylenol for a headache or something, but nothing like what you read about or see on TV, so I was very fortunate. Luckily, the people I had been around, my parents and my brother, all tested negative. And then I got tested 15 days after the initial contact with that (infected) person and it came back negative.”
Q: Were you surprised by the result of the test?
A: “It was a little shocking because I had no symptoms. I told our team that I tested positive, because I think some of our guys might be a little nervous about it.”
Q: How are you feeling now?
A: “I feel fine. Even afterwards, I still wanted to make sure that I wore a mask and didn’t get too close to people. It was a pretty easy process for me. Even a couple days after I tested negative I was still leery of infecting anybody else. Who knows? You have those thoughts. But I never had any symptoms that were a cough or a loss of taste or smell or anything like that.
“I fit perfect as somebody who this virus should attack: I’m overweight, high blood pressure, things like that. I was very fortunate. Very fortunate. But I want to make sure whether it’s a wide receiver for us or an O-lineman or a defensive back, or somebody’s grandmother or grandfather, that we’re doing everything we can to say that we took every precaution.”
Q: How are workouts at Rocky coming along? What steps are you taking to maintain those precautions?
A: “I think the workouts have been great. I was really close to canceling and saying guys couldn’t come up in July. I talked to our leadership and our administration and some parents and got their thoughts on it. Right after the Fourth of July, that was the uptick (in positive cases) that was happening. So we left it up to our kids and our parents. We did have a few that felt uncomfortable with it, and so they stayed home, and that’s perfectly fine. But a lot of them were coming from areas that had a lot bigger numbers and spikes in numbers than what we were having here. The parents and the kids ultimately made the decision, and it’s been going really well.
“We tell our guys that we’re going to try to be the standard. We’re going to help our school. No one’s dealt with this, and so no one knows what the right answer is. We’re doing more than what Yellowstone County is recommending. We’re trying to do more and more and try to get it into our guys’ heads that we need to make sure that we’re wearing masks every time we go somewhere, and if we can’t be more than six feet apart that we are taking the extra steps to make sure we’re giving ourselves a better chance to stay healthy.
“Are we cutting out all of the risks? No. I don’t think you can ever do that. But I think our plan is great and our administration has handled it really well. (Athletic director) Jeff Malby and our administration have done an outstanding job of helping us, and when somebody does make a mistake we’re not overreacting. We’re learning from it. It’s good to see. Our players are holding each other accountable. You see kids, when they get within six feet of each other that they’re pulling their masks up. It’s new and out of the norm for these guys, and I get that. But I’m trying to go over the top to make sure they understand how important it is.”
Q: What have been the biggest challenges in terms of weight training in enclosed spaces?
A: “Any time you get into a smaller space, we cut our numbers down. We can fit about 35 in our weight room but we cut it down to about 20 just to give more space. Guys are lifting with the same groups every day. They’re doing all those things. It’s kind of what the bigger schools are doing, we’re doing the same things.
“We do health questions every morning, so before a kid can leave his house or wherever he’s staying, he’s got to answer health questions online. If there are any questionable answers then we have him stay home. You have to play the precautionary side a little bit and make sure that we’re being over the top a little bit before saying, ‘Oh you’ll be fine. You’ll be all right.'”
Q: If there is a Frontier Conference football season in the fall, do you expect full participation from your roster?
A: “I do. We haven’t really crossed that road of a kid saying, ‘Hey coach, I don’t feel comfortable yet.’ But I expect guys to be here. We do have a few weeks before we report, but if they don’t feel comfortable, or family or parents or whoever it may be, we’ll cross that road when we need to.”
Q: What are the biggest challenges in the event of a fall season to make sure players, coaches and staff stay safe and healthy?
A: “I think the biggest thing is when they’re outside of our watch. I think we’ll find out what kind of team not only we have but teams across the country have. If guys are wearing masks out in public, I think that’s huge. I hope every state and every city and every county says that if you can’t social distance then you need to wear a mask. That’s my opinion. Whether that helps 10% or 20% or 100%, I don’t think we know yet. But if they said it gives us a chance to play and get our guys on campus and go to school, then we’ll do whatever we have to do. But I think the biggest challenge is when guys are out of house. This isn’t like the NBA where you can just keep guys in a bubble.
“To me, great communication is the big part, too. Make sure that guys are open an honest. They say that fatigue and soreness and those things come with the virus. Well, that’s a fall camp. Kids feel like that every day. We’ve just got to trust our guys and our guys have to trust us that we have their best interests in mind in making sure we can keep them healthy.”
Q: Despite optimistic plans, doubts linger about football in the fall. How can the general public do its part?
A: “I think the big thing is stay home if you’re sick and wear a mask out. A mask doesn’t hurt anybody. It doesn’t take a lot to put one on and keep one on, especially if you can’t social distance. It’s better than nothing. Doing those things, and staying home if you don’t feel good and not put anybody in jeopardy that could possibly suffer from this. As I told our guys, you never know. You could be around somebody and it affects somebody else 10 ways down the road, a grandparent or somebody like that. Those are things we can do to try to make sure we have a season. Beyond that, it’s kind of hoping and praying a little bit.”
Q: What are you most looking forward to when your team officially convenes in August?
A: “The big thing is being back together. That’s the one thing I think our kids are enjoying, being around each other again. They know it’s a little weird and they know there are certain rules they need to follow. But as I told our guys, we were all sitting around in April and May and June saying, ‘Hey, just give us an opportunity to get back out there.’ Hopefully we can do the best we can and take advantage of it and get back to playing football. It’s a weird norm. We know that. But if everybody is doing what they’re supposed to, we have to be safe, but I also think we need to find a way to kind of live with this and make sure we’re doing what we can.”
Q: When you took the job at Rocky you took it to be the head football coach, not an amateur virologist. Has this detracted from your job?
A: “I think my job title is to make sure guys are protecting themselves and staying healthy whether there’s a pandemic or not. That’s a huge part of what we do as coaches. This is new and something we’ve got to deal with, but I’m not the only one. We have to work through it. The biggest thing is making sure these guys are healthy and safe, whether it’s concussions or coronavirus. We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can.
“I’ve told our guys that we have the mindset that somebody is going to get it. Somebody’s going to test positive. It’s going to happen, but how do we handle it? Let’s not think we’re immune to all of this and it’s not going to affect us. We need to make sure that we handle it the right way when it does affect us.”