LOWELL — Dave Lezenski, the sleep-deprived director of athletics and physical education for Lowell Public Schools, hasn’t had a full day off since March.
COVID-19 has him working overtime. Meetings have increased tenfold, and there are brush fires to put out every day. He has 1,500 student-athletes to worry about, and he treats them like sons and daughters.
Although it takes a mix of medical, scientific, academic, and parental voices to keep the kids on the playing fields and off the street corners, the AD is the maestro who conducts the symphony of sports.
Very few notice how important the AD is to helping kids compete safely in sports.
“Everybody likes sausage,” says Lezenski. “But nobody wants to work in the sausage factory.”
He is uncomfortable in the spotlight.
“Don’t make this about me,” he says. “It’s all about the kids.”
Lezenski has warned students about the fragile nature of this pandemic season. Lowell did not officially start the MIAA’s truncated Fall I schedule until Sept. 18, and the Merrimack Valley Conference-only slate will be limited to roughly 10 games and no postseason.
“It’s made them realize that it can get taken away," he says, "so you’ve got to play your best game ever because it could be gone tomorrow.”
Pushed to the limit
At 8:30 on a Saturday morning, there are eight games to be played, home and away, for Lowell High School. Lezenski, 52, has already been up for hours, fielding the roughly 50 emails and texts he gets daily.
While the trainer takes each player’s temperature, Lezenski makes sure that the three yellow school buses have been sanitized to transport the freshman girls' volleyball team to Haverhill.
Once they are gone, he makes sure there is sanitizer, disinfectant, and a supply of paper towels at the entrances and on the benches of the Cawley Stadium complex. So the players don’t forget about social distancing, he has bought rubber disks that are placed 6 feet apart on the sidelines.
He also has bought masks with the Lowell High insignia for everyone. Each student needs his or her own ball for soccer, so he bought 100 soccer balls at $17.95.
“I had to do it,” he says. “Is it fair to the kids to pay? No, because they didn’t cause the pandemic."
Then he laughs.
“Now we’ll have enough soccer balls for the next 100 years.”
COVID costs are mounting. Lezenski says extra expenses like enforcement coaches at the gate and extra buses to keep social distancing — combined with zero gate revenue — have eaten away his budget. He has been forced to make cuts elsewhere.
Lowell High holds only 3 percent of its classes in person, but other high schools such as nearby Andover recently had their entire daily schedules canceled.
Typically, just one message from another AD that a player had a positive test sets off a chain reaction.
“That puts us in a crisis moment, because now you’ve got to let the kids know," says Lezenski. “You’ve got to let the coaches know. You’ve got to let the assigner of officials know and the stadium manager know. I mean, it just goes on and on and on and on.”
Lezenski acknowledges that the bags under his eyes are getting bigger. The Lowell school district has 15,000 students.
“I am tired,” he says. “Last night I went to bed at 10 o’clock. I was up at 1:30. I was up at 3:30 and I was up at 5:30."
This happens all the time now.
“Thousands of things have changed,” he says. “There are times that I’ve been up at 3 o’clock in the morning with the notepad next to my bed scribbling thoughts that have crossed my mind that had to be done the next morning.
“But I want to tell you that’s not just me. That’s every athletic director.”
Man of many tasks
Bill Bettencourt, the Lowell boys' varsity soccer coach, says the coronavirus has taken its toll.
“It gets everyone, and especially Dave, because he’s got all these programs that he has to worry about,” says Bettencourt. “No. 1 for him is safety. I’m sure there’s days that he says, ‘Wow, we made it to another day without any issues.’ ”
Bettencourt says Lezenski tells everyone that his door is always open, whether a student needs a laptop or has gotten in trouble at school.
“And he knows the kids' names," says Bettencourt. "That’s cool.”
“That’s my job,” says Lezenski.
When the girls' varsity field hockey game starts at 9:30 a.m., Lezenski holds his hand over his heart during the national anthem.
Built in 1937 as one of the WPA projects authorized during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, Cawley Stadium now has a new half-million-dollar field. The pre-Namath Jets played the Boston Patriots in a preseason game here in 1964 before 6,390 fans.
Today, attendance is restricted to 50 people — 25 parents from each side who are required to fill out a Google doc form with phone numbers for contact tracing. Those that don’t make the cut watch from the parking lot
“I hate telling a parent you can’t come in,” says Lezenski.
But what bothers him most is telling a senior he can’t have Senior Night in front of a crowd.
Kyle Shanahan, a senior football player, says Lezenski is inspirational.
“He always goes the extra mile,” says Shanahan. “He really cares about us.”
During the game, Lezenski counts the spectators and offers the few no-show spots to parents peeking through the chain-link fence.
He also has to be a first responder.
At 10:35 a.m., a text message pops up on his iPhone. A student-athlete has broken his arm at another field. He hustles there in time to flag the firemen and ambulance.
Aidan Rouillard, a 14-year-old midfielder, is treated and carted off with his father on one side and Lezenski on the other.
“Keep your chin up,” says Lezenski. He wishes he could do more.
“Aidan is a freshman, he’s a good kid. But what can you say to him?”
Back inside Cawley Stadium, Lezenski finally sits down to fill out a mandatory critical incident report.
During an eight-hour stint at Cawley Stadium, he doesn’t drink any caffeinated beverages or take a break for lunch.
He picks up garbage during timeouts and posts photos and scores on Twitter during games.
When he notices there’s a single nut missing on a new net installed behind the goal, he asks for maintenance to fix it.
Lezenski doesn’t tolerate whining. He likes to quote Bill Parcells.
“Losers assemble in small groups and complain,” The Tuna once said. “Winners assemble as a team and find ways to win.”
Lezenski grew up in Lynn, where his mother, who worked 20 years at an A&P grocery store, taught him to not be a baby.
“She’d say, ‘Boo hoo, you’re tired, go cry and then get back in the game,’ " he says.
At day’s end, it doesn’t really matter that Lowell loses each home game. There are bigger issues at play than those on the scoreboard.
“You can say the sky is falling, but look, they’re playing, and it’s tremendous,” says Lezenski. “The kids are happy, despite the score.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.