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Older high school coaches learning to navigate the coronavirus pandemic

UPDATED: Sun., July 19, 2020

Former Timberlake and Chewelah football coach Roy Albertson was laid up on a hospital bed on two occasions during his long and successful career, the second ailment more serious than the first.

Albertson was at Chewelah in the late 1990s when he suffered a staph infection in his knee that required a month of hospitalization.

Three years ago, he had a brush with death.

Albertson suffered a heart attack on Timberlake’s practice field and had triple bypass surgery, forcing him to miss the 2017 season.

He returned to the Spirit Lake team in 2018 and 2019 but recently decided to step down at age 72.

The coronavirus pandemic was the driving force in his decision.

“I retired because of the virus,” said Albertson, referencing preexisting health conditions that could potentially be fatal if he was infected.

He had a 57-20-1 record at Chewelah before making the move to Timberlake in 2003, leading the Tigers to a 108-64 record in 17 seasons, including 16 playoff appearances and six trips to the state semifinals.

Albertson’s age and health put him in a dangerous demographic while navigating a virus that’s infected nearly 3.8 million Americans and contributed to the deaths of over 140,000, the overwhelming majority aged 60 and older.

Being around dozens of young athletes and assistant coaches has been a 47-year labor of love, but it’s not worth the risk, Albertson said.

“The virus is worse now that I ever thought it would be in our area,” Albertson said of the recent spike of COVID-19 infections in Kootenai County. “I still have the same enthusiasm for young people as I did, but now I just stay at home. I leave for walks and to go to the store with my wife.

“I wanted to coach for as long as I could.”

Older high school coaches in Eastern Washington and North Idaho have been wary of the disease despite a clean bill of health.

Longtime Mead boys basketball coach Glenn Williams, 61, is in good physical shape, but a few family members – including his wife who battles asthma – have pre-existing conditions.

Williams is more worried about the potential spread of the infection to a vulnerable population than dealing with the virus himself.

“This thing is something we’ve never seen. We’re still learning about the disease, it attacks in different ways to different people,” Williams said.

“My feeling is that we don’t need to be afraid of it, but be prudent how we go about it and open activities. It’s a wait-and-see as we accumulate information.”

Williams said he would have no problem wearing a mask on the bench if it meant getting back to basketball, but he understands the shutdown.

“I miss the kids, but losing sports pales in comparison to the lives we’re losing,” Williams said.

Washington Hall of Fame and University High wrestling coach Don Owen, now an assistant after retiring from his head coaching duties last year, is 62 years old.

In a contact sport like wrestling, Owen has seen diseases spread on the mat, some of which young athletes have developed an immunity, he said.

Owen knows that coronavirus is a much different animal but preaches a healthy lifestyle for people of all ages to help fight the virus.

“We have to be very conscious of how we expose ourselves and if we have a good immune system,” Owen said. “I feel like I have a good immune system, and in wrestling you have to because you’re exposed to a lot. The worry is those with a weaker immune system.

“What I wish is that people put a lot more focus on keeping our bodies healthy and exercising right now. Good hygiene and good eating habits.”

North Central girls track coach Kelly Harmon, 60, says he has lived “a more careful life” since the beginning of the pandemic.

Harmon wears masks in public, uses more hand sanitizer these days and avoids sizable public gatherings.

“I think if I get exposed to it, I’d get sick, but it wouldn’t wipe me out,” Harmon said. “I think anybody who is in that 60-plus age group has to be a little worried. Personally, I don’t know anybody who has been diagnosed with it.”

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