Bay Area football powerhouse Serra is screwed because of their coach’s apathy about vaccines

Junipero Serra High School’s powerhouse football team, the Padres, are supposed to open their 2021

Junipero Serra High School’s powerhouse football team, the Padres, are supposed to open their 2021 regular season on Friday against another powerhouse, the Pittsburg Pirates. But the game is going to be a dud (if it happens at all), because, as the Mercury News reported on Thursday, a “significant” number of Padres players have been ruled out due to close contact with a student who tested positive for COVID-19.

This is the fault of many people at Serra, a Catholic private school in San Mateo — but primarily, it’s the fault of Patrick Walsh, Serra’s football coach. Walsh has been a leading proponent of the “Let Them Play” initiative, which was an especially vocal group in pre-vaccine times about the negative effects of not playing sports, and how those negative effects outweigh concerns about the potential for community spread during football season. Walsh has desperately wanted high school athletes to play sports again.

The good news for Walsh is there’s a vaccine now, and with it, a series of guidelines that substantially loosen restrictions for vaccinated high school athletes (anyone 12 and older is eligible to be vaccinated). If you’re vaccinated and are in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, you do not have to quarantine. You can still play sports, which are back in full force. The incentive is intended to increase vaccination rates, reduce severe illness risks and stymie major outbreaks. It is a win-win for all parties involved.

The bad news is that Walsh doesn’t care so much about the vaccine. And now his team is screwed.

Walsh complained to The Mercury News that “when given the opportunity to move forward in a very difficult time, we are still moving backward,” and, “You can go back to the classroom, but you can’t play football” if you’re unvaccinated and have a close contact exposure.

To be clear: if there are a “significant” number of players ruled out against the Pirates, that means there are a significant number of unvaccinated football players at Serra. So I emailed Walsh and Serra’s principal, Charles McGrath, to gain some clarity about a situation that shouldn’t be so complicated or opaque. 


First, I asked Walsh what “significant” meant, and how many players are out due to close-contact exposure. He wrote back, “Due to Hippa laws I am not allowed to divulge that information.” It’s HIPAA, and that’s also not remotely true. Doesn’t really matter — we’ll have a pretty good idea of what “significant” means when the game starts anyway.

Then I asked for the aggregate percentage of vaccinated Serra football players and vaccinated students at Serra in general. Walsh declined to answer because it is “not school policy” to report such numbers. I asked McGrath why Serra is not collecting or reporting such information, as many other schools and school districts are doing on behalf of students and parents, and a spokesperson jumped in: “We do record the percentages of vaccinated students, but it is our school policy to protect the privacy of our students, most of whom are minors. The safety of our students is our top priority and we continue to work with the strictest guidelines and protocols as required by the San Mateo County Pandemic Recovery Framework.” Okay!

I moved on and asked if Walsh himself was vaccinated. He responded, “This is not relevant to this story,” which is remarkably off-base for a variety of reasons, namely that his football team is at a competitive disadvantage because he, as its leader, isn’t taking discussions about vaccinations seriously. (It should be noted here that it’s obviously no one’s fault when a breakthrough case occurs.)

I inquired whether Walsh has ever spoken to his players about the benefits of vaccines, a common practice employed by countless coaches and organizations in college and the NFL. Walsh said he’s never done so, and “I do not believe that its common for people to talk to athletic teams directly about vaccinations.” 

I also asked why he told The Mercury News, “That’s not my job” to talk to players about vaccines because “people have a choice, and I support choice.” Here’s what he wrote back: “Because I am a football Coach.”

Fact-check: true. And point taken. If you’re a football coach, you can only talk about football. Oh, and how canceling football games because of a deadly pandemic causes teenagers to “join gangs” and become “new fathers,” as Walsh pulled out of his ass last year. He should probably update his website though, since it attributes his success as coach to teaching the core values of “commitment, brotherhood, humility, personal accountability, [and] a strong worth ethic,” all of which sure do read like non-football, extraneous subject matters.

Lastly, I probed Walsh about his assertion that it’s unfair for unvaccinated football players to have to miss games due to contact tracing while still being able to attend masked, in-person classes. I told him I agree that there have been lots of ever-changing, arbitrary, sometimes silly rules applied to outdoor activities, but that I didn’t quite follow his logic equating school work with sports. He wrote back, “It is 100% my opinion that academics and those who choose ALL extracurriculars, including football, that they work together to educate and nurture the entire student experience — this includes, athletics, band, [visual performing arts], Robotics, etc.”

I appreciate his inclusion of the robotics club. And he’s right — extracurriculars are great. They’re hugely important to the development of high school students. They’re also called “extracurriculars.” Unlike going to school, they are not required of young adults. Perhaps in a few years that will change and all students will be tasked with playing football. For now, Walsh can help solve for an annoying roadblock by speaking to his team about the usefulness of the vaccine, both for competitive reasons and to alleviate health concerns that have resurfaced due to the delta variant.

Alas, that’s a bridge too far for the Serra football program, which may very well get wrecked on Friday, depending on the caliber of players who are actually out of action. And if they beat the Pirates, I guess Walsh can spin it as his team overcoming the odds, as coaches are wont to proclaim. In fairness, that’ll be true, though it’ll conveniently leave out an important part of the narrative: The odds were stacked against Serra because of their own head coach. He put them in this position, and he’s not interested in helping his players avoid a mess of his making.

There are a few words for that — stubborn, careless and selfish come to mind — that are in direct conflict with the tenets of “commitment, brotherhood, humility, personal accountability, [and] a strong worth ethic.” Luckily, Walsh doesn’t have to subscribe to those tenets. As he points out, he’s just a football coach.