Albeit with a different look, many — but not all — Maine high school football teams have returned to the gridiron for practices and games.

The first games of 7-on-7 flag football — which many are playing as an alternative to 11-on-11 football, which was disallowed by the Maine Principals’ Association on Thursday, Sept. 10 due to concerns of spreading COVID-19 — are set to begin, at the earliest, on Friday, Sept. 25.

While to many, football is football, there are a handful of differences between the two. The most significant being instead of traditional 11-on-11 football (11 offensive and 11 defensive players on the field at a time), 7-on-7 football has only seven offensive and seven defensive players on the field.

There also is no tackling.

Face coverings are to be worn by coaches, staff and officials at all times. Players must wear face coverings on the sidelines, but that is not recommended “during high intensity play” on the field.

There also will be no postseason or championship games. Each school may play a maximum of 10 games (regular seasons typically are 8), with the last playable date set for Saturday, Nov. 14.

Quarters are 15 minutes running time, with the clock only stopping for timeouts, injuries, penalties or scores.

In flag football, the play is blown dead when a defensive player rips the designated flag off the hip of the ball carrier. If flags are not available, teams may adopt a one-hand touch rule near the hip area.

The most notable changes to the format are no blocking, no tackling and all offensive plays must be passes by the quarterback, whom is given four seconds to throw the ball. If the quarterback takes longer than 4 seconds to throw the ball, the play is blown dead. No pass rush is permitted, and quarterbacks cannot run past the line of scrimmage.

Fumbles also are down at the point the ball is fumbled with the offensive team retaining possession.

In addition, kick returns are not allowed. Kickoffs and punts are permitted to allow kickers to practice those disciplines, but the offense begins play on the 30-yard line on kickoffs and wherever the ball is caught or comes to a halt off a punt.

There also are no helmets and no pads. Games will be played with athletes wearing football jerseys and athletic shorts.

Many are simply happy to have football, in some way, shape or form, for high school athletes. Others are still displeased with not only the decision to do away with traditional football, but how long it took for the MPA and state agencies to come to a decision.

Oceanside coach Wes Drinkwater said, while it is obviously not the same, it “is something football-related for the kids to do.”

“They get to be with the coaches and their teammates, they get to run around and get some fresh air, we will get two months to teach a lot of the passing side of football which here in Maine many teams don’t have the time to properly go through,” he said. “Other than that though I think everything about how this came about is just a product of the state’s laziness. I think the state dragged it out as long as they could so there was only time to expect what little they gave us. The whole back and forth between the MPA and the state was horrible for the kids, coaches and communities."

Mount View coach Rick Leary, whose Mustangs already had planned to move down to eight-man football this fall, said “it’s totally different” and “it’s not tackle football.”

“Honestly my opinion is I think it’s been handled terribly,” said Leary. “I’ve had 17-18 kids, the best group of kids, work all summer by themselves. I’ve been out there with them for about nine weeks, the MPA says we’re gonna go [and play], then pump the brakes we’re not gonna go and then there’s no tackle football. We all feel like we’ve been punched in the gut.”

Mount View’s first practice is Wednesday, Sept. 23 but Leary fears he already has lost a few members of his small team to other sports such as soccer.

Leary said, “I feel so bad for the kids,” but “I’ll give them everything I’ve got and we’ll try and go out there and have some fun.”

"We’re going to wind back up for flag,” he said. “I don’t know all the rules yet. It’ll be a whole new challenge. I’m not going to gear up like I have for 30 years like I have with the other stuff. We’ve just got to get the kids to gather and do something, but I think we should have gone tackle.”

“Very pleased to have a 7-on-7 league,” said Belfast coach Brian Goff. “Keeps the guys active and also adds the competitive edge competing against other schools. Keeping the faith and hope that we will have a spring football league. Our players deserve the opportunity to play high school football. Especially our seniors.”

Medomak Valley coach Ryan Snell reached out to his seniors immediately after getting the official word 11-man football was out, and “was really impressed with all our kids responses.”

“One hundred percent wanted to be involved this fall whether it be lifting, 7-on-7, or both,” said Snell. “The kids just want to do something. They’ve had so much taken from them since March, they just want to be out with their friends and be active. We had our best turnout ever for summer workouts even though we were limited in what we could do.”

Snell agreed with Drinkwater’s assessment of working more on passing downs, adding “We’ll take what positives we can from this and hopefully get to compete against neighboring schools in 7-on-7.”

“We’re always looking to improve our pass game so we’ll take advantage of that this fall,” he said. “We’re thankful the school board approved athletics for Medomak [Valley] so we have this opportunity, and for the MPA and football committee doing everything within their power to get some form of football out there this fall with the guidelines they were given.”

All four coaches are holding out hope there is a way for traditional, 11-on-11 football to be played in late winter or early spring, as the MPA indicated there could be a possibility for that at that time.

“I think the coaches across the state are doing a great job as we speak coming together and communicating and getting answers now and not waiting for things to be done for us,” said Drinkwater. “I get emails daily from the MFCA and it’s nice to be informed on what they are doing and given the opportunity to have input. I have a big senior class full of athletes to pair with a strong young core. We will have a fun fall, but they deserve the real thing.”

“My senior year [of football] was one of the best years of my life,” said Goff. “Hard to imagine it taken away from me as well as the thought that not only our seniors but seniors everywhere would have football taken away from them. I pray every night that we will have a season this spring.”

“Adversity is nothing new for football,” said Snell. “We’ll come back even stronger as a sport when the time is right to play tackle football again.”

As of Tuesday, Sept. 22, not all local schools had announced its first scheduled game, but Belfast and Mount View have their first few games set.

On Friday, Sept. 25, Belfast will host Bucksport at 7 p.m., while on Friday, Oct. 2, Mount View will play at Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield, also at 7 p.m.

In addition, Mount View will host Maranacook of Readfield on Friday, Oct. 16 at 4 p.m. This will be a senior recognition game, thus, parents of Mount View seniors who participate in the game will be permitted to attend.

Oceanside has scheduled four games thus far: hosts Belfast on Friday, Oct. 2 at 5:45 p.m.; hosts Medomak Valley on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 3:30 p.m.; at Belfast on Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m.; and at Medomak Valley on Friday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m.