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“The Most Unique Challenge” 
Pete Carroll provides an inside look at how the Seahawks have gotten ready for the 2020 season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 
By John Boyle Sep 10, 2020

This is the Seahawks Gameday Magazine feature story for Week 1 of the 2020 season, presented by American Family Insurance. Visit our Game Center for more information related to Week 1 vs. the Falcons.

Pete Carroll has always been an early riser, so starting his day at 5 a.m. isn't particularly unusual.

But while the Seahawks coach with seemingly endless reserves of energy has never been one to stress about getting enough sleep, this summer his early mornings have added a new routine: checking his email for the daily COVID-19 report on his team.

"The first thing I do in the morning is I'm checking my email to see what the report is," Carroll said. "It comes in about 5 o'clock in the morning, so I automatically wake up and check my phone to see are we clear again and all that."

Each early morning wakeup during training camp was followed by Carroll arriving at the VMAC where, like every player, coach or team employee with a Tier 1 or Tier 2 status—tier classifications are based on how closely an employee works with the team—he would get a daily COVID-19 test in the trailer that was set up in the players' parking lot prior to the start of camp. Like everyone entering the VMAC, Carroll also must go through a screening process every day that includes a temperature check, an online questionnaire, and picking up a Kinexon SafeZone tag that provides contact tracing information, and that also blinks when two people are within six feet of each other, and that beeps if two people in different tiers get too close.

Carroll has seen a lot in a coaching career that spans 47 years at the college and professional levels. He has a been a successful assistant turned young, first-time head coach in the NFL, and he's been a second-time head coach trying to prove he deserved that second shot after the first gig lasted only a year. He's been a college coach trying to revive not just his coaching reputation but a once-proud program that had fallen on hard times—check and check—and he's returned to the NFL attempting to show that the success he found at USC could translate to the NFL. And in finding that success, Carroll has experienced the challenges that come with helping a team respond properly to both Super Bowl triumph and to Super Bowl heartbreak.

But for all Carroll has seen in his career, and for all of the things he learned working with coaching legends like Bill Walsh, Bud Grant and Monte Kiffin, nothing could quite prepare him for getting an NFL team ready for football in the midst of a pandemic. But like just about everything in his life, Carroll approached this offseason and training camp as a competitive opportunity. First and foremost, "winning" that competition means keeping everyone safe, but Carroll has also been competing to find ways for his team to be as prepared as possible for this week's opener in Atlanta despite some very unusual circumstances that have limited every team this offseason.

"It has been by far the most unique challenge I've ever seen in coaching," Carroll said. "And it goes so far back to just trying to figure out all the scenarios and try to understand the science and stay abreast of the findings in the reports. And it's been way more than just a football team getting to camp. It's been so much more for us to understand how to protect our guys. It's been a real simple motivation, because the whole time it was about keeping our guys safe and making this as positive of an experience as we can make it under these crazy circumstances. And we're just getting warmed up. We've done this first phase of it highly successfully, we've been so thrilled to have the reports that we've come in, so we know how to do it, we have done a really good job; we've figured it out. We couldn't do any better than that right now. Our readiness for when we do get a positive report, and we have to act on that, we've already practiced that, so we should be ready, but that's the next test coming up. And then traveling will be the next test coming up from that."

Pete Carroll arrives for COVID testing on day one of training camp.

"There was a competitive approach to it that we all just shared in."

In some ways, things don't feel that different if you ignore the omnipresent mask and the hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the building. Carroll still runs—literally, he runs like a little kid who's in a hurry to get everywhere—throughout the building to get to meetings or practice. Turf, the chocolate lab with the title of wildlife manager and irrigation specialist, still frolics on the practice fields like a very good boy, and players still spend practice alternating between hard work and playful banter while music blares. When players take the field Sunday in Atlanta, it will look like normal football, other than the empty stadium, and when they practiced during training camp, that too felt relatively normal, minus the lack of fans and the face masks worn by everyone but players.

But it has been anything but business as usual off the field. Team meetings in an auditorium full of players and coaches were replaced by video calls during virtual offseason workouts and training camp, though some in-person meetings are now held in the indoor practice facility with chairs spaced far apart. Gone are the days of players and coaches enjoying meals together in the VMAC cafeteria with Lake Washington views. Instead players, coaches and staff order meals on an app and pick up in to-go boxes. The weight room has spread out from its usual spot to also include a tent near the practice fields, as well as the indoor practice field, allowing players to work out with more physical distancing. Additionally, all weight room equipment is sanitized between uses.

