A Conversation With Coach Ryan Walton
Last week I traveled to Tyler Consolidated High School to speak with head football Coach Ryan Walton. Now, I will have to admit I had never met Coach Walton before that day.
As I left the upper parking by the high school, I saw construction crews busily working where the old football and baseball fields once were. The entire area was being transformed into a first class outdoor sporting complex. When completed, it will have new bleachers along with new football and ball fields. And where the old six lane track was, it will be replaced with eight. Having completed field preparations, workers were beginning to lay down the new astro-turf field covering.
Overlooking the construction going on below, I saw two men. I asked if they could direct me to Coach Walton. The furthest man from me turned with a smile as he said, “That’s me.” For a few minutes we watched the work going on below as he explained the project. I asked about a completion date and he told me it is scheduled to be complete by their first game with Ritchie County at the end of August. I could sense Coach Walton’s pride in the schools new sporting complex. He later told me that he hopes the construction stays on schedule. He explained that Ritchie County was more than willing to host the first game on their home field if work has not been completed. But he assured me if the weather held out, it would be finished and Ritchie County would not have home field advantage this year.
Not knowing Coach Walton, I asked about his background. He explained he graduated from the old Tyler County High School. He went on to Glennville College where he obtained his four year degree. Later he received his master’s degree from WVU. Next, I asked about his coaching career. He explained since 1998 he has coached for 19 years. He also told me that there were three years when he did not coach, but worked as the athletic director for the school. Between the two jobs, he has 22 years athletic experience. Today, he is head football coach and athletic director. He is also the assistant principal at Tyler Consolidated. There is little doubt Coach Walton has a very full schedule.
I said to him, with twenty two years working with high school athletics, undoubtedly you have seen many changes in high school sports. Then I asked what was different from typical changes, to those in the COVID-19 world. He was quick to explain the hardest part is the many unknowns in today’s situation. He talked about trying to figure which way to go. He referred to watching the news and how one channel will talk about one thing concerning the virus and then you turn to another channel and they indicated something else. He explained some people are going by instinct while doing what they are told. He stressed that in Tyler County they are following the WVSSAC guidelines. Walton explained about social distancing and making sure equipment is cleaned after each work out session. He also pointed out that he and his coaches stressed to the players the need for good personal hygiene after each work out.
During our conversation, Coach Walton answered several of my questions by saying he will follow the guidelines given to him. In order that I could better understand those guidelines, I visited the WVSSAC website. There I found them listed in the three phases. Phase three contains 28 guidelines that deal with sports and COVID-19 safety protocols. The guidelines cover all sports where students could come in contact with others. The guidelines range from use of outdoor or indoor facilities, to what cheerleaders may not do in practice or while performing routines. Reading through the list, I realized the difficulty coaches must face to do their jobs.
I asked Coach Walton about the possibility of testing athletes before they would be allowed to play. He said it depends on the guidelines from the state. Next I asked about parents having to sign waivers for their sons or daughters to be eligible to participate in fall activities. Again, he told me that decision would come down from the WVSSA and the administration. If waivers or testing is called for, they will do as they are required
I asked if any decision had been made on the fans. “I’m in the same boat as most everyone else that is an athletic director. We have to follow the guidelines that are sent down to us from abovethe government, whatever the governor says we can do. We’ll follow the rules. Hopefully we’ll be able to get those parents into the stands, grandparentsfamily members want to come out and watch your family member participate. It is tough. Like I said before, lots of unknowns.”
I asked Coach Walton the same question I have asked other coaches, “Football can’t be described as anything other than a contact sport. How do you play high school football and protect yourself from a contact virus?” Coach Walton answered quickly, “I don’t see how you can do it, football is a physical sport, and there is going to be a lot of hand to hand stuff.” (He chuckled at that point) “You have to have hand to hand in footballthere is going to be contact in football. If you’re not doing thatyou’re not playing football.”
Finally, I asked Coach Walton if the 2020 pandemic will change the world. He responded, “I’d say it’s going to change the world, in my opinion. Like I said, me personally it makes me more aware of surroundings, makes you aware of what you are doing.”
Coach Walton often referred to the unknowns of this year’s fall sports and the importance of following the guidelines. I did not get a since of frustration or aggravation on his part due to the virus situation. He gave me the impression he and his staff would take the guidelines as they were given and build this year’s team. As head coach, he realizes the game is never straight forward and situations can change on a single play or adherence to a COVID-19 guideline. And to win, you still have to play until the final tick of the clock, no matter the guidelines or the score. I’m betting he figures if he approaches this challenge like he does the game of football, it will take care of itself, even if he has to play his first game at Ritchie County. If he does, he will make sure his team carries with them the home team advantage, as I see it Through the Lens.
Footnote: Since I completed my story with Coach Walton and submitted it to the editor, Governor Jim Justice along with Secondary Schools Activities Commission Executive Director, Bernie Dolan issued guidelines for the fall sports seasons. Prep sports will official start on August 17. Golf will begin their fall season on August 24. All other sports including football, cheering, soccer, volleyball and cross country can begin September 2.