In tornado aftermath, football helps heal Joplin

Joplin High School defensive lineman Jarad Bader (97) sacks Hillcrest quarterback Matt Futrell (4) during the first half of a high school football game in Joplin, Mo., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The tornado that swept through in May of 2011 killed more than 150 people and left billions of dollars in damage. There's comfort in routine and the Joplin High football team gives thousands of residents a chance for another step toward recovery.

Joplin High School defensive lineman Jarad Bader (97) sacks Hillcrest quarterback Matt Futrell (4) during the first half of a high school football game in Joplin, Mo., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The tornado that swept through in May of 2011 killed more than 150 people and left billions of dollars in damage. There's comfort in routine and the Joplin High football team gives thousands of residents a chance for another step toward recovery. Photo by The Associated Press.

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — There's a scar through the middle of Joplin, a mile wide and six miles long. All that's left are a few twisted tree stumps, chunks of chewed up pavement and the tattered remains of homes and businesses.

The football stadium still stands. So much of the town is gone.

The tornado that churned through southwest Missouri on May 22 forever altered its landscape. More than 2,000 buildings were reduced to rubble, 160 lives were lost, an estimated $3 billion in damages left in its wake.

About the only thing the storm didn't destroy was the spirit of the people who call Joplin home.

On Saturday night, they converged on Junge Stadium for the first home football game. More than 10,000 fans jammed into a facility built for 4,500 to watch their Eagles face Springfield Hillcrest, the biggest crowd anybody could remember.

There were 22 seconds of silence, a bald eagle soared overhead and a National Guard helicopter that assisted in the storm relief swooped over the field. Then the game kicked off.

And for a few hours, there was a sense of normalcy.

Under the twinkling lights of a warm autumn evening, teenagers forced to grow up too quickly played football. Coaches cried out instructions, cheerleaders clapped, band members marched in perfect order. A flash mob at halftime danced to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" as the setting sun turned the clouds brilliant shades of purple and red.

Although the Eagles ultimately lost 21-9, in many ways they won just by taking the field.

"They're going to be able to talk about this for the rest of their lives," said Dan Hueller, Joplin High's assistant principal. "These are the kinds of things we want our kids to remember, not the disaster that's taken place. These are the kinds of memories you want to have for your kids."


The fact that there's football this fall is a testament to Jeff Starkweather's determination.

The longtime athletic director thought school officials were crazy when, just after the storm, they vowed to start classes on time. The high school had been gutted, practice fields were ruined, jerseys and equipment simply gone. But Starkweather knew the best way to get over the trauma was to get to work, so that's what he did.

"It was a lot of logistics, things you take for granted, when you walk right out of school to your practice facility and there you are," he said. "There was no practice field. There wasn't even a school."

There are plans to rebuild the 50-year-old high school, but it'll take time. For now, freshmen and sophomores have class at the old Memorial High School, which escaped significant damage. Juniors and seniors attend a makeshift school built inside an empty department store at the mall.

The temporary facility is tricked out with flat-screen televisions and plush lounges, and every student has a laptop thanks to a donation from the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. But all the technology in the world doesn't make up for what's missing: walls that block out noise from neighboring classrooms, a kitchen attached to the cafeteria, trophy cases full of achievements and all those memories of students past and present.

"It's not ideal," Starkweather said, "but really, what is about this? We're proud that we got that together. And we're competing on time, and athletics are moving forward."

Josh Banwart wasn't sure that would be the case.

The senior linebacker was home with his two younger sisters and a family friend when the tornado sirens went off. He didn't think much of it at first — happens all the time in the Midwest — but as the rumble kept getting louder, he headed for the basement. When an eerie silence finally settled over town, he emerged to find almost everything in his neighborhood gone. His own home had the roof and siding ripped off.

"We were hearing the windows breaking," he recalled, "and you could smell the grass and the dirt."

Banwart's parents were celebrating their anniversary in Jamaica and learned about the storm on television. They got a text message through, but with cell towers down, Banwart didn't speak to them for six or seven hours.

"We walked up to the high school that night," Banwart said. "You couldn't drive anywhere, so we kept walking into town, and as you got further it got worse."

Banwart knew Will Norton, the teen who was driving home from his high school graduation when the tornado sucked him through the window of his truck. Norton's body found in a nearby pond, one of seven students and a school administrator killed by the storm.

"The first day of school, it was interesting to hear the stories," said Dayton Whitehead, a senior wide receiver who scored the Eagles' lone touchdown Saturday. "At practice, you see construction trucks driving by all the time, and it helps to know that you'll have a football season, just like last year, before anything happened."

Whitehead said there are still cliques like those found at every high school, but the feeling in the hallways has changed. Athletes, artists and everyone in between have been through something they'll never forget.

"You still hang out with the same people you hanged out with," Whitehead said, "but when you see people you didn't know, you kind of try to take into consideration that maybe you should say 'Hi' to them once in a while, because you never know what could happen."


The first home football game Saturday was a triumph for Joplin, said Chris Shields, their 35-year-old coach. He was hired a couple of months before the storm hit and hadn't moved to town yet. In fact, he had only met with his players twice to organize summer workouts and fundraisers.

All of those plans went out the window when he heard the news.

"The first few days, football takes a backseat," Shields said. "It's about finding loved ones, making sure everyone is accounted for, seeing what you can do. Then you look around and figure out what to do next."

The goal was to get back on the field as soon as possible.

Everyone knew it wouldn't take long.

"High school football is a way to get back to normal," said booster club president Dan McCreary, whose three children all graduated from Joplin. He lost his home and vehicles in the storm and could be spending his time rebuilding. Instead, he spent Friday at Junge Stadium stocking the vending stands with soda and chips.

"It's time to rejoice over something a little less significant," McCreary said. "I mean, it seems really important when you're a kid out there and you drop a pass or miss a tackle — it seems pretty big sometimes — but I think it helps to get back to normal. It helps all of us."

Everyone affected by the storm has a story, even if it hurts to tell. They'd rather talk about the outpouring of support they received, the volunteers who helped clean up, the rebuilding effort already under way.

Country music singer Kenny Foster grew up in Joplin. His parents still lived in the same house near the high school that the tornado turned to splinters. After the storm, he penned a song entitle "Hometown" that can be purchased from his website, with all the proceeds from its sale going to the relief effort.

Foster performed it for the crowded grandstand prior to the game, in part because he believes something as simple as high school football can help heal the scars the tornado left behind.

"Who from high school didn't go to football games on Friday night? It's a pastime, a pastime anywhere in Middle America," he said with a smile. "There's going to be a gap to fill here in the spirit of the people. It's nice to bring that back into focus. If it takes football to do that, so be it."

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