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Friday night lights could go out in Texas as coronavirus threatens high school football

The superintendent of Dallas schools, Michael Hinojosa, says he doubts there will be gridiron action this fall.

The superintendent of public schools in Dallas said Thursday the coronavirus pandemic could spike prep football this fall in Texas, where the sport reigns supreme on Friday nights.

Michael Hinojosa, who runs the Dallas Independent School District — with 23 high schools that field football squads — said he has serious reservations about putting student-athletes on the gridiron with cases of coronavirus on the rise in the Lone Star State.

Asked point blank he thinks there will be a 2020 football season, Hinojosa told MSNBC: "I seriously doubt it."

“That’s a true contact sport, I don’t see how we can pull that off," Hinojosa continued. "There’s been some discussion of moving it to the spring, but we’ll have to wait and see. I seriously doubt that we can pull that off.”

A student athlete runs a drill during a strength and conditioning camp at Arlington Martin High School on June 18, 2020, in Arlington, Texas.LM Otero / AP

Dallas ISD has 153,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students and is the 14th largest school system in America, second biggest in Texas, topped only by Houston.

The University Interscholastic League, which governs high school sports in Texas, pushed back on Hinojosa and said, "at this time" football is still set for the fall.

"At this time, UIL plans to begin fall competition seasons as scheduled on the UIL calendar," according to a statement to NBC News on Thursday afternoon.

"As the circumstances around the COVID-19 pandemic are ever-changing, we do not have a specific timetable to release further information. UIL continues to monitor the situation and any updates will be dependent upon guidance from local and state authorities and released when more information is available."

No state is more closely identified with high school football than Texas —where towering light standards shine on fall Friday nights, from El Paso to Houston, up to the Panhandle and down to the Gulf Coast.

The 1990 non-fiction "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream," by H. G. Bissinger, followed the fortunes of Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, and led to a movie and critically acclaimed TV show of the same name.

But the sport is now being threatened in Texas, which is suffering from a significant spike in cases. As of Thursday morning, Texans were testing positive for coronavirus at a 15.59-percent rate, according to rolling seven-day data compiled by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

That's well above the World Health Organization benchmark of 5 percent. Only four states and Puerto Rico had a higher positive rate than Texas.

Superintendent Hinojosa's statement appeared to stun football coaches like Tim Buchanan, at Aledo High School, about 20 miles west of Fort Worth.

“I just hate to see people already saying we can’t do it this fall," Buchanan told NBC Dallas. "We don’t know. We could come up with a vaccine tomorrow.”

But Brian Basil, head coach at Flower Mound High School, about 30 miles northwest of Dallas, said state officials have to be open to all ideas to save 2020 football — even if it means playing it in spring 2021.

“I tell our kids and parents that we’ll do whatever we need to do,” Basil said. “If that means playing in the spring, if that means delaying the start of the season, we’ll do whatever it takes.”

The pandemic forced sports around the world to shut down in early March and is continuing to wreak havoc on any plans to restart.

The Big Ten Conference, which includes elite academic schools such as Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, announced Thursday it was dropping all non-league games for fall sports, including football.

The Ivy League, which has played football since the game's invention, closed the books Wednesday on 2020 football and all other traditional autumn sports.

The NCAA "supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances," brought on by the pandemic, according to a statement Thursday night by the governing body of college sports.