By Greg Gielczyk

GRAYLING -- Get ready for Friday night lights after all, thanks to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifting her Executive Order 176 that prohibited the game from being played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just 24 hours earlier the governor had made no mention of fall sports during her latest update on the state's response to the pandemic, but intimated that she would make an announcement "soon."

No one expected any news about the football season until after Labor Day, so it was a stunning surprise -- perhaps a shock -- when Whitmer announced Thursday that she was opening fall sports across the state, including football.

Soon after, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Representative Council -- which had been waiting for the governor's green light -- announced it was reinstating football.

Practice begins Tuesday, Sept. 8 in helmets and shoulder pads, with full pads being added two days later Thursday, Sept. 10. A shortened six-game season kicks off on Friday, Sept. 18 followed by the post-season playoffs concluding with the state championship games set for the weekend of Nov. 4-5.

"We're definitely excited for it," Grayling athletic director Nate Maury said Thursday night. "It's great news for us, and for our athletes. I just happened to be in the Activities Center working with the girls' golfers, and the football team was down lifting some weights.

"I went down to them and said (to coach Eric Tunney), 'Hey, have you seen the news?' and he said 'No, I haven't.' About half the varsity football team was there, so I got to give the kids the news right there in person. Obviously, they were stoked. We're ready work come Tuesday.

"Earlier in the day (Tunney) was saying he still had equipment to collect from the kids. We had handed all the equipment out at a morning practice (last) Friday, and six or seven hours later it got canceled. He was talking about kids he needed equipment from still. I told him 'There's a couple less kids you have to give equipment to now.'"

Grayling has been following the protocols all summer, with the players masked up most of the time except during those times they are actively engaged in a drill.

Equipment is cleaned before, during and after practice.

"The nice thing for me from the athletic side of it I've had two weeks of games already happening, with volleyball and boys’ soccer being played up here," Maury said.

"As an athletic staff, we're full prepared to get things clean and sanitized, socially distance as much as we can. So, once we get the guidance from the MHSAA as far what football specific instructions, we have to do to keep those kids playing we'll just right on it.

"Number one priority is obviously the health and safety of our athletes, but I know these kids, especially our seniors, who came in thinking they were getting a season, then made four days into practice and then were told 'You don't get a season until the spring.' Now we're getting that second life of a fall football season where it's traditionally been played. We're ready to go."

In its indoor venues, Grayling has been limiting game tickets to two per family this fall. Schools in Phase 4 and 5 of the state's MI Safe Start Plan are, so Maury wasn't sure if that limit would be imposed for Grayling.

"Our outdoor sports are actually getting four tickets, so we're already kind of implementing that," Maury added. "If that's the route we're going to go statewide, we're already there. Our parents are already used to it.

"The non-football parents, they understand. We're going to try whatever we can to at least some parents into the game. Obviously, the hard situation is when you've got mom, dad, stepdad, stepmom, brother, sister and all those things we can't guarantee they're going to get in. It's not just impacting our school. It's impacting all schools state-wide."

At least, there will be football played when it didn't seem like that was going to be the case.