Carroll has been closely involved in just about everything happening in the building as the Seahawks adjust to this temporary new normal, and while so many people deserve credit for making things operate so smoothly, two names in particular that Carroll singles out are director of team operations Matt Capurro, and director of health and & player performance Sam Ramsden, who has added the temporary title of infection control officer. In any year, Capurro's job features a ton of work juggling the logistics that come with planning training camp, as well as the team's day-to-day schedule in-season, but this year he's having to do all of that while dealing with all the added challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents. Ramsden, meanwhile, no longer is focused just on keeping players healthy and ready to perform their best on gameday, but on making sure an entire organization stays healthy and is prepared to respond should there be any COVID-19 cases in the building.

"Matt Capurro and Sam Ramsden have been the two guys, they've been the lead guys by far," Carroll said. "The three of us have just worked through it and just tried to stay as a little triangle here to try to figure out what we could do and how we could do stuff. There was a competitive approach to it that we all just shared in. We just tried to figure everything out and map it out—and there's all kinds of other people that contributed in a huge way—but personally, I worked with Sam and Matt on everything, and those guys have been just awesome. They were just so good about putting up with all my garbage and all that, and trying to compete our way through it, and not settle for anything, you know, just keep trying to figure out the next best way that you can do something, no matter what it was, the smallest thing to the largest things."

A big part of that competitive approach has been keeping meetings engaging for players. Carroll has noted that, despite not having in-person offseason workouts, this year's rookie class somehow came in retaining information and knowing their playbook better than previous classes have. Carroll credits his assistant coaches for making that happen, but he also has been known to use his connections to liven up the occasional meeting. In April, Carroll called in an old friend, actor Will Ferrell, to crash a virtual team meeting. Ferrell spent the meeting pretending he was new tight end Greg Olsen, even lifting up his shirt to reveal his "abs."

"It really is about the players stayed engaged throughout," Carroll said. "I don't know what it was like other places, but our coaches did such a comprehensive job of trying to always keep it fresh and clean and competitive and entertaining and engaging, and our guys stayed with it the whole time. We maxed out on our meetings. I don't know what happened in other places, but if you don't do it that way, my thought would be that you might lose interest and guys wouldn't be as focused and you won't get as much out of it. So we tried to make it as engaging as possible, and I think we owe a lot to the lot to the coaches, then the players responding to that."

"When you're a relationship-based organization and everything is virtual, this is a challenging deal."

As Carroll talks about this unique offseason and the challenges it presents, he does so while seated in one of the two leather lounge chairs that sits off to the side of a practice field, just a few feet from the shores of Lake Washington. This patch of grass with a water view has become Carroll's outdoor "office" this summer where he can have one-on-one conversations to connect with players at a time when face-to-face conversations are limited. That's been particularly useful when it comes to getting to know players who are new to the team. Carroll has enjoyed the lakeside chats so much he may keep the setup even after it's safe to once again conduct such meetings indoors.

Carroll set up a lounge space overlooking Lake Washington to spend one-on-one time with players while maintaining social distancing.

"It's been a really fun thing to have, particularly early in camp with all of the months of not getting to know our players getting to be around them and all that in the offseason," he said. "I just thought that would be give me a chance to sit down with all with the new guys coming in—I didn't get everyone, but I got a number of them—it just gave me a chance, after the workouts, to pull a guy over here a couple times a day and just work through the interactions that we couldn't get otherwise, the personal stuff. So it was good, it was really fun."

Finding creative ways to get this type of face-to-face time with his players is significant to Carroll, because so much of what he does is relationship based. If Carroll is going to help his players be their best selves, he needs to understand what makes them tick, and getting to know players, especially newcomers to the team, can be challenging when most interactions take place on a computer screen. So finding time for this sit-down was important, but so too was finding ways to form real connections online, something the Seahawks were able to accomplish more so than Carroll thought possible heading into the offseason.

"It does feel like I got my hands tied behind my back a little bit," Carroll said. "Because it matters so much to get to know these guys and understand them so we can help them. And when you're a relationship-based organization and everything is virtual, this is a challenging deal. But like I said to you guys, there's something about the whole virtual interaction stuff that's been unique. We've never done it before, so we didn't really know what to expect, but we expected a lot less. But what we found out that there have just been a lot of good exchanges and stuff. It's been different and it's an interesting dynamic when a guy's on the screen and he's talking and everybody's looking at just you, there's something about it. Even though we weren't in person, it still became personal. So that's why I keep saying we made a lot of progress even though we thought maybe we wouldn't, and it carried over. The big concern was, were we able to get recall? And it seemed like it worked out."

"A really meaningful offseason for guys learning and growing and expanding."

Of course any conversation about a unique offseason for Carroll and the Seahawks would be incomplete if it didn't also include the way he and the team have immersed themselves in the fight for social justice at time when protests have been taking place for months across the country following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as well as the recent shooting of Jacob Blake.

In addition to preparing for football, the Seahawks have carved out time for players to share their experiences with each other. Carroll, general manager John Schneider, Seahawks vice chair Bert Kolde and numerous other staff members took part in the Bridge to the Future March organized by Tiffany Chancellor and Nathalie Wright, the wives of Seahawks Legend Kam Chancellor and current linebacker K.J. Wright. After one lengthy unscheduled meeting in which numerous players addressed their teammates, the Seahawks cancelled a Saturday practice and instead used the afternoon to make sure every player on the team was registered to vote. Following that meeting, Carroll made a lengthy and impassioned statement to the media addressing racism while challenging white people to listen to the messages Black people have been screaming for so long, and challenging fellow coaches to use their leadership positions to make a difference. Carroll has never been one to "stick to sports," but this year more than ever he and his players have been using their voices in the fight against racism.

An emotional meeting with Seahawks players and staff to discuss social injustice and race relations. Carroll would cancel practice that day, instead using the time to ensure the entire team was registered to vote.

"This has been a most challenging year of just unrest and reality and of facing the truth about the inequalities and injustices that have that have been here for so long," he said. "This whole racism thing is so freaking frustrating, and it's just so wrong. To me, racism should be over, it's done, we're so done with this thing. And that doesn't mean it goes away, it means that we need to be past this and move on and take care of the people that need to be taken care of, and take care of the situations that we've created because of racism, that have created all of the systemic stuff that we know is there. We've just got to get the job done. That's the frustrating part of this, that we have the will and then we just try to find the way.

"What's happened is that we've been on the topic since all the way back in the springtime more than ever. We've been on this topic for years, but it just came to light again in such obvious fashion. So what took place was a lot of stuff on virtual exchanges and guys meeting and talking about it and airing their thoughts and sharing their experiences, sharing their stories, sharing their scars. All of that has made this a really meaningful offseason for guys learning and growing and expanding. And this is really an issue for white people to learn the story. Black people already know, they've already lived through it, they know. They're the ones who can tell you everything you need to know about it. That's why we have to listen, it's why we have to create the opportunities for white people to realize how far out of it they are. It has been an experience to help us see what we don't know and all that, so it just keeps rolling. The instances keep happening. I can't even believe that we're still facing these occurrences that are so obviously out of whack. So we just try to keep dealing with it. And it's going to come from understanding, it's going to come from knowing the past, recognizing it, admitting to it and then fixing stuff."

In that team meeting with Cory Booker, one thing Booker impressed upon the players is that they have, thanks to their significant platforms on social media and elsewhere, the ability to reach a lot of people.

"He really shared it real specific with us—he tried to make our guys realize that they have a following, they have people listening, and they have a voice—whether they feel it or not, they really do," Carroll said. "And they need to utilize their voice wherever they can, because people want to know what they're thinking. So that in particular is really what's at hand; we know we can do that. And then meanwhile, we're just going to keep on growing and staying connected. And we have really good leadership on our team, and our guys are willing to take the stance and make the statements and call the meetings and do the things we need to do so that we can be in touch with one another and make our expressions of whatever we decided to do really representative."

"They have a following, they have people listening, and they have a voice—whether they feel it or not, they really do."

Carroll is encouraged by the shift he has seen league-wide when it comes to addressing these issues—neutrality isn't really an option when it's a matter of right and wrong—but he also knows there is a lot more to be done. 

"The league has made gestures to express that they understand, but there's a lot work for us to do, and we have everything that we need," he said. "We have the wisdom right here with us, all of our players and coaches can really help others understand what we've come to learn and been exposed to and have empathy for and appreciation for and all that. So there's just a lot more to be done, and the league is a powerful entity, and I hope that we'll fully exercise that to the betterment of so many people that need it."

Get an exclusive look at a typical day for Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll during the most unique training camp of his coaching career. Read the full story in our Week 1 Seahawks Gameday feature story presented by American Family Insurance:

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