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From wideout to nurse on the front line of COVID-19 battle

Former college player Andre Henderson in the middle of the global pandemic

“There are more important things than living.”

Those were the words of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, speaking about the state of the American economy in 2020 to a nationally televised audience earlier this week.

Across the country, college campuses and league commissioners are struggling to sort out what may come of their upcoming seasons. There is a widespread belief that, rightfully or not, sports are going to be a bellwether of how we regain footing as a society, mainly because their loss is extremely notable in a performative sense.

Meanwhile, in front of the White House on Tuesday, nurses of America gathered outside to read the names of their colleagues whose lives had been taken by the coronavirus.

Between the two worlds, there is not only conceptual overlap, but real overlap physically. We enjoy athletes because their bodies provide entertainment, most nominally. If we can’t keep them healthy, they can’t perform. How do we keep our athletes in the best shape? Health care, obviously.

So, in Georgia, while Gov. Brian Kemp decided that his state is going to reopen everything from nail salons to bowling alleys, the highest-paid government employee is dealing with getting his own staffers out of the hospital due to the virus. Jeremy Klawsky, a video coordinator for head coach Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs, was greeted with a hero’s welcome upon his release from Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center on April 16. A week ago, nearly 30 members of the UGA community, overall, had tested positive for COVID-19.

For one nurse, the two things not only overlap, but exist in him, specifically. Andre Henderson is a former college football player. He’s also a registered nurse. And he lives in Ohio, one of the biggest college football hotbeds in America. Even he’s not so sure that rushing back to the gridiron is a sound decision in the long run.

For the Henderson family, health care is a popular topic. Henderson, 38, is just one of many in his childhood household who ended up in the business. His sister works for the same health care provider. His mother works for a competitor, and his dad is an anesthesiologist in Columbus.

A former wideout at Purdue University in the Big Ten, Henderson finished his career at Miami (Ohio) University, where he graduated with a degree in kinesiology. After selling annuities and managing money professionally for some years, he ended up in the medical field. He returned, in some ways, to the family trade. What did that mean for Henderson? Nursing school.

“I think that initially, when we were in school, it was one of those things that there weren’t too many male nurses that I was aware of, let alone African American male nurses,” Henderson said last weekend. “There’s a lot of African employees and things that are men, but not necessarily African American men. And so, I think we’re still breaking ground there and I think that the culture is something that we’ve had some trouble kind of overcoming that stigma as well.”

His old college buddies, many of whom are former teammates who are either coaching football or doing desk jobs, don’t give him a hard time about his career path, but it’s still something he knows is psychologically tough for some parts of the African American community.

Andre Henderson while at Purdue University.

Courtesy Purdue University

“It just seems to me as though there’s certain things where we black folks cannot overcome,” Henderson said, referring to mindsets brought on by toxic masculinity. “And so I know that, in my opinion, nursing is one of those things where it doesn’t seem like black men accept the fact.”

On the whole, however, the new “liberate” movement has run directly up against the health care world, literally and figuratively. A photograph of a nurse standing in front of a pickup truck from Denver went viral this week, a perfect symbol for where we are in America at this point. The woman hanging out the side of her best friend’s ride is wearing a baseball jersey that reads “USA,” from a company called Greater Half, an apparel line whose name speaks for itself.

Henderson hasn’t been forced to participate in some of the Jack Bauer-level nail-biting adventures like some health care professionals just to get safe equipment to do their jobs. But also, it’s hard for him to understand why as much as people in his hometown may love their Buckeyes, they don’t recognize, if they come storming out of their homes to occupy spaces, they are the reason their favorite teams likely won’t be able to play anytime soon.

“I feel like there’s some irrational thought that’s going on,” Henderson said. “You see how people are starting with the wrong delivery. But I think that if we honestly started sports in the manner that it would need to — because, let’s be honest, like, the Buckeyes could go play without fans and probably do pretty well — but that’s not going to do anything for the people who need the states. I think sports is great, but I think that in the health care world, since we’re seeing these cases, we’re seeing how fragile life is with these cases, that we’re OK keeping it all closed as long as possible.”

Henderson knows full well what kind of jolt big-time games bring. Drew Brees was his first college quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger was his second. But there’s no screaming crowd of thousands that prepares you for some of the things you might have to see during a generational health crisis.

“Without getting too grim, we’ve had quite a few people pass that would’ve passed throughout the hospital system. But this is one of the floors that we’re sending all these medical issues to, so they’re all passing on our floor, so it’s been kind of difficult for the staff who we’re training different levels of care,” Henderson explained. “We have the mentors nurses, we have some intermediate nurses that we’re trying to work on a tiered model to be ready at the surge — and most of them may have not had to deal with more care, deal with the patient dying, in their entire career and they come up here. Within two weeks of training, they’ve probably had to deal with three or four people passing under their watch. I think that’s the difficulty across the board.”

On Wednesday, University of Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins made it clear that he wasn’t going to be making the decision to put his faculty, students and staff on the front lines. Unlike Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman, who basically offered up Sin City as a place willing to let people die so their economy could allegedly recover.

“As much as I want it, you know, it just seems as though if we do play any football in the fall, it’s going to be delayed, because I’ve heard nothing and we’re headed to May 1,” Robbins said to KVOI in Tucson. “My hope is we’re going to get some clarity on this very soon, but it seems unlikely to me. I’d love to see it happen, but we’re waiting every day to get some guidance.”

Which is where this scenario is the most tricky. In the elaborate web of partnerships that make up the sports world, no one unit can take responsibility for how this all gets back up and running. The White House can’t. The states won’t. The conferences are thus unsure as well. And everyone else is just waiting, potentially to be used as a symbol of success and normalcy. But whether their safety can be guaranteed, or should be, is in question.

Whether we as sports fans even care about that, considering what we’re willing to watch them endure just to play, is another question.

“Nurses are not afraid to care for our patients if we have the right protections,” Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, said Wednesday during a media conference call hosted by the AFL-CIO health care workers on the front lines during COVID-19. “But we’re not martyrs sacrificing our lives because our government and our employers didn’t do their job.”

Athletes and their families shouldn’t be treated with any less regard.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.