Through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a pregame bout of pouring rain, University of North Texas fans attended Saturday evening’s game against Houston Baptist University as an unusual season of Mean Green football kicked off at Apogee Stadium.

The pandemic has brought drastic changes to sporting events across the country. UNT limited Apogee’s capacity to 25% in the bowl of the venue and 50% in the club and suite levels. The stadium has seating for over 30,000 people, but pandemic limitations dropped that number to about 8,000. Seating was spaced out to maintain social distancing, and hand sanitizing stations were set up around the stadium. Masks or facial coverings were required at all times, but not everyone complied throughout the game.

Adding to the unique circumstances was a heavy storm that passed through the stadium about an hour-and-a-half before kickoff, soaking sidewalks and roads and forcing fans who arrived early into their vehicles or under roofs. The combination made for an atmosphere most attendees were unfamiliar with, as the festivities typical of UNT’s home games were thinned significantly.

“Walking up, it reminded me of a middle school game with no tailgating,” said Robert Cooper, a 30-year UNT alumnus.

Like many non-students, Cooper struggled to find tickets for the game due to the limited attendance, saying he turned to a secondary seller after the university ran out within a day.

Some seeking season tickets over individual games seemed to struggle as well, even as UNT implemented a ticket assurance program giving priority to season ticket holders and students. Neely Snow, who has two daughters at the university, said getting tickets for herself and the rest of her family wasn’t simple.

“It was difficult to get tickets,” she said. “We really had to stay on top of it.”

On the game itself, Snow said she and her family have been cautious about events since the pandemic began. In fact, Saturday’s game was the first major gathering she’s attended since March, though she said she felt comfortable with the procedures put in place, at least on paper.

“I haven’t done anything, not a restaurant, a grocery store — we’ve been extremely careful,” Snow said. “I think UNT has done well — they keep everybody wearing masks.”

Bill King, an alumnus who attended in the mid-1970s when it was still named North Texas State, has attended games since he was a child. He attended Saturday’s season opener with much of his family, cooking food in a small-scale, tailgate-style gathering as they continued a generations-long tradition of rooting for the team.

“We’re just trying to have a little bit of normal in the middle of this,” King said. “You want to see the football program progress and improve.”

But for many, the game wasn’t all about football. UNT freshman Carmeshia Drennon attended with a friend because she’s interested in becoming a cheerleader next year, but also simply because it was an event she felt she could enjoy safely.

Despite the restrictions and procedures put in place for her first games as a college student, she said she’s just thankful that football can be played at all.

“To be able to have it at all is a blessing — this whole year has been a lot,” she said. “It’s about everybody being able to come together, have fun and be safe as well.”

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