“In their eyes, the moving away was quite bizarre,” Kuczynski said. “But for me, it was something that I had to do.”
By late July, Kuczynski’s family had split up. He hit the road with his mother, Denise, to the Daytona Beach area, where the family had bought a vacation home two years ago. Kuczynski’s teenage sister stayed in Illinois with their father, Mike, who had a habit of Googling Florida’s coronavirus numbers every day, concerned with the rising cases but nonetheless committed to his son’s dream.
Even though his friends, family and co-workers told him he was making the right decision, he knew others would think he was crazy. But he found encouragement in following other news online over the summer — the growing number of high school football players transferring to states that were planning to play football this fall. Families across the country are uprooting themselves so their teenagers — at least two dozen so far, among those whose decisions have been made public — might be able to gain college exposure or simply play one more season under Friday night lights.
The movement of those players mirrors the country’s fractured response to the pandemic: With more than a dozen states already canceling high school football this fall and more postponements potentially on the way, players from those states are moving to where the sport is allowed to go on, at least for now.
They’re moving to Utah and Indiana, states where college seasons have already been canceled. They’re moving to Iowa, where school districts are in a standoff with their governor over how to safely hold classes. They’re moving to football hotbeds such as Georgia, where reportedly more than 850 high school athletes have tested positive for the virus since June, and to Florida, where a record number of coronavirus deaths were reported in August. The wave of transfers has families asking: Is the sacrifice for high school football worth the risk?
“Whether he was going to be exposed to it on the football field versus the classroom or going to a restaurant or going to Walmart or anything like that, that’s obviously a risk we’re willing to accept,” Mike Kuczynski said of his son moving to Florida. “I think, overall, the country is in a better situation to fight through it as a country, instead of hiding from it.”
In early August, when Colorado joined the growing number of locations to postpone high school football to 2021 — a list that includes California, Washington, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia — T.J. Rubley knew his life was about to get chaotic. Rubley, a former NFL quarterback who coaches at Highlands Ranch High in the Denver suburbs, was crushed for his players who would have to wait until spring to play. But he wanted his own son, Jake, to have a chance to play his senior season before enrolling at Kansas State on a scholarship — so he decided the family would move to Iowa, where the elder Rubley grew up.
Some states are more accessible to transfers than others — in Florida, public school players such as Kuczynski are immediately eligible at the school they first attend each year — while others, such as Iowa, have vowed to stand firm in guidelines that require families to make legitimate moves to the state and establish residency.
“It becomes a logistical nightmare,” said Rubley, who had already planned to open a branch of his mortgage company in Iowa. “I still have a business back in Colorado, too, so we’re going to go back and forth. We have to make it work. … It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be challenging.”
While parents in Iowa are split on sending their kids back into classrooms this fall, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed a proclamation for schools to teach at least half their classes in person. Rubley wanted his son to be in class five days per week — “He’s a very good student, but he’s not a very good online student,” he said — and he wanted him to stay sharp before his college football career began.
A slew of other players from across the country had joined Rubley by transferring across state lines to Iowa — including prospects from California, Illinois, Colorado and Kansas — but those moves don’t come without multiple levels of risk. Not only are the players at risk by playing a sport that experts believe is among the most dangerous to compete in during the pandemic, but there’s also no guarantee that Iowa continues with its plans to play throughout the fall.
“This thing could change tomorrow. We really don’t know. So families who are choosing to do this, they’re rolling the dice,” said Tom Keating, executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association. “We’re certainly planning for fall sports. We think we have good plans in place, good protocols in place. But who knows what happens in two days, two weeks? What happens if we have an outbreak in three weeks?”
An outbreak could spell doom for the season in Iowa — but to this point, it hasn’t affected the decision-making for transfers who have flocked to hot-spot states. In Florida and Georgia, which both set record highs for coronavirus deaths last week, officials plan to press forward with the season. Both of those states’ football scenes have added major prospects over the summer: Illinois five-star prospect and Michigan commit J.J. McCarthy will play at IMG Academy in Florida, while blue-chip Southern Cal recruit Jake Garcia followed suit by transferring to Valdosta High in Georgia.
For elite prospects such as McCarthy and Garcia, the move is more about wanting to play their senior years and stay sharp ahead of college football. But for prospects who haven’t received the type of scholarship offers they’re hoping for, moving out of state is about seizing recruiting exposure.
This is true for Aidan Semo, a rising junior quarterback from New York who had picked up some recruiting attention in the Northeast but lost part of his sophomore season last year because of injury. After New York decided it would shorten its football season, Semo decided to enroll at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a boarding school in the Appalachian Mountains of north Georgia, which plays in an independent league in North Carolina that plans to hold its season this fall.
When his parents drove 12 hours to get him to campus, Semo felt as though he was starting college two years early.
“The whole coronavirus stuff, that forced my hand a little bit to make a decision to leave,” Semo said. “… I missed more than half the season last year, and I just couldn’t do that again this year. Going into my junior year, this is really the time that I need to shine and do my thing.”
In Florida — which has reported more than a half-million cases and nearly 10,000 deaths because of the virus — Kuczynski has his temperature checked every day to get onto the field for workouts with his new teammates at New Smyrna Beach High. The senior long snapper goes to the school’s bleachers and is assigned to a group of eight other players; those eight teammates are the only players he is allowed to be around for practice, in an attempt to prevent transmission of the virus.
It has been an odd way to start his senior year, but he is willing to do anything to get onto the field. There were other factors in his decision to move — he wanted an in-class education and to graduate early — but he also has just a few small-school offers and needs one more season to prove himself worthy of a major scholarship as a long snapper, typically one of the last positions colleges recruit.
“I’m hoping with this transition I can gain senior year film and gather more offers,” he said. “I really wanted to be able to play in the fall, so I had to do everything possible to make sure that I could.”
Mike Kuczynski is proud of the decision his son made, and he said he is confident that his wife and son will be able to stay safe and healthy in Florida this fall. But it has nonetheless changed their lives to be more than a thousand miles apart.
“In a way, it is [crazy]. You separate your family like that … [and] a lot of people think it’s just, ‘Oh, it’s just to play football.’ Yes and no. It’s a little more than that. It’s a big step for his future,” said Mike Kuczynski, who has never missed one of Brett’s football games.
He doesn’t plan to during the pandemic, either. Earlier this summer, between his research on Florida coronavirus case numbers and high school football players transferring out of state, he booked 10 plane tickets to Orlando — one for every Friday night game his son will play this fall.