The moment sports shut down across the country more than two months ago, Shelly Mullenix began preparing for the day student-athletes returned to LSU. Mullenix, director of wellness and a senior associate athletic director, understood the school needed to craft protocols to keep people healthy.

For months, Mullenix studied the coronavirus, consulted local guidelines and coordinated with a group of LSU employees, which included senior associate athletic director of facility management Dan Gaston, director of strength and conditioning Tommy Moffitt, school athletic trainers and the NCAA compliance officer. They spoke often over Zoom calls. Information changed daily.

Mullenix worked constantly, often alone in an empty athletic building. She created new policies, ordered disinfectants, scheduled cleaning around future workouts and structured the flow of traffic in the football operations building. She said it felt like working in emergency medicine.

“I'd like to get some sleep at some point soon,” Mullenix said, “but for now, I feel like this is my two-a-days.”

LSU will soon begin its plan. Football players can return to campus the first day of June, and they begin voluntary workouts June 8, allowing them to exercise with strength and conditioning coaches. After months of waiting amid the coronavirus pandemic, LSU can resume training for football season.

Many leaders across the Southeastern Conference, including LSU athletic director Scott Woodward, believe their schools will keep student-athletes healthier on campus than they are now at home. LSU will restrict entry points into its football operations building, administer daily screenings and limit the number of people in rooms. School leaders recognize the inherent risk of bringing groups of people into a concentrated area, but they think their plans and protocols can contain the spread of the virus.

When players arrive on campus, they will enter a controlled environment. They will have their temperature checked before entering the building. Their strength and conditioning coaches will wear masks during workouts. They will receive food to-go in pre-packaged containers. The experience will differ from previous summer training sessions, but it may allow LSU to play this fall.

“We're in a good spot to bring our student-athletes back and bring them back in a safe environment,” Gaston said. “We'll be ready for football when they report and be able to get in there and clean after every time. Then we'll start phasing in the other athletes as well.”

Risk management

Mullenix held three virtual meetings Wednesday night. She spoke to returning players, freshmen, transfers and parents. About two weeks from LSU’s first day of voluntary workouts, Mullenix wanted to educate them on COVID-19 and the school’s plan for keeping players healthy.

During the calls, Mullenix requested everyone lay low until players arrived on campus. The coronavirus takes between two and 14 days to manifest itself, and if they restricted social gatherings for a week, Mullenix explained, LSU had a higher chance of noticing the virus’ presence before anyone entered the facility.

Players will undergo a typical medical examination once they report to campus. They’ll also receive COVID-19 antibody tests designed to reveal if someone has recovered from the virus, though experts don’t know the true effectiveness of the tests.

“It's a measure of whether or not you have anyone at all who's been exposed,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and a member of the SEC’s Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force. “It tells the team a little bit about their population.”

LSU will not administer PCR tests, which diagnose the virus, unless someone exhibits symptoms. In that case, Mullenix said, the person must recover in isolation. They can return to workouts once three days pass without a fever or medication.

Instead of constant testing, LSU’s plan focuses on daily screening. Student-athletes, coaches and staff will have their temperatures tested at designated entry points, and they will answer a CDC questionnaire about their health.

“We would be able to, ideally, catch the majority of early virus carriers at that point,” Mullenix said. “Then we would send them for PCR testing if that was necessary.”

LSU hopes to prevent infection by limiting interaction and common touch points. Players must enter through a side door while coaches walk through the front of the building. If a player sees a coach, Mullenix said they need to wear masks. They must also wear masks in hallways between workouts. Though student-athletes don’t fall into a risk category for the coronavirus, some of the coaches do.

“I don't want my asymptomatic carriers, which presumably could be my student-athletes, in direct contact or harms way of the coaches,” Mullenix said. “Even though the coaches are going to say they don't care; this is football.”

If symptoms arise, LSU will use contact tracing to contain the virus. All athletic trainers were certified in the practice, which identifies who an individual has contacted and then evaluates each person’s risk. Some people might need isolation. Others may only have to watch their symptoms for a few days. If the plan works, LSU can contain the virus instead of letting it spread through the team.

Most of all, Mullenix expects those around the facility to practice physical distancing, regularly wash their hands and use a face mask. She encouraged coaches to hold meetings outside, where doctors have identified fewer coronavirus cases. Some players and coaches have to retrain their habits.

“It's inevitable that the virus is present,” Mullenix said. “There's a reason why it's a pandemic. It's everywhere. You've got to be able to try to minimize your risk.”

Inside the weight room

Moffitt spent the last two months working from home, trying to communicate with players through texts and phone calls. He held webinars, and he tracked workouts from afar. Players responded well, but at the same time, Moffitt thought the last couple months were tough. 

“When you work from home, there are no quitting times,” Moffitt said. “Your day starts when you get up, and you keep going until everybody that you know has fallen asleep. So the days have been long.” 

When leagues shut down and the SEC canceled spring practice, Moffitt spent a weekend writing a manual for the players. It included six strength training options, ranging from LSU’s typical regimen to body weight exercises. He said the athletic department spent almost $8,000 on equipment such as resistance bands to send to student-athletes across all sports. 

Moffitt expects 85% of the football players to return in-shape. He changed the workout once per month, evolving as he learned what players had available. Moffitt thinks the program went well. Now he has to make up for lost time. 

“One group is going to be people that were able to do everything we wanted them to do,” Moffitt said. “There's going to be another group of people that were not able to do anything. I have to determine who those people are, and I'm going to have to train them differently.”

Next month, LSU can’t exceed 20 players in the weight room at one time. The strength and conditioning staff will divide the team into six groups, staggering the amount of people in the facility throughout the day. Punctuality matters more than ever before.

Players won’t wear masks while they lift, but they will use racks spaced 10 feet from one another. The players will return to the same area every day, Mullenix said, splitting the team into subgroups. If a player on one rack shows coronavirus symptoms, the rest of the subgroup may require quarantine.

“But it does not bring down the whole rest of the team,” Mullenix said. “You have to think of this in subgroups and pods so you have a constant flow of student-athletes that are healthy and able-bodied to participate.” 

The strength and conditioning coaches will clean the weight room between sessions, and twice daily, LSU will use an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect equipment. The machine coats the room in a solution that kills viruses after 10 minutes.

The first two weeks of workouts, Moffitt wants to determine who’s in shape. Using technology and previous data, Moffitt will see if a player meets their previous fitness levels, such as average heart rates and velocities. LSU will train the groups differently so the team feels ready whenever football practice begins.

The whole situation has reminded Moffitt of his early days as a strength and conditioning coach. Decades ago, players didn’t stay on campus throughout the summer and train their bodies to remain in peak physical condition.

Recently, Moffitt flipped through notes from the 1996-97 season. He had designed a workout packet for players who spent the summer months at home away from his supervision. He trained them when they all returned.

“It's going to be similar to that,” Moffitt said.

Confidence and concerns

Mullenix walked through the football operations building Thursday morning impersonating a player on their first day of voluntary workouts. She stopped for screenings and wore a mask in the hallways. Staff led her through the building with limited contact.

When June 8 arrives, LSU will have completed five or six similar trial runs. The Tigers want to avoid as many pitfalls as they can by preplanning, but they recognize protocols and schedules may require adjustments.

In the week ahead, LSU will do another deep clean of its facility and reinforce guidelines to coaches and staff, helping instill protocols that require total cooperation. Mullenix will remind everyone to notify athletic trainers and doctors if they feel sick. They might have shown up for work with a sore throat in the past. Not anymore.

Some concerns remain. Though Mullenix has developed a comprehensive plan, LSU needs honesty from everyone in the football operations building. The school cannot track movements once players leave its supervision. If someone acts reckless during their free time or fibs during daily screenings, they jeopardize everyone’s health.

“The more honest we can be, the responses will be a whole lot easier than shutting down an entire program,” Mullenix said. “There's no need to have to do that if we have pretty good reign on what's going on.

“But if we have the greater number of people who are dismissing their signs and symptoms, we're going to have a problem. It's important that people communicate more than they ever have.”

Those worries sit in Mullenix’s mind, but she has learned about the coronavirus and as student-athletes return to campus, she feels optimistic. Confidence has replaced the fear she felt two months ago. The day has almost arrived.

“It's going to be an impressive effort on everyone's part,” Mullenix said. “If everyone communicates well and remains on the same page, I think we can get through it.”


Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com