Watford defender Adrian Mariappa has been through a lot in 2020. Remember Watford's win over Liverpool on Feb. 29? That seems like a lifetime ago. Having tested positive for COVID-19 and seen the pandemic sweep the country, then the death of George Floyd in America and the anger and drive for change that prompted, nothing feels normal.
And now, as Mariappa talks about the return of the Premier League and Watford's battle against relegation, it is jarringly familiar, but the normality feels strange. Because Mariappa's world has changed in the 105 days since Watford last played, there are two dates etched into his mind.
Watford were preparing to start non-contact training on Tuesday, May 19. That evening, the Premier League announced the results from the first batch of COVID-19 testing. There had been six positive results from three clubs, from 748 individuals tested. Mariappa, 33, was one of the six positive tests; the names were meant to stay anonymous. He was on a two-hour bike ride the day before when he got the call. He stopped riding, equally surprised and stunned.
"It was a crazy few days," he tells ESPN. "I was looking forward to going back to training and went in for a test the day before. Then being told the next day I had tested positive was a big, big shock to me as I didn't have any symptoms. I felt fine in myself, I felt really good actually."
A day later, amid rumour and counter-rumour, Watford confirmed one player and two staff members had tested positive. Mariappa's "phone was going crazy as soon as it got announced there was one [Watford] player", he says.
"There was a witch hunt to see who it was, and there were only so many people I could ignore before they start putting two and two together," Mariappa continues. "So I thought it was best to come out and speak about it." By the time it was confirmed he was one of the six who had returned positive, he was already in self-isolation.
He said the positive test had "raised more questions than answers." He had stuck rigidly to the lockdown rules. "My family had to isolate with me after the positive result and I got them tested and they were fine," Mariappa says. "I later found out that I had to do the antibody test and it turns out I had the antibodies as well.
"It's more likely they were still just lingering in my system. I must have had it before lockdown as I hadn't gone anywhere during that time! I was strict with what I was doing."
"The week after the positive test, I was tested again, and it was negative."
Mariappa returned to training a week later, delighted to be back among his friends, but then he was stopped in his tracks for a second time in a week on May 25 when he learned of Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
"No matter your field in life, racial injustice is everywhere," Mariappa, who is black, said. He remembers watching the video of Floyd taking his final breaths.
"It hurts, you feel it. As a black person, [after watching the Floyd video] the incidents you've had in your life come back, and it hurts," Mariappa says. "Now is the time for us to come together and fight together, because the stuff my dad [Michael] told me growing up 'you're going to have to work twice as hard to get to the same place as your white friends,' [these are] conversations I'm having with my kids now and I don't want that for them...
"I want it to be a level playing field and I want them to have the same opportunities growing up and be rewarded for their hard work. The only way that's going to happen is by showing unity and coming together."
Mariappa was one of three Watford players to speak of racist abuse they received on social media in April, 2019 following their FA Cup semifinal win over Wolves. Andre Gray, his Watford teammate, also received racist abuse and, talking in Feb. 2020, said "Nothing got done about it, the police didn't do nothing or the FA. People higher up didn't pay any attention to it. It's not the best place to be in."
"The Premier League and football clubs have a big role to play within sport to change the racial injustice and racial bias that's still happening today," Mariappa says.
He continues: "It's a worldwide issue. I know in the UK around football there's been a lot of people campaigning and working hard before now, before these protests [but] it's a continuous battle, you know we're going to have to keep fighting long after my career is done... we need to tackle this together. It's about educating yourself about how we can move forward and the system. It needs backing from everyone."
Mariappa has seen what the players and teams have done in the Bundesliga over the past three weeks. Some teams at the weekend took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund wore T-shirts calling for an end to racism while Weston McKennie was one of several to send their own 'Justice for George' message. Mariappa hopes these signs of defiance and unity will help football address injustice and racism.
In the Premier League, Marcus Rashford also showed the power footballers have to make positive change after he forced the government to change their policy on free school meal vouchers. The teams also sent their own message of solidarity against racism and injustice when they collectively took a knee before Wednesday's matches, while the players' shirts have 'Black Lives Matter' on the back of their shirts in place of their names.
"They're conversations that need to be had, because this is a daily reality for black people all over the world and the daily injustices you're fighting against. But it needs backing from everyone. It may be uncomfortable and you may not want to speak out about it, but there's always something you can do and as long as you want to take action and support... then I'm all for it."
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It is feels incongruous, after talking about COVID-19 and the impact Floyd's death had on him, to turn to football. But that's his day job, and the platform he'll use to send his own thoughts and messages as Watford play out the rest of the season and hope to avoid the drop into the Championship.
This season's highlight, in a turbulent term which has seen three different managers take charge of the relegation-threatened side, was their win over Liverpool back on Feb. 29. It was one of those days where Mariappa, who was left out of the side, felt everything come together.
"We played with a togetherness, a willingness to run for each other and perform for each other. It was the mentality that got us off being bottom of the league and has helped us get a good chance of staying up." Mariappa gives credit to manager Nigel Pearson for how he has galvanised the team after he took charge in Dec. 2019, and fate is in their hands with nine matches left and them sitting in 17th with 27 points, just out of the relegation zone on goal difference, with nine games remaining.
"We're in a relegation scrap, we've got no illusions. We know that it's going to go down to the wire and we need to treat every game as a cup final. It's been said many times, but I've been in enough relegation battles to know that's how you approach every game."
Mariappa was against the tentative suggestions of teams playing in "neutral grounds" as the Premier League tried to map out a path back to action, and he's been keeping a close eye on the various protocols being implemented to prevent any spread of COVID-19 once the teams start playing each other. "Safety is paramount," Mariappa says. "It was strange to go from being told you have to be two metres away from each other, and then being told you're all of a sudden going back to playing football and tackling and heading alongside each other, so you're wondering how you can go from A to B?
"As it goes on you understand all the worries we have, and then understand people want to protect you so you need to make sure the environment is as safe as possible. The club's been brilliant with us. All you can do is take it one step at a time.
"It's uncharted territory for everyone, but we're going to have to deal with the situation as best we can and move forward as positively as we can."