From home school to handshakes, Super Bowl 55 families got creative to ward off COVID-19
Almost every poster on the gray walls of the Barrett family classroom features the colors of the rainbow, but that’s where the uniformity ends.
The signs display the letters of the alphabet, every number from zero to 120, the days of the week and the months of the year. There are also colors, shapes and feelings on either side of a white board.
“You are capable of more than you know,” signage reminds the three children of Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett as they walk through the door at 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday. “Everyone has a chance to make a difference.”
The final word – “difference” – was one NFL players, spouses, parents, children and siblings have needed to embrace this season as their loved ones pursued a contact sport amid a global pandemic.
“I didn’t want to be that one that got the team infected,” Jordanna Barrett, Shaquil’s wife, told USA TODAY Sports, explaining why they decided to opt-out of in-person learning in Tampa and instead home-school their children this year. “I didn’t want the kids to be in school, and he gets it and exposes the team.”
Since late July, players have navigated daily PCR testing, contact-tracing bracelets, social distancing and mask measures in hopes of minimizing the chance of contracting COVD-19 while maximizing the likelihood they were medically available to perform their jobs. In all, 262 players tested positive for COVID-19, and yet the league completed 16 regular-season contests for each of its 32 teams then three playoff weekends. Sunday’s Super Bowl 55 showdown between the Chiefs and Buccaneers will mark the final piece of the logistical puzzle.
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Families have sought creative solutions to avoid COVID-19 exposure. For players such as Barrett, Bucs defensive end Ndamukong Suh and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, their partners’ pregnancies increased the stakes.
“It’s definitely been challenging, kind of how people are trying to quarantine more and more as the playoffs go on, we’ve been doing it the entire season,” said Mahomes, who announced Sept. 28 that fiancée Brittany Matthews is expecting. “You just want to make sure that obviously I can play, but also that the baby’s healthy. So it’s just been something where we’ve been keeping to ourselves, our small group of people that kind of go in and out of our house: my brother and my assistant Lacey (McKay).
“Other than that, it’s been pretty much us all season long.”
‘Best decision we’ve ever made for our kids’
Jordanna and Shaquil Barrett wondered how best to keep their circle tight with three school-age children. They turned to social media for help.
“Anyone who knows a K-3 teacher in Tampa that doesn’t want to go back to public school because of the risk … please send their contact my way,” Jordanna wrote July 21 on Facebook.
Hundreds of messages flooded the Barretts’ inboxes in the coming days. Jordanna was wary.
“I didn’t want a teacher just coming because they’re a fan of my husband,” she said of their post, which followed Shaquil’s monster 19½-sack season with the Bucs. “I wanted them here for my children.”
Hannah Sandru, whose father and fiancé work for the Buccaneers equipment staff, fit the bill. Sandru had taught third grade previously and kindergarten most recently, perfect for the educational needs of 8-year-old Shaquil Jr., 7-year-old Braylon and 5-year-old Aaliyah. Sandru was exercising extreme caution already due to preexisting conditions and a high-risk family member. The Barretts were willing to pay more than Tampa’s public-school teacher salary for her service. They arranged a room of the Barretts’ Tampa home strictly for school purposes to foster an intellectually stimulating environment. From 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each weekday, lessons in reading, math, science and phonics followed.
“It was the best decision we’ve ever made for our kids,” Jordanna said. “They’ve grown insanely with their schooling.”
Sandru alternates between teaching the children individually and as a group during the four-hour days, reserving time each week for a “Fun Friday” activity that has included make-your-own slime, bouncy balls and Play-Doh projects. Pumpkin decorations, holiday cookies and explosions were mixed in. Last Friday, each Barrett child made dinosaur-themed soap.
“My wife…had a vision in her head and wanted to make it come to life,” Shaquil Barrett said. “We’ve known for a fact if there was a season this year we wanted to take part in it, not sit out [but] it was going to take some sacrifices from everybody.
“Everything is perfectly set up toward no chances of anybody being sick.”
That caution helped Barrett avoid contracting COVID-19 during the season, his only stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list lasting five days – the duration the league mandates for a high-risk close contact who successfully tested negative each day of a quarantine. The Buccaneers placed Barrett, linebacker Devin White and defensive lineman Steve McLendon on the COVID-19 reserve Jan. 1. White and McLendon missed Tampa’s wildcard game during 10-day quarantines, but Barrett was cleared in time for game day.
He’s played at least 80% of snaps in each of Tampa’s three playoff games, most notably sacking Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times in the Bucs’ 31-26 NFC championship upset. That ability – and availability – should bode well in free agency this spring after Barrett played 2020 on a $15.8 million franchise tag.
For Barrett to have that level of success on the field, while the children were educated and Jordanna remained healthy carrying their fourth child, was a reward and relief to achieve.
“Mental health totally plays into it too,” Jordanna Barrett said. “Like, how do you stay mentally sane with physically being sane and smart? It was a lot. But ultimately, I’m glad we stuck the season out.”
New Super Bowl traditions
The Barretts, helped by the Buccaneers becoming the first team to host a Super Bowl in their home stadium, will attend the Super Bowl despite watching all but one other game at home this year. Each family member is receiving daily COVID-19 tests this week preceding the Super Bowl. Only two family members – Shaquil requested Jordanna and his mother, Jordanna said – can celebrate on the post-game field should the Bucs win.
Buccaneers defensive end Ndamukong Suh’s father Michael, at 60 years old, doesn’t feel safe traveling. Michael says he attended roughly six of eight home games each season during his son’s first decade in the NFL, and he traveled to Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium two seasons ago when Ndamukong made his first Super Bowl as a member of the Rams.
“Wow, that was a big thing,” Michael Suh told USA TODAY Sports.
Father and son routinely share a special gesture, clasping each others hands and crossing their arms, a tribute to a gesture from Michael’s tribe in his native Cameroon: “That’s good luck in our traditional way,” Michael explained. But this season they can only join in prayer via FaceTime.
Michael watches games at home in Portland, Oregon with his best friend, Jonathan. The two planned to travel to Tampa for the Super Bowl before deciding they didn’t feel safe. So they’ll watch on TV while sharing a meal of their favorite African dishes, including Michael’s favorite tribal Cameroonian soup, achu.
Michael’s rooting interests have changed, too. Watching the Rams face the Patriots two seasons ago, he hoped Ndamukong would knock down Tom Brady. Now, with both on the Bucs, the Suhs will be rooting for the legend to win his seventh Lombardi.
“The last one … [Ndamukong] had to stop him,” Michael Suh said. “Now, he has to do everything to stop everybody else and give the ball back to Brady.
“It’s so funny.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein