NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Derrick Henry has been seen jogging on the field with his daughter after practice. Green Bay Packers are once again borrowing kids' bicycles for rides to practice. Fans are rubbing elbows with their favorite players to get those coveted autographs.
Yes, the NFL is looking and acting like it's essentially back to normal going into its third season dealing with COVID-19.
There are no more trailers or tents for testing, and masks are rare. In fact, the protocols devised and tweaked by the league and the NFL Players Association in 2020 and 2021 were suspended last March.
The NFL seems to be following the lead of the CDC, which dropped social distancing and quarantine requirements last week with an estimated 95% of Americans 16 and older acquiring some level of immunity from vaccinations or infections.
The league still wants anyone with possible symptoms to speak up and wear a mask after contact with someone with COVID-19. A positive test still means isolating at home for at least five days.
“I think we are always concerned about everybody’s safety, ours and the health of our families,” Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel said, adding that 2 1/2 years into the pandemic: "Hopefully we are past that.”
The biggest changes have been the easiest to notice at training camps across the NFL: Fans are back and close enough to high-five and shake hands with players, no longer kept at a distance and happy to resume preseason traditions.
Players are happy to have fans fully back, grateful for the energy boost during the monotonous routine and long days of camp.
"It’s huge," Packers running back Aaron Jones said. “The fans are everything. They're what makes football go, and I would say this is one of the best traditions in football, the bike rides. I’ve had my same little bike rider since I came in, got to bring my son to practice with me as well, so it’s special to me.”
The Packers were among the teams that allowed fans to watch training camp practices in 2021 at a distance, though no interaction with players was allowed.
Cheers are very welcome after the relative silence the past two years when the only sounds were pads thudding, coaches yelling and occasionally music over speakers to simulate fan noise. Families of players, coaches and team staffers couldn't attend either, preventing them from stealing a few minutes at work with their kids or spouses.
Henry's daughter Valentina, now 2, is the perfect age to enjoy racing her father to an end zone after an early practice at camp. The two-time NFL rushing champ said it's the kind of moment his daughter can look at when older.
“Having these moments are always precious, especially with your kids, but just being in football and training camp it takes up a lot of time,” Henry said. “But any time you get a moment like that, you always cherish those moments and something that we can look back at and laugh at and enjoy.”
Vaccinations eased the protocols from 2020 when teammates had to keep 6 feet apart and coaches wore masks on the field whether in practice or games no matter if teams were inside or outdoors. Titans center Ben Jones said that meant friends sitting apart for breakfast and lunch, making it tough to build team chemistry and camaraderie.
“It made it a lot of challenges for me who’s a guy who’s trying to get five guys on the same page to do it spread out,” Ben Jones recalled. "It’s not what you want. As a guy on the team, as a leader, you want as many guys as close as possible so you can have an impact on them.”
The social distancing signs are gone. So too are the mandatory tests, saving time each morning spent waiting for a positive or negative result.
No NFL regular-season games were canceled the past two seasons because of the pandemic, though many were moved around during 2020 with the entire preseason scrapped. About 95% of the players and nearly 100% of team personnel were vaccinated, the league reported.
The Titans had the first outbreak of the 2020 season, and Vrabel tested positive during the 2021 preseason at the start of another outbreak for the team.
Other professional leagues also are adjusting protocols;
— Major League Baseball dropped regular COVID-19 testing for all but symptomatic individuals prior to the start of the 2022 season.
— The NHL and NHL Players Association released updated protocols Tuesday afternoon “strongly” encouraging vaccinations and booster shots and testing only when symptoms are present. Much like the NBA and MLB, unvaccinated individuals won’t be able to cross the border between the U.S. and Canada. Unvaccinated players risk suspension and lost pay for missing “team activities," though the NHL only has a couple of players and assistant coaches in that category.
— The NBA hasn't revealed its full policy for the upcoming season. Commissioner Adam Silver said last month he’s expecting continued movement toward normalcy, “I have learned over the last 2 1/2 years not to make any predictions when it comes to COVID, but only to say we’ll be prepared for anything that comes our way.”
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow, AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds, AP Hockey Writers Stephen Whyno and John Wawrow and AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee and Jake Seiner contributed to this report.
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