Height and weight, down and distance, minutes and seconds. These are the type of numbers that typically concern a football coach.
Jeff Tedford had a different set of digits foremost in his thoughts Wednesday as the Fresno State football team practiced for the first time in full pads: the Air Quality Index.
“I was a little worried this morning because when I woke up it was 147. I was like, ‘OK, we may not be able to practice,’ “ Tedford said. “But at 7:15 it was 132, at 7:30 it was 137 and I check it every 15 minutes.”
As everyone breathing around here knows all too well, air quality in Fresno and the Valley is wretched. The Ferguson Fire continues to burn parched, overgrown forests inside Yosemite National Park, and we get to experience life inside an ashtray.
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Performing strenuous physical activity when the air is harmful to breathe goes against the advice of every health expert and drop of common sense.
So what is a college football coach whose job is to get his team ready for the season, and a promising one at that, supposed to do?
Tedford’s answer was to consult a local meteorologist who told him the air quality would be marginally better earlier in the morning. So practice was moved from 10 a.m. to 8. (Players report at 5:30 for breakfast and meetings.)
The 56-year-old coach also got better acquainted with the features of his iPhone. He holds down the button, says the words “Fresno Air Quality” and Siri provides him with the AQI.
Tedford jots down each number, in 15-minute increments, on his clipboard next to that day’s practice sheet. The threshold, he said, is 150. Which is when “unhealthy for sensitive groups” becomes just plain “unhealthy” on the AQI scale.
So if the number goes above 150, Fresno State won’t practice or stop right in the middle?
“Yup,” Tedford replied. “We’d get off the field.”
The Bulldogs aren’t preparing for the Sept. 1 opener against Idaho or any opponent on the 2018 schedule. That’s still a little ways off. The first weeks of training camp are about establishing practice habits, installing plays and forging an identity.
Any football coach will tell you it’s a critical time of year. These are days and practices you can’t get back. Just not at any cost.
Tedford self-enforced his own policy Tuesday. When the AQI hit 150 after practice, he shooed players getting in extra work off the field.
“My obligation is to health and welfare of the players,” he said. “I’m not going to put them out here in unhealthy conditions.”
If this dirty air siege worsens, practice may need to head indoors. Tedford has checked on the availability of the Save Mart Center, the Student Recreation Center next door and the Valdez Exhibit Hall in downtown Fresno.
“There are even some farmers that have some 35,000 square-foot buildings that are vacant,” he said. “We’ve looked into quite a few options, actually. The problem is you don’t know till the last second. Then you’ve got to get buses and do the things it takes to move that many people. The logical thing would be to go to the Save Mart Center or Rec Center.”
Neither of those two on-campus buildings were available to the team early this week.
The Bulldogs are long accustomed to triple-digit temperatures this time of year. Unfortunately, smoky air from nearby forest fires combined with the usual Valley smog has also become the norm.
Senior linebacker George Helmuth recalled going for a walk around the Bulldog Stadium parking lot during the Rough Fire of 2015 and watching “ash falling from the sky and settling on cars.”
“That’s just the way it is,” the Kerman native said. “I’ve been here my whole life so it doesn’t really affect me. I grew up on a farm breathing pesticides and stuff like that. That’s dirtier than this!”
Senior defensive lineman Jasad Haynes said he definitely noticed the smoky air on the first day of practice but hasn’t experienced any ill effects such as coughing or wheezing. The Fresno native also noticed how his head coach talks into his iPhone every 15 minutes during practice.
“What that says to me is he’s concerned about our safety,” Haynes said. “Yeah, the air is bad. There’s no getting around that. But he makes sure it doesn’t affect us during practice and we can still go 100 percent in everything that we do.”
Unless, of course, the female voice on Tedford’s phone gives him a number of 150 or above. Then it’s time to head indoors.
“We’ll do a walk-through, we’ll do whatever,” Tedford said. “There’s no way I’m putting our players in harm’s way with something like this.”
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee