As football practices begin, two Catholic coaches return after fighting back COVID-19

Madison Heights Bishop Foley football coach Brian Barnes “masks up” during the Ventures’ first practice of the season on Monday, Aug. 10. Barnes battled the coronavirus back in March and says his team is taking extra precautions to keep players and coaches safe. (Photos by Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Bishop Foley’s Brian Barnes and Cabrini’s Brian Obrycki thrilled to back on field, but say coronavirus is no joke as season cautiously begins

MADISON HEIGHTS — The first practice of football season is always a day circled in red for both players and coaches. But for Brian Barnes and Brian Obrycki, Monday’s workouts carried extra significance. 

The two head coaches from Madison Heights Bishop Foley and Allen Park Cabrini, respectively, were glad to be back leading their teams after surviving bouts with the novel coronavirus in the spring.

“It was awesome, just the fact that the kids were absolutely excited to be out there,” Barnes said. “There was no hesitation, and you could just tell the kids were chomping at the bit. We enjoyed it and appreciated every moment.”

Obrycki, meanwhile, said he was “very happy” with how his Monarchs practiced.

“Everyone showed up, was enthusiastic, and tried their best. For a first practice, it looked like everyone was ready to work out,” Obrycki said.

Not even a bout with COVID-19 this spring could keep Allen Park Cabrini head coach Brian Obrycki away from football.

By and large, student-athletes had been inactive since Michigan’s sudden shutdown March 12, when sports were suspended and schools and parishes closed. Though the Michigan High School Athletic Association is taking gradual steps with a phase-in plan for fall sports — and there’s no guarantee yet there will be a complete season — it was evident students missed playing their favorite sports.

Still, Monday’s practices looked much different, with athletes filling out health assessment forms, checking temperatures, wearing face masks and keeping a healthy distance from one another. 

“In between these sessions we were sanitizing the equipment, giving the kids a chance to rest, but separating the kids from one another,” Barnes said. “Strictly skill-wise, it wasn’t different from a typical first-day practice. ... I’m sure in their minds they probably weren’t thinking about COVID much, but I know for a fact it was on every coach’s mind.”

Barnes, who is beginning his fourth year with the Ventures, fell ill in March, and was notified of his positive test on April Fool’s Day.

“I didn’t have the classic symptoms, necessarily,” he explained. “I did have the fever and chills. I did have a severe bout of dizziness. That was pretty bizarre. I just laid in bed for 14 days. Even now I’m fighting fatigue and some bouts of depression, but I don’t know if that is directly COVID-related or not.” 

Obrycki, starting his second season in his second tour of duty coaching the Monarchs, had a serious case that required a six-day hospital stay.

At Allen Park Cabrini, head coach Brian Obrycki directs the players to rotate and run another offensive play during the Monarchs’ first football practice Monday afternoon.

“That first night (March 23), I broke out in a 103-degree temperature, and I was totally drenched after it,” he said. “I’ve had the flu before, but nothing like that. Each day the symptoms worsened. Loss of taste, loss of smell, loss of appetite. The worst thing was the breathing; every day it progressed worse. My chest was always burning and it felt like razor blades were cutting my lungs. When I went to the hospital I was gasping.”

When he returned from the hospital, Obrycki took steroids for two weeks to reduce the inflammation in his lungs and spent another month in isolation.

“I don’t know where I got it. I didn’t go crazy going to parties or bars; it was probably shopping. You can get it anywhere. That’s the biggest thing to deal with,” he said. “It’s just a scary feeling. You don’t want to get it again.”

Obyrcki said he drew upon his faith often during his recovery. 

“Prayer was always big in my family. I’m not perfect, that’s why I always pray,” he said. “I prayed the rosary a lot, and it helped me get through it. I kept going back to it when I had other situations in our family, and it really helped. You do a lot of thinking, and you don’t always think as strongly as you should. But then I go to my right pocket and get my rosary. It’s always helped us, and it’s always been a big part of our life.”

Brian Barnes watches as his Bishop Foley players do a lunge line drill while socially distanced. Barnes, who came down with the novel coronavirus in March, has followed extra precautions to keep his players safe and healthy during workouts.

Barnes says everyone seems to have been affected by the pandemic in many ways.

“When I got to today, I definitely realized, no matter what the future is going to hold, how important it was just being out there for the kids,” Barnes said. “It makes me even more aware that every day is a gift.”

If everything goes according to plan, both teams will open season play on Aug. 28 — Bishop Foley visits Auburn Hills Oakland Christian while Cabrini travels to Petersburg-Summerfield. Incidentally, the two Catholic League teams have swapped spots in the league alignment: Bishop Foley is now in the Intersectional-I Division, while Cabrini takes the Ventures’ former spot in the Intersectional-II. The two teams will meet in a cross-over contest on Oct. 2.