Tulsa Oilers, Indoor Football League
Tulsa Oilers cheerleaders fire up the crowd on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Screenshot)

The year is 2020, and the inner workings of COVID are still very much a mystery.

In a workplace-mandated effort to socially distance, I’m standing in a spacious production bay, mask over my face, watching unprinted signs move down a conveyer belt. This is my job.

The nearest co-worker to me is 50 feet away. Our masks may keep us safe, but they also leave our reality devoid of smiles. To compensate, sometimes I look for crow’s feet near her eyes to perceive whether she’s happy or sad that day. Outside of these moments, I spend the majority of my time silently staring at my work. I can’t say this is improving my mental health, but I’m still COVID-free and alive. I know not everyone can say that.

Perhaps my manager has noticed my deteriorating mood. To break up the monotony, he has excavated a dust-covered laptop from a plastic storage tub, encouraging me to watch whatever I want to help pass the time.

The internet is full of wondrous things, and I decide to binge-watch sports. Watching two full games a day, complete with commercials, should get me through the bulk of my shift. Also, sports are something I can passively watch while I manage my duties.

Of course, live sporting events have been shut down for the year, following NBA center and COVID patient Rudy Gobert intentionally coughing on microphones during a press conference.

In lieu of actual gatherings, sports in our pandemic world have morphed into a rare apocalyptic sci-fi commodity. It’s like dirt in Water World or gasoline in Mad Max. Sometimes in my dreams, I wander the streets and claw at my beard with unkempt nails, bug-eyed, searching for sports.

All of this is to say: I am grateful for the laptop.

I make my way to the Indoor Football League’s YouTube page, which contains an extensive back catalogue of games from years prior. The Nebraska-based league is obscure enough that the results of their past contests are a mystery to me, so much of a mystery that I can trick my brain into thinking that I’m watching a live game. I can trick myself into believe there is still a world outside.

Months pass. I watch a lot of IFL games. I become of fan, a devoted one even. I tell myself if the world is ever normal again, I’m going to a game.

An opportunity to cover the Indoor Football League in person

It’s April 14, 2023. I now work full-time as a writer, freelancing on the side for extra work. The Indoor Football League has made its way to Oklahoma via the newly minted Tulsa Oilers, and NonDoc has secured press credentials for me to cover the Oilers’ home opener against the Quad City Steamwheelers the next day. My editor has demanded total coverage.

Sure, this is a small pandemic dream, but it’s my dream. And I’m going to realize it to the fullest.

I have reserved a $200 hotel room in downtown Tulsa. It’s an eight-minute walk from my room to the game’s location: Country Cannabis Field inside the BOK Center.

Before the game, I plan to kill time by playing Pokémon Go at The Gathering Place, a riverfront park that looks gorgeous in photos. After the game, I plan to explore Tulsa’s cosmopolitan, nighttime attractions. Maybe I’ll have a fancy drink or two. Afterward, I’m going to stuff my face with greasy food truck offerings. Who knows what else will happen?

Regardless, the weekend is going to be a banger.

The only thing in my way is a lingering cough from a mild cold earlier in the week. It dawns on me that I’ll be in an arena with potentially thousands of people watching a football game, screaming and cheering for hours. I decide to buy a COVID-19 home test. It’s a formality. I totally expect to test negative, and then I will be on my way.

I test positive three consecutive times.

COVID raises its head, again

The Quad City Steamwheelers used the ground game to top the Tulsa Oilers on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Screenshot)

It’s April 15, 2023. My Tulsa hotel room and my seat at Country Cannabis Field inside the BOK Center are both unoccupied. From home in Oklahoma City, I squint at a tiny YouTube window, watching as a parade of Harley Davidson enthusiasts, Tulsa’s mayor, and a rowdy crowd welcome their new team.

Instead of a fancy drink, I’m sucking on water and DayQuil to tame a dry cough at kickoff.

On their first drive, the Tulsa Oilers move the ball to Quad City’s red zone with ease, only to have a field goal blocked. One thing leads to another, and Quad City jumps to a 13-2 lead.

Throughout the game (video above), Quad City uses a by-committee rushing attack to amass 105 yards on the ground. This number is eye-popping, considering the mostly pass-happy offenses of the Indoor Football League.

The Tulsa Oilers, for their part, are competitive, but they look very much like an expansion team. The official league’s coaching poll has Tulsa ranked last among the IFL’s 14 teams. It doesn’t help that Tulsa’s competition thus far has combined for a 9-3 record through five weeks of play.

Both teams look like they’re struggling to adjust to Country Cannabis Field. I think this as I watch a number of kicks hit the bottom of the scoreboard and ricochet unpredictably.

A few hours later, Quad City defeats Tulsa 68-42. Tulsa drops to 0-3. Quad City improves to 3-1.

Watching the game at home while sick was not what I wanted, but it’s what I’ll settle for. I find myself feeling both optimistic and entertained.

I raise my shot of DayQuil to Tulsa’s effort. Maybe they’ll beat the Steamwheelers next time they meet. Maybe I’ll be there.

Cheers to unrequited pandemic dreams.