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Idea to execute now for fall: The Golden Ticket experience

Over the last several weeks, college football programs have announced that they're preparing for their stadiums this fall to return to full capacity. After a year where everyone has dealt with COVID restrictions, the announcements seemed like a light at the end of the tunnel for so many for a hopeful return to the normalcy we once enjoyed.

There was a point last summer, following a pretty strict stay-at-home lockdown here in Michigan where I had a fleeting thought that when COVID had passed by football season, we'd do something special to honor the community members who played such a vital role to defeat this wicked disease. But come fall, we played with limited fans in the stands while other states and everyone but the FBS level of college football pushed their seasons to the spring.

It certainly feels like this fall will be back to what we're all used to, and if we're fortunate enough for that to be true, I've got an idea to share.

This isn't just an idea though. A part of me hopes that it becomes a movement because I think football is the perfect platform to show appreciation.

The feeling of running out onto a football field to the bleachers packed with fans on a Friday night, or Saturday afternoon, is a feeling unlike any other. A lot of folks dream about that and never have the opportunity.

Here's what I have in mind. As a football program, doesn't matter whether you're a high school coach or college coach or administrator reading this, harness the unique experience of running out onto the field on game day to show your appreciation to those in your community who have risen and answered the call during the the COVID pandemic.

A Comstock Park, here's what we're going to do, but first a little background into why we do it.

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Our colors are green and gold, so we've got a Golden Ticket - inspired by Willy Wonka of course - that we give out each week. Typically, during the season at the beginning of each week, players will get a chance to nominate a teacher, faculty member, or honor a community member by selecting them to be the recipient of the Golden Ticket. They (or I at times) will then present that individual with the ticket and an invite to be our VIP guest at the week's game. The guest gets to shadow the team and coaches from the pregame meal, to warmups, and also get a sideline pass to enjoy the game on the sideline.

After our warmups, we return to the locker room as a team, and at that point, the individuals who nominated the Golden Ticket recipient are asked to stand up in front of their teammates and the Golden Ticket honoree to explain why that individual was chosen. We've had coaches of other sports honored with the Golden Ticket that were so moved that they insist on leading the team onto the field after a few final words of encouragement, to teachers that genuinely thought the kids that stood up to say nice things about them hated them before that moment.

It has been an experience in gratitude that is eye opening and something we really believe in doing.

This year, provided everything goes back to a typical fall with fans allowed in the stands, we're going to be giving out TWO Golden Tickets each home game. The one meant to honor an individual will be the same, but the other is going to be directed at a specific segment of the community that has played a vital role during the COVID pandemic.

The COMMUNITY Golden Ticket will awarded to a specific group and will be announced on social media. On game day, anyone that fit that role will be welcomed down to the area where the team gathers to take the field, and they will lead the team out onto the field before returning to the stands to enjoy the game.

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There are so many ways you could split this up, and should absolutely be specific to your community, so talking with a veteran administrator or teacher in your building could help a lot, especially if you're new to the program, but here are some ideas.

If you have four or five home games, try and narrow it down to that many groups, or double up on some that may be lesser represented in your area to spread the love out.

    We simply could not have gotten through this past year without the sacrifice of so many healthcare workers. From doctors, and nurses to those that worked the COVID floor, or volunteered to do testing or vaccinations during a time of intense need, this is a group that should not be ignored.
    Few industries were thrown a curveball like education was. Teachers had to scramble to figure out how to take their lesson plans online and how to engage with students on a new platform, while administrators worked diligently to figure out how to make this new way of learning work, while being forced to be flexible while making some really difficult and unpopular decisions. So many schools had food service workers taking on significantly more work putting together no-questions-asked food boxes that helped feed the entire community too. These folks certainly deserve a tip of the cap too.
    Whether it was stocking toilet paper nonstop, or stocking shelves with essential food during a stay-at-home order, grocery store workers stepped up and answered the call, which was especially courageous during a time there was so much uncertainty around COVID and how it spread from person to person.
    We all likely know a small business that was not able to survive because of the pandemic. Those that have found a way to keep their doors open deserve to be recognized for providing an important product or service to the community, and for coming out on the other side of this pandemic that has been a disaster to so many businesses.
    Restaurants have been another area hit hard by the pandemic. From seating restrictions to being able to offer dine out only, lots of people have shown their appreciation to local restaurants by ordering take-out and tipping more generously for the wait staff and other positions inside restaurants that have been impacted. Would be really cool if you were able to offer restaurants the opportunity to sell some food items at the game too, if they're able.
    Lastly, but certainly not least, are the parents who soldiered the pandemic through online schooling, no recess, cancelled classes, contract tracing, limited-to-no play dates for their kids, all while likely juggling the stress of also trying to work at home. It would be irresponsible to not also recognize the struggles that parents have been through during this difficult time as well.

There are tons of ways we can show our gratitude to these groups of people that helped us all get through the challenges of the past year, but this is one idea that I think every football program in the country can pull off, to one extent or another.

I hope to see lots of pictures, and hear of lots of moments and experiences this fall that this piece helped to inspire.

Have another group you think should be added for other communities to consider? Reach out at let me know via Twitter @CoachSamz.

Other ideas: Folks that lost their job or business during COVID, Child care services, etc